Pastors Are People Too

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The TAD group of long-time Atlantic readers started a really interesting discussion this week that centers on the question, “What is the most common and/or annoying misconception about your vocation?” The most up-voted entry came from a clergywoman:

Oh, boy. It’s a long list.

People assume that clergy want to discuss religion all the time. Not remotely true. I’ve had hairdressers start in with, “What do you think is the most pressing problem in the church today?” I’m thinking, “Dude, really? You don’t have to do this. Just let me read my magazine in peace.”

People also think they have to watch every word they say around you. (I realize English teachers sometimes get this as well, but for a different reason.) Or, as a friend of ours put it when hubs and I were going to be dinner guests along with another couple, “I told that couple that you’re a minister, but you’re nice.” Gee, thanks.

The one that I find the most troubling is that some people act as though my prayers “count” more or do more than those of others. That is absolutely not a part of my theology. I do not have a red phone nor a direct line. And God doesn’t like me better than you.

Almost every clergywoman I know has been told she looks “too young” to be a minister until approximately her late 40s. Some of us were ministers before that age.

People sometimes simply do not recognize you out of context. I had an elderly parishioner say to me once in the parking lot of the local post office: “Well, I certainly never expected to see you at a post office!!” Um, why not? I don’t live in the floor of the church, only coming up on Sundays. It reminds me of the way some small children think of their teachers.

On another occasion, I had done a funeral for an elderly single lady in Charles Town, WV, which her niece had handled. The niece lived in Hagerstown, MD. Four days after the funeral, I attended a meeting in a church in Hagerstown, and before returning home I made a quick stop at the town’s WalMart to run an errand. I encountered the niece there and said hello. She didn’t recognize me. I repeated my greeting. She finally got this look of recognition in her eyes and said, “Oh! I didn’t recognize you without your robe!” I laughed and said, “Well, I don't wear it to WalMart,” and she responded, as though the thought had never occurred to her, “Yes ... I guess that’s right!”

The worst one of those happened to a good friend of mine. She pastored a church in Baltimore at the time, and there was a couple that had visited the church maybe three or four times. She ran into them at the local pharmacy, and the husband apparently wished to note that he’d not seen her in street clothes before, without her robe. But what he said, in a nice booming voice for all to hear, was, “Well, it certainly is unusual to see you with your clothes on!”