“I really wouldn’t mention that you’re a pastor.”
This is a common phrase that inserts itself into any number of social circumstances. For example, my online dating account mentions that I am a “graduate fellow,” not a “Minister of Word and Sacrament.” I went back and forth between telling the truth on my dating profile and essentially lying to unsuspecting single men who think they are corresponding with a medical student. But when a friend of mine casually suggested that I had a better chance of contracting polio than finding a decent “match” based on my profile, I thought perhaps disclosing the exact nature of my job might better be done over Irish coffee.
For the most part I understand that it is not always best to begin a conversation with the phrase, “Hi, I’m your friendly clergyperson, Stacy.” There are times and situations and conversations that are necessary before most people can grasp what I do. But one might think that this would only exist outside the church – that a new, freshly-minted pastor might not be forced to lie about her job while inside the walls of her church. And yet, this is precisely what happened when I endeavored to attend a little something called “The Great Banquet.”
You may know it as “The Walk to Emmaus” or “Cursillo” or other names. But perhaps some of you don’t have intimate, carnal knowledge of the phrase “De Colores.” (And might I add, even if you have no idea what this phrase means, I suggest dropping it whenever you get a chance to see what kind of swag you can collect – so far my participation in the Great Banquet has gotten me free passes to two museums and a Costco.) So let me set it up for you: the Great Banquet is a weekend retreat for women and men (at separate retreats) and is comprised of lecture, discussion, music, and worship. The leaders cover the clocks so you don’t know what time it is, and bestow on you your absolute fill of home-cooked meals and little “God loves you!” gifts. For those of you who lived at church camp in the summer – as I did – it’s like that, except that it’s designed for an adult’s schedule and it takes place, in different communities and denominations, all over the world.
And it is a huge deal in my church. There are groups that attended the Great Banquet together several years ago who still meet weekly. The moment I started at the church, I was asked, “When are you doing the Great Banquet?” not “Are you?” or “Do you want to?” This demand was reinforced by the fact that we host the Great Banquet at our church, and invite other people from the community to participate. So we all made it a point to get the Great Banquet on my schedule. Now, let me take this moment to offer a disclaimer: I did enjoy the Great Banquet, I have nothing against it, I know it to be a wonderful experience for many, many people. But as a pastor, I had a very different experience of the weekend. And that’s not because I am so different from lay people. It’s because I was told to lie.
“I really wouldn’t mention that you’re a pastor.” This was told to me by the pastors running the retreat, by members of the church, by my colleagues. On several different occasions, it was strongly suggested that disclosing my profession would ruin the group dynamics of the weekend. People would feel self-conscious and close up; they wouldn’t want to share their thoughts about faith with a pastor, God forbid. And there is some merit to this – participants in the retreat are discouraged from revealing their jobs, so that they can maintain anonymity and the leaders can create an environment free from jealousy or shame. So fine, I was happy to keep my job quiet as long as everyone else was.
But on the second day, when my group leader deviated from the norm and invited each of us to share what we did for a living, I was stumped. So, drawing on the instructions I was given, I lied. And I lied hard. I didn’t stop at, “Umm…I’m a student,” but upon further questioning, suggested that I was doing a Ph.D. in a school that I had never attended, living in a place I had never been, studying a subject I knew nothing about. I tried to be vague, as if that would make my situation better, but the questions kept coming. A deluge of dishonest repartee flowed out of me, and the flood continued for another two days.
Then, as I got to know my group, and the discussion began, and the tears flowed, and the friendships were made, I began to grow increasingly guilty. I was, after all, a pastor at a Christian retreat, using each innocent question about my background to develop my story further. I was spewing blatant lies to a group of women made vulnerable by the emotional and spiritual forces of the weekend, and denying my own identity as a pastor less than a year after I became one.
By the last day, I was a complete wreck. I could barely speak without my eyes filling with tears; I felt horribly guilty and furious with myself that I had allowed this to happen. In the midst of what was supposed to be spiritual renewal, I had dug myself into a huge hole of deceit and was now full of self-loathing and shame. I needed to come clean with the girls I now knew as friends, but I was so nervous about what they would say, about how they would judge a bold-faced lying minister like me. I tried to find a discreet opportunity to gather together the members of my group, but there was never a moment during the day when I could get all of them together. So I sat and stewed, and eventually ran out of the closing worship to lose my cool in the bathroom.
As I wept, my tears moved me from sadness to frustration to anger. Why had they told me to lie? What was I doing here? Was attending the Great Banquet part of my job responsibilities, or was I there to have an experience of Christ’s presence? Was I a pastor or not? And is being a minister something we can turn off if it makes the moment uncomfortable? As we filed in for the last event of the weekend – an opportunity to testify about what the Great Banquet means to you, and what you would take from it, delivered in front of dozens of former participants – I realized that this was the last moment I was going to get. As much as it felt like the end to a really bad reality TV show, I had one more chance to tell the truth.
And in fact, I didn’t have much option. There was so much wailing and tears and confessions and spontaneous song that I couldn’t have continued the lie if I was Meryl Streep. And it happened that I was to go last, so I had plenty of time to watch the testimonies and think about what this weekend had really meant for me. After sixty women had gone before me, each one of them confessing what Christ had shown them that weekend, I got up in front of a hundred people and said something scarily close to this:
“I really didn’t mean to go last. This is so melodramatic, and I really didn’t intend for this to happen this way. But anyway, this is how it is, so here goes: I am the Rev. Stacy Smith, Indianapolis Great Banquet #58, Table of Abigail. I have not been honest with any of you, and I feel completely horrible about that. I let myself be convinced by others that it was better for me to lie about who I am. I was convinced that you all couldn’t handle the fact that I’m a pastor, and I have been lying my way through this whole weekend. I mean, I am a friggin’ pastor (thank God I didn’t say f*ck!ng in the emotion of the moment, which would totally be my style…sorry Mom) and I have been lying to all of you, and I am so sorry for that. I am so embarrassed, and I hope you all can forgive me.
And as for what I have learned from the Great Banquet, I will tell you this – I will make damn sure that I never, ever let anyone convince me that it is better for me to lie about who I am and what I do in the service of Jesus Christ. And that’s all I have to say about that.”
Spontaneous applause. Shouts. “Preach it, girl!” “That’s right!” “Praise Jesus!” Probably more shout-outs than this Presbyterian will ever receive. I felt liberated and honest and controversial and free. The members of my group embraced me warmly, and assured me that they knew something was up all along – “nobody that’s not a pastor talks like that about Genesis, girl.” Some members from the church expressed their dismay at what had been asked of me, and my colleagues and I shared a good laugh after the whole thing was done.
And yet the question of when and where to disclose my identity is still a live one. Outside the church, inside the church, there are times when silence is perhaps warranted. But lying to make it through the day, or deceiving to appease others, and covering the truth for the convenience of the situation, is no longer an option. The Great Banquet showed me, if nothing else, that I am always and at every moment, a pastor. As annoying or awkward or even threatening as it may be, that’s what God has called me to do. And that’s all I have to say about that.