The Conversation

Post Author: Katherine Willis Pershey

In the time since my ordination, I’ve gotten a better at navigating The Conversation in all its permutations. A lot of practice and a little bit of confidence go a long way. I try to be gracious and understanding and educational, but sometimes I wish I could just be feisty. Recently, a guy came to do an estimate for some work in the parsonage. He knew it was a parsonage, so when I opened the door to let him in, he asked, “Are you the pastor’s wife?” I politely explained that no, I am the pastor, but I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to retort, “Are you the sub-contractor’s husband?”

I wrote this story a couple years ago, when I was still quite new to The Conversation. I called it “What It’s Like to Be a Female Pastor with a Back Condition”:

My back has been out for days. I use that phrase sort of loosely, because it is not the kind of back outage that happens in the movies, where the middle aged guy gets stuck bending over. When my back “goes out,” I experience excruciating back spasms for two-four days, even though I can move around and all that. I can sit, stand, do push-ups, raise the host – you name it, I can do it, just very, very painfully. I’ve tried different treatments with varying levels of relief, from prescription painkillers to getting pummeled at the chiropractor, though ultimately I end up riding the pain waves out.

This weekend my parents were here, so I wanted to find an effective palliative, pronto. On Saturday I called up a new chiropractor and got a 9 a.m. appointment. I must confess that I am generally rather suspicious of chiropractic medicine. It helps – to that I can attest. But the concept of cracking my spine like so many knuckles and insisting that I must return nearly every day makes me suspicious.

The whole science behind chiropractic seems, to my unscientific self, a little odd. Some of it makes perfect sense, but some of the more esoteric strains of chiropractic medicine sound like a crackpot new ager got ahold of the med school textbooks and started drawing in the margins. Despite my reservations, I go. I go because it feels phenomenal to be shoved into a paper-covered massage table until my bones pop. I go because, occasionally, I have stood up and walked away without so much as a twinge.

With the exception of the fabulous sensation of having my neck, jaw, and spine “adjusted,” this chiropractic experience wasn’t so great. I’m still in pain, a record five days after the first nerve spazzed out. But perhaps even worse than that was The Conversation I had to endure during the two hours I was in the office. The well-meaning assistant chiro-practitioner asked me what I do. O, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? Why must I face The Conversation in my hour of pain? I can’t use the “I’m in graduate school” avoidance route any more. Besides, I don’t want to hide my profession. I want to tell people about my lovely church. But I don’t always have the energy for The Conversation.

“Oh, wow. Awesome. I didn’t know they let women be pastors. Is your husband a pastor? No? Wow, how cool. He married a pastor. Awesome. I go to [insert fundamentalist church]. It’s awesome. I’m really into creation science. Do you know any good books on creation science?”

This particular episode of The Conversation was just about more than I can take. The good doctor was nice enough. He didn’t try to convince me that it is sinful for me to teach men in church. But I already wonder about your profession – why do you have to go and bring up the pseudoscientific realm of creationism? What if my spinal curvature is a remnant of evolutionary inheritance, and a nuanced understanding of how the monkey became the man is essential in properly treating me? I don’t want to have to justify my vocation when I’m nearly in tears because my back hurts and I’m wasting away hour 1.5 of my parents’ brief visit. And I don’t want to be treated by an MD who reads Genesis as a scientific textbook.

What’s your best/worst experience of The Conversation? (Including the times you delivered your best lines in your head!)

Katherine Willis Pershey graduated from Claremont School of Theology and was ordained to the ministry by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2005. She and her husband, Ben, have a dog named Atticus and are expecting their first child any day now. Seriously, today would be great. The bag is packed. Let's get this show on the road.

Image by: Brett Jordan
Used with permission
8 replies
  1. Becca says:

    You can always go the “I’m a public speaker” route. I do miss the days though when, trapped on an airplane with a chatty seat-mate, I could honestly say, “I’m in grad school.” Actually, though, armed with a few pre-planned responses, I now enjoy the surprised responses I get when I tell people what I do. Especially now that I’m working in a small town where the only other (two, that I know of) female pastors are associates. Embrace it! Enjoy knowing that you are called by God and can enlighten others about God’s work through women!

  2. Katie M says:

    I am in a bowling league (excellent mid-week getaway), but when I started they didn’t know I was a pastor. One afternoon I left the 5 pin standing and one of the other team members asked if I was married. I told her I was and she wanted to know if I knew what that pin was. I was kind of new to the whole league bowling concept, so I didn’t know that it was the “put out” pin. If I didn’t pick up the spare I was supposed to put out when I got home. When I missed the spare I asked her if she knew what I did…her embarrassed face was hilarious! We still laugh about it to this day!

  3. Katie says:

    The best line I’ve heard/used is, “I’m the director of a small non-profit agency.”
    And the oddest line I’ve received, from the person waiting on me in the deli, on Ash Wednesday, after I’d just ordered fish fry: “Excuse me…I don’t mean to be rude…but what are you?”
    Not who. What.

  4. Heather Culuris says:

    We might try that!
    I can also say that I stay home to take care of our 2 year old…. which is part of my crazy pastor/mom life!

  5. Kimberly says:

    Heather, I remember reading an article (or a blog?) once that suggested there were times when one should just say ‘Oh, I work with the elderly.’ People assume they know what you mean, don’t particularly want to hear the details, and for those of us in parish ministry it is generally true.
    You could always tell them the rest of the truth on the last day.

  6. Ellen L-D says:

    At my previous church post, I took the bus to work. At first I was just another passenger to the drivers. “Love,” “Darling,” “Pet”–I got them all. Then the day of a funeral came and with clerical collar on, I freaked one out. It took all of one day before every bus driver on the route knew, and had to double check that it was a “real” collar. Once they got over staring at me with questioning looks, they were great. It was fun to have the conversation with them. And when I left to go to another church, a few of them said they would miss our little chats.

  7. Heather Culuris says:

    My husband and I, both pastors, are going on a cruise in a few weeks. We’ve already been pondering what our response is when people ask us what we do. We’re going to escape tending to other people’s needs and to tend to our own spirits and know that we’ll be doing pastoral care as soon as folks know what we do….
    I had to drop out of a water aerobics class a few years back when the newspaper ran a story on the new pastor in the area. All the ladies recognized me from the pool and talked to me so much that I never really got to exercise, which was the purpose of going!
    All in all though, I love to watch people when they first learn that I am a pastor!

  8. Erica says:

    I had a few years after I was ordained when I could either say I was a high school teacher or a minister (I served as both a school). It was fun to pick.
    Once, my sister and I were on a 3-seater ski lift with a guy who very happy to be sandwiched between two blondes.
    Halfway up the mountain, after demonstrating his considerable abilities with lewdness and the f-word in conversation, and, thinking delusionally that he might get lucky in the lodge, he starting asking what we did. My sister named her innocuous profession. And I got to choose…
    The look on his face when I told him I was a minister was so much more priceless that it would have been if I’d mentioned I was married!


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