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Finish This Sentence

“When people ask me what I do for a living . . . I tell them.”

By Michael Webster

I’m a United Church minister,” I say if asked about my work. Depending on the circumstances, I sometimes say it with a little trepidation, wondering how this revelation will be received. Responses have varied from interest (“Which congregation?”) to indifference (“Phff”).

I am not ashamed of my vocation or my church, so I see no reason not to be honest and open about what I do. If I hesitate at all, it is because I don’t want my pride to show. I struggled for years with my sense of call, then studied hard in theological college. Ordination is one of the outstanding achievements of my life, and ministry offers me a privileged and fulfilling professional life. You bet I’m proud of it. I am never embarrassed to say, “I’m a United Church minister,” but I worry sometimes that I don’t sound appropriately humble about it.

Still, I understand why some ministers are reluctant to identify themselves. It can be a real conversation killer, as many people seem to expect me to start asking if they have a personal relationship with Jesus. To ease some of that wariness, I always say “minister” instead of the more evangelical-sounding “pastor.”

Like a doctor at a cocktail party who spends the evening listening to the medical symptoms of each new acquaintance, a minister who gives an honest response invites some unwelcome reactions. Ministers typically dread two in particular.

The first is that of the religion haters. Well versed in Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins — or not — they have been waiting for an opportunity to debunk spirituality in general and Christianity in particular. Occasionally, this results in an interesting and provocative discussion. More often, though, the debunkers have loads of baggage and little interest in any opinions but their own. It’s because of them that I specify I’m a United Church minister — I’m hoping they will clue in that I’m not a biblical literalist or six-day creationist.

A story told about American preacher George Buttrick warms every minister’s heart. In response to his airplane seatmate’s question, Buttrick replied that he was a minister. “Ah,” said the man. “The golden rule — that’s all the religion I need to know,” neatly dismissing 2,000 years of Christian theology. “And you?” asked Buttrick, wanting to change the subject. “I am an astronomer,” the man replied. “Ah,” said Buttrick. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star — that’s all the astronomy I need to know.” End of conversation.

But the reaction ministers most dread comes from tortured souls. Undergoing a personal crisis of some sort, they leap at the opportunity to unburden themselves to someone whose job description could be “professional listener.” It never occurs to them that I am trying to enjoy a rare evening off or a restorative holiday and might not want to spend it offering pastoral care to someone I will never see again. What follows is a half-hour or so of intense confiding, often complete with tears. Short of a very un-Christ-like rudeness, there’s nothing to do but sit and listen.

On one memorable occasion, I encountered both a religion hater and a tortured soul at the same time. After a hectic Christmas season, I was taking a much-needed break at a hot springs resort in the mountains. One starlit evening, I found myself in the outdoor pool with two other vacationers, arranged in a comfortable triangle. “What do you do?” came the question, and I gave my usual response. The reaction was almost comical. One person abruptly turned his back on me and fled to the farthest corner of the pool. The other moved just as quickly toward me and began to unburden herself in anguished detail. “Maybe next time,” I thought to myself, “I’ll just say I’m a plumber.”

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