This month we asked our bloggers about how they view the role of pastor, how they understand their pastoral identity, or to share what a pastor really does all week. Here’s how they responded.
There are lots of memes and social media posts going around that joke about how people’s first response, when realizing they are talking to a pastor, is to either stop swearing or apologize for swearing. In my experience, this is assuredly the number one reaction. But, the second is usually to either talk about their church upbringing or their spiritual background, sometimes even confessing why they haven’t attended religious services recently. And, if we are lucky enough to get to this one, the third reaction is usually to ask a spiritual question or talk about a spiritual experience they have had without holding back. With humor, we tend to focus on the first reaction the most because, well, it is first, and often we do not stick with the conversation long enough (for whatever reason) to get to the second and third reactions.
A friend recently told me that her father, who is a pastor, tells everyone he is a teacher when he goes on vacations, especially cruises (where one often spends ample time with the same people at dinner each night). I certainly can relate to the desire to escape – to go somewhere with family and just be that family member and not your occupation. I’m sure doctors and nurses have a similar struggle when they are vacationing and a medical crisis occurs; they can’t help but spring into action, when they were so looking forward to just a relaxing time. Really, for all of us, our occupation may be only one piece of who we are, but can we ever truly be in a place where it is not part of us?
I’m not sure I can fully answer my own question in this short blog post, but what I do know is that, by virtue of being honest about my profession, uttering those three small words (“I’m a pastor”) in response to the “What do you do?” question seems to create space for spiritual conversation. It doesn’t always feel organic and the timing often sucks, but somehow those three words tend to encourage spiritual conversations. So thick with irony is the truth that we pastors often see these encounters as inconvenient and interrupting our time away, while those we are speaking with often see God at work, thinking: “Whoa – God seated me next to a pastor on the plane. I wonder what God is trying to say to me?”
I travel a lot, so the plane experience is my own, but it really can happen anywhere outside of a church building. I have watched the Holy Spirit at work in a conversation with someone with a conservative evangelical background who didn’t believe churches existed where homosexuals were loved. I have been asked for advice by someone who self-admittedly had lived a very selfish lifestyle, but desired to change. And I have had numerous conversations about the God that particular person knows and the God I know.
It is so frustrating when God is at work when I am trying to be on vacation. And yet, in retrospect, probably the most powerful thing about being a pastor is the opportunity to open up a gateway between God and others. I would love to think that I do that every Sunday, but I also recognize that these spiritual conversations that occur on an airplane, in the rental car line, or on the cruise ship may be the only spiritual conversation someone has had in a very long time. It would be totally cliché to say that God never takes a vacation, but it would be totally true too. And, as someone who never saw myself becoming a pastor (and still can’t quite believe it some days!), it is incredibly encouraging that God still creates this space for these conversations and even works through me when I’m not dressed the part.
I’m convinced that simply opening up a safe space to have these spiritual conversations is an opening for God’s work in the world. Because, when we begin to think spiritually, then we can begin to act as spiritual people. When we love God, only then can we truly love others. When we are aware of what God is doing, it makes us more innately aware of what we are doing.
I sometimes get frustrated with “the church” when we are so eager to grow and then, in practice, care more about the people inside than the people on the outside. But, if I go out in the world in disguise, haven’t I done the same thing? If I’m only a pastor when I’m in Franklin, New Jersey, haven’t I made the same mistake? There are still some times where I wish God would just let me sleep on the plane, rather than open up those spiritual conversations. But, in my better moments, I am thankful for the opportunity to have a spiritual conversation with someone who perhaps hasn’t had the opportunity in a very long time; and maybe, just maybe, to offer them a glimpse of our great, loving, forgiving God who never gives up on anyone, even when I’m on vacation.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.