You're a Prop, and That's Okay

September 24th, 2013

A recent episode of the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast featured Greg Horton telling “10 Dirty Secrets about being a Minister.” Horton is a former pastor who is now skeptical of all religious institutions. It’s over an hour long and features a few four-letter words, but it’s well worth the listen for pastors and lay-folk alike.

The one “dirty secret” that intrigued me the most was “You are a prop.” His point was that a pastor’s role in the major moments of people’s lives, such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms is not so much because people genuinely want a pastor to be present, but because they think they are supposed to have a pastor there.

Henri Nouwen talks about how this can be a contributing factor in the sense of isolation and loneliness that many pastors feel: “the painful irony is that ministers, who want to touch the center of people’s lives, find themselves on the periphery, often pleading in vain for admission.” (The Wounded Healer, chapter 4)

“You’re a prop” certainly has a negative connotation. You’re there, but you may only be incidental to the proceedings. In a culture where the church is rapidly declining in importance, yet still retains some sentimental or symbolic role for many people, this is something that is not likely to change any time soon. So a pastor can choose to complain, (or tell off the wedding photographer, like one priest recently did) or one can choose to make the most of a situation that starts out less than ideal.

This is one of those things clergy love to complain about. One person I know likes to say that he “would take ten funerals over one wedding." His reasoning is that “at a funeral they’ll let me tell them what to do!” He's joking, somewhat.

It’s true that at a funeral, a family is grieving over the loss of their loved one, and likely trying to manage the endless legal and financial details that come with closing out a person’s estate. Families often let the pastor determine the order of service, glad to have one less detail to handle.

But it’s also true that funerals give pastors an opportunity to interact with people they might never otherwise see in a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives. People suffering grief and loss welcome the type of comfort a pastor can offer. The funeral liturgy can be healing and even inspiring to mourners. A pastor may only be a “prop” at first, but they might also be a vehicle for someone else to experience God’s love and grace in a way they didn’t expect.

Weddings can be stressful for everyone involved, including the pastor. A bridezilla and/or one of her relatives can waltz in to your church like they own the place, move things without returning them, make all kinds of demands about things being repainted or repaired, and the groomsmen can turn a Sunday-school room into a makeshift sports bar. People may ask the pastor to say or do things they’re not comfortable with during the service or ask for music or other elements that are just flat out inappropriate in church.

While all of those things have happened to me or people I know, they are worst-case scenarios. Even in a relatively “normal” wedding where the couple doesn’t have any crazy requests, a pastor can become resentful because much more time is spent picking out flowers and dresses than in planning the actual wedding ceremony or reflecting on the deep significance of the commitment they are making to one another. A pastor can, rightly, feel like little more than a prop in a wedding.

Then again, many clergy make it their practice to provide or even require pre-marital counseling for couples. This, too, gives pastors the opportunity to spend time with people who wouldn’t normally seek out a pastor. For some couples, pre-marital counseling can be one more item to check off the list, but if the pastor treats it as something more than that, surprising things can happen.

The pastor’s office can be a safe space for the couple to admit their anxieties or share the frustrations that come along with planning a wedding. It can be a place where the couple learns things about themselves and one another that they didn’t know before- things that may make future marital conflicts much easier to deal with. Even if the couple doesn’t join the congregation, their journey of faith can be deepened and strengthened if the pastor can put aside their resentment at being a “prop” and embrace the opportunity for momentary influence.

A pastor’s presence in a wedding, funeral home, hospital room, or anywhere else always carries with it a symbolic importance. The presence of a pastor, at its best, is incarnational. Like the second person of the Trinity becoming incarnate in flesh and walking among us (John 1:14), a pastor represents the presence of God and the loving action of the church to many people.

This may not always be true, of course. Pastors have their good and bad days like anyone else and are better vehicles for the presence of Jesus at some times than others. And some pastors are not especially gifted in pastoral care and counseling, choosing instead to organize gifted volunteers to perform those functions in a way they can’t.

Nevertheless, in many traditions, lay-people can’t perform weddings and funerals. Even in ones where they can, some people will want a “real” pastor to be there. So pastors can stick to their well-founded complaints, or they can see the opportunity that is in front of them and take it.

You’re a prop, and that’s okay. Props get to be where the action is. Make the most of it.

comments powered by Disqus