Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why I Sometimes Lie About My Profession

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I lie when people ask me what I do for a living.

Okay, that's a touch dramatic. It's not like I tell people that I'm an astronaut, or the guy who invented salad-in-a-bag. I'm just not always forthcoming with words like "pastor" or "chaplain" and if I say "writer" and they ask me what I write, I obfuscate a bit. I'll say "I write about the intersection of psychology and religious behavior."

It's not because I'm ashamed of what I do. It's really not. I rarely volunteer that I'm a hospice chaplain because it's the ultimate conversation killer. I'm the only person I know who has the ability to suck the life out of the most raucous party by merely saying what it is I do for a living. People look at me as though I just said "I'm a professional sniper, and YOU are my next target." I witnessed this just the other week. I was sitting in an animated Irish bar after I visited Congress with some friends and a couple of my wife's co-workers, who didn't know what I did. Everyone was laughing and having a good time...and then one of them asked what I did. "Um, I'm a hospice chaplain. I provide spiritual and emotional support for people who are dying and for their families who are watching them die." The gas went out of that party like the Hindenburg. And these were all Christians. 

I don't always volunteer to strangers that I'm a pastor because it instantly changes the conversation. I first learned this when I was in seminary, and I lived right across the street from a golf course. I would play in the afternoons and I would get paired up with strangers, because all my friends were "studying" or whatever. You can't spend more than 4 minutes with men before someone asks you what you do. Back then I was much more bold about what I did, and when I said "I go to seminary" the response I received was universally this: "Oh. I hope my cussing hasn't offended you." I was always tempted to say "Nope. What has offended me is how you take 4 practice swings before you shank the ball into the woods."

What I don't like is how the mention of my job changes how people act around me. I start out interacting with real people in t-shirts and jeans and I end up interacting with people in their Sunday best. People have no idea what to say to me or what questions to ask and so everything takes a turn to the awkward. Sometimes my golf partners would not talk to me for the rest of the round. My sense is that most of them hide not because they are hostile to religion but because they are ashamed or afraid, because of bad past encounters with other religious types.

What I am actually trying to do, when I am ambiguous in my answers to the question "What do you do?" is to keep the conversation going. I want to learn about them (well, when I play golf I just want to play golf) and discover what's important to them. I'm not "looking for an opening" but I am genuinely curious. I'm a listener by nature, but when I blindside people with my "religious career" I find that they are reluctant to reveal much about themselves. I want to have a conversation as two human beings, not (in their perception) as "sinful person" to "holy person."

Sometimes, after I have listened and asked questions and shown a genuine interest in them, I will subtly sneak what I do into the conversation. Usually, at this point, their response will be much more positive and curious. The guy who might have been a religious crazy at the beginning of the conversation has suddenly become interesting, because I have listened.

What do you think? Is this a cop out? If you're a pastor or missionary or really involved in churchy activity, do you ever hide what you do? And if so, why?