Friday, January 18, 2013

A Place at the Table

At the ministers’ meeting, I sat at a table where I knew some of the guys. I didn’t know them all, but I could see they were all ministers.  Trust me, we recognize each other. 

Except I saw one man at the table whom I was sure was not a minister, although he was dressed like one with his dark suit and tie. He looked a little like one of us, too--big, overweight, with that indefinable quality of oddness we persons of the cloth often possess.  But he wasn’t one of us, no matter how much he dressed the part. I can’t tell you how I knew that, but I did.  Trust me, we recognize each other. 

After a few minutes, he leaned over to me and gestured toward the rest of the room where hundreds of other ministers were gathered.

“All these people sit together in their own graduating classes from school,” he said. “It happens every time we have one of these events.  You ever noticed that?” 

“Not really,” I said. 

“Oh, it’s true,” he assured me.

I didn’t think he was correct, but I didn’t argue.

“I notice things like that,” he said importantly, “I’m a people watcher.”


“Yeah,” he said just as if I was fascinated. “It’s kind of my hobby.  Even when my wife makes me go to the mall with her, I’m never bored. I just watch all the people go by, and I never cease to be entertained.”

I smiled and nodded.  I didn’t like him. 

I directed my attention to a friend sitting across from me.  He was a high mileage minister like me who, also like me, eschewed the conventional coat and tie for this event. He’s goofy and quite outrageous in a soft spoken manner, but he still has the pastor’s presence--that carriage of caring authority. Other ministers, who were better dressed than him or me, sat on either side of him.  We like to be around him because he makes us laugh. Not the fake life-of-the-party kind of laugh that we use at church socials, but the helpless belly busting laughter that sad ministers don’t get enough of. 

He’s sad, too, because like the rest of us, he struggles to run a church, arbitrate ludicrous conflicts, raise money, and attract new members, while all the time he is aware that his real job is to calm the turmoil in others, comfort the grieving, sit with the dying, and seduce the drug addled person away from his habit. Another reason for his sadness is that like the rest of us, he feels inadequate for the job.

The man who likes to watch people did not belong with us at this table. 

Unlike him, we don’t watch people. We watch over people. We watch for the ones who need rescue.  We examine them for wounds and we try to heal them. It’s hard work with a high failure rate.  But it’s our real work that we squeeze in around the committee meetings, training seminars, building campaigns, and potluck socials.

Inside, I sneered at this guy who merely watches people.

But now that I’m alone and have time to process, I think about what he really said to me. 

He watches people because he doesn’t belong.  He is sits invisible in a crowded mall as he watches people walk by.

Yesterday, he sat invisible in a room of hundreds of ministers, dressed the same as everyone else, but not really one of us. He thought he had an explanation: I’m not in their class.      . 

Sigh. He is one of those that I’m supposed to be watching for.  And he was sitting right next to me. 

Like I said. High failure rate. Inadequate for the job.  


  1. I am not a clergy person, and perhaps not qualified to comment, but I have had that very thing said to me, "I am a people watcher." At the time I remember thinking that it was a strange admission.
    We all to some extent observe the others around us, but I remember that the person who said it to me, had a slight tone of arrogance about them, as though what they really meant to say was "I critique people."
    Like you, I was unimpressed.
    In most rural places, clergy people are the only people caring for the mental health needs of the area. And as you described, Clergy Guy, I think for that reason they find themselves doing a lot of mental health triage and probably very little discussion of theology. I certainly could be wrong....but that is what it seems like.
    It makes me wonder how in heaven's name the seminary ever prepares people for this vocation? It seems more like it must be an art.
    Like the man in the matching suit at the conference, you can dress up like an artist even affect the props, palette, etc....but that doesn't mean you can paint. :)

  2. Yes, sometimes we do a lot of mental health triage--that's an apt term. Seminary includes enough training to allow us to do that, but we're really not specialists in mental health. It's just the thing that is often most needed.

    What prepares us for this vocation? Well, there are some good tools out there, but most of us in the business feel like we were born for this and that we have no choice. So I hope we are born wiht some innate skills that can be developed.

  3. Really enjoyed this post and the revelation at the end. I've always felt for pastors who truly care about people, it's a tough job. We are all guilty of missing the obvious when it comes to others, despite our best efforts we do lead linear lives, constantly focused on our current focal point. It can make us miss the obvious.

  4. Your article reminded me of a recent encounter. As I sat in LAX airport recently waiting on my flight I casually remarked to the stranger next to me "Look at all the humans". He nodded.

  5. Lol! I guess it feels a little like Wild Kingdom in some places.