Becky Goodwin: Clergy: saints or sinners?
It happens all the time. Someone will cuss in my presence, and immediately apologize, often with a patronizing tone and a chuckle. “Oh, sorry, Reverend! Haha!”
As if my tender clerical ears have never heard raw language. As if I have stumbled out of my holy zone and into the realm of sinners.
People think Christian clergy are super holy, proper, prudish, politically-conservative Bible thumpers. We are judgmental and obsessed with sexual sin, while either being asexual ourselves, or sexual predators. We are bookish and studious. We don’t drink, dance or cuss.
Where do these stereotypes come from?
Some stereotypes have nuggets of truth in reality. There are sects and denominations that do restrict clergy, and there are fundamentalists who do use Bible verses to “clobber” others. There are historic and current scandals from which one might glean concern about clergy.
These stereotypes are further promoted in movies, TV and theater. You are familiar with the typical clergy characters, almost always white males, in the following scenes:
Scene One: The pastor’s office, which resembles a miniature church. It is an elegant paneled study, shelves loaded with holy books, sentimental religious art on the walls, a beam of heavenly light pouring through a stained glass window.
There is the owlish pastor, huddled over an open Bible at a tidy desk. A troubled couple comes in for wise counsel. They hear some platitudes or a lecture and leave, either sentimentally uplifted, or disappointed.
Scene Two: Inside the church, the pastor is busily lighting candles, or arranging hymns in the pew racks, when a stranger or a long-lost parishioner enters to confide a sorrow or plead for mercy. Results as in Scene One.
These are Hollywood clergy. At best, we are nice but irrelevant, quaint and useless. At worst, we are predators and scammers. All of this typecasting is unfair and inaccurate.
I am a clergywoman, so already I defy the stereotype, and I would like to offer you a glimpse into my world!
Scene One: My office is not a “churchy” place. It is colorful and eclectic, with a quilt on the wall, a messy desk, and piles of files on the floor around the perimeter. I will get to them later. There IS an open Bible on my desk, and I know how to use it, which means not as a weapon.
If you drop by, I will heat the kettle on my tea cart and offer you a cup. I don’t have any platitudes or lectures to offer. I don’t have answers. Mostly I listen, and offer a prayer.
Scene Two: Inside the sanctuary, I don’t light the candles. The kids of the church get to do that! They love their special job on Sundays. As for the hymnals in the pews, that’s not my job either. Everyone puts the books in the racks after worship.
I do sit in a pew and confer with the occasional sorrowful visitor. As in my office, no platitudes, no lecture, no answers. Just listening, affirming, praying.
I have some other pet peeves about images of clergy and religious folks. Why do nuns and clergy on TV and in movies wear rosary beads like necklaces? Pop stars do that. And why is the pastor at the graveside service always droning Psalm 23? There are 149 other psalms to choose from!
The worst stereotype of all is that we don’t have any sense of humor about religion. But most of us do! I think the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live is hilarious!
Real clergy are persons, as diverse as any other group in town. You don’t see as many of us as, say, teachers or nurses or doctors, so it may seem difficult to sort us out into unique individuals. I invite you to try!
We are people, like anyone else.
Like all people, we have hobbies and friends outside of our church work.
Like everyone else, we have life stories, personal issues, needs, hopes and dreams.
We are not alike in partisan politics, or in opinions about controversial issues!
Like every human being, we need to enjoy life and play. Those of us who aren’t alcoholics can enjoy a drink. Those of us who like to dance may dance.
Like everyone, we want a better world for all humankind. With righteous anger and hopeful commitments, we lead our communities to transform the world.
And when we get mad, as today’s unjust world provokes, we do cuss.
Rev. Becky Goodwin is pastor at Grass Valley United Methodist Church.
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