Subverting and Interrupting Unconscious Scripts

I am so grateful to have been invited to stir the hornet’s nest on clergy image by K. who submitted the letter to which I responded in the post previous to this one.

BZZZZZZZ!!! BZZZZzzz! There we go! And it’s good to get it all out there again so I can state the mission of this blog, which is to encourage, help and goad religious leaders to understand the historical context in which we serve and to respond to it appropriately.

You just thought this blog was about lip gloss and facial hair maintenance for the pulpit.

It’s like this, True Believers.

We love the church. We believe in the relevance of religious community and in the power of God, or Love or Community, to change the world for the better. We believe in peace, and in spiritual practice, and in the deep work of being community in a world of individualism and alienation.

We know that mainstream Protestant clergy are smart, sophisticated, sexy, savvy, highly-trained professionals with scary-impressive portfolios of accomplishments and experience. It would be wonderful be able to dress comfortably and casually and walk into any space in society and have people know that about us.

But they don’t. They really, really don’t. Because since the 1970’s (and even before, but let’s start there), the mainline Protestant church has nose-dived in influence and attendance, and along with that trend, the religious right rose and gained political power and influence. And those religious leaders, who looked so grand and confident and shiny on television, disgusted the non-religious or casually religious portion of society with their politics of hate and division, war-mongering and woman-controlling, gay-bashing and education-mangling. They took the Scriptures and Christianity and used them as political cudgels. They beat ploughshares into swords.

Now, denominations fight bitterly amongst ourselves and within our own ranks about issues of doctrine and policy, and see the vast differences between us. However, the majority population of the U.S., which is unchurched and not interested in religious community, sees very little of that.

Today, in 2014, the mainstream Protestant and Jewish and Muslim and progressive Catholic movements are all in a big pot together in the public imagination. We’re just “those religious people” in our houses of worship doing our Saturday or Sunday thing, and carrying on with our quaint ways while the world increasingly fails to notice us or care about us. We’re nice to have in the neighborhood, maybe, but mostly for when you want a nice wedding or a kind person to say some words when Uncle Milt dies. If we step beyond those roles, we are regarded as dangerous, and in the United States, accused of violating the sacred separation of church and state enshrined in our Constitution.

If your eyes are glazing over because you’ve heard this all before, let Auntie PeaceBang throw you a cup of strong coffee for this next part.

Listen up!

So there we are, knowing that what we do and are is still relevant and important to the project of building a better world and cultivating reverence and wholeness in the hearts of individuals. And we know that there are a ton of other claims on people’s time and attention, so we have accepted that our congregations aren’t going to be as populated as they once were. We reach out and try to meet the needs of the community as best we can: through the internet, through pub theology nights, through house churches, and so on.

We try as best we can to explain, whenever necessary, that the separation of church and state does not mean that religious organizations and people are not allowed to participate in our democracy, but rather that the state is not permitted to establish a state religion.

As we do all of this, many members of the clergy still presume that the general public has a fair and positive sense of what a minister is and does. But that era is over. That’s what I am trying to bang into everyone’s heads. It is OVER.

What associations do we assume that people have when they see a collar or see the title “Rev.?” Here’s the unconscious script I believe most of us activate when asked this question:

They will think faithful, helpful, trust-worthy, spiritually deep, someone who will pray with you, representative of God, follower of Jesus, self-giving love, justice-oriented, servant-leader, counselor, member of an ancient and respected vocational tradition

Break that list down one item at a time, and please understand that every single item on that list has a different — and mostly negative and suspicious — connotation in 2014 than it did even thirty years ago.

I will translate for you.

Faithful (naive, weird, no grip on reality)
Helpful (consumers of a huge amount of wealth and resources to produce tiny, weak outcomes)
Trust-worthy (priest pedophiles, charlatans, hypocrites, meddlers)
Spiritually deep (not dealing with the world; someone I can’t relate to)
Someone who will pray with me (I’m uncomfortable asking for this; don’t know what prayer is, I got “over that” in childhood)
Representative of God (scary ego)
Follower of Jesus (has a conservative political agenda; hates gays)
self-giving love (loser)
Justice-oriented (hippies with guitars, give me a break)
Servant-Leader (underpaid loser can’t get a real job; sucker)
Counselor (maybe relevant to today, yea)
Member of ancient and respected vocational tradition (ancient, yes, respected, why should I?)

When I urge you to take responsibility for your public image as a religious leader and to put time, effort and resources into cultivating a sense of style and polish, it is because I know what kinds of unconscious scripts secular people and leaders have when they see the title “Rev.” before a name.

You may hope for the old, fast-fading script of respect, positive association with venerable tradition and reverence for God’s representatives here on earth (which is only a Catholic teaching and not a Protestant understanding of the clergy), but I want to challenge that.

When a minister walks into a room anywhere outside of his or her own church, they cannot and should not presume to active unconscious scripts of respect. Quite the opposite. When you go to lecture to the college class or speak to your congressional representative or meet with the police chief or enter the ICU or the television studio for your segment or the apartment complex to discuss tenant evictions with the landlord you can no longer assume that the people in power in those spaces have a shred of acquaintance with the church and the clergy, or that if they do, the association is a positive one.

Frame that and keep it over your bathroom mirror:

Do not assume that anyone I meet today knows or cares anything about the power of God’s love I hope to represent and embody in my ministry.

Stitch this on a cushion:


Remember some of the things I said were unconsciously activated in the mind of the general, unchurched and religion-suspicious public? That we are totally out of touch with reality, losers, stuck in the past and leading sad, dying institutions, wasting property and money to accomplish tiny, unimportant bits of mercy?

I want you to subvert and interrupt that unconscious script every time you walk into a room, put out your hand, smile, and say, “Hi, I’m Reverend So-And-So. I’m so grateful you agreed to meet with me. I hope we can have a good conversation.” I want that first reaction from the person who assumed you were going to be a frumpy little push-over to be, “Wow, this is not what I expected. I have to take this person seriously.”


Kiss of peace, PB

11 Replies to “Subverting and Interrupting Unconscious Scripts”

  1. Amen and amen! We, the church, keep asking “mirror, mirror, on the wall” but either we need a new mirror or we aren’t listening and deceive ourselves. The church has a serious image problem. We are perceived as either crackpots or narrow minded bigots. We don’t help that image problem any when we present ourselves in ways that confirm those ideas. People see your clothing and “presence” long before they se YOU. And instant impressions are formed. Thank you for trying to be the mirror here. Preach it, sister.

  2. In my experience it is totally different in black churches, even black churches within white denominations.
    [Yep. I have long thought that white sloppiness is an expression of white privilege. When white clergy could ride on the coattails of historical relevance and influence, they could afford to dress however they liked — and still think they can. People of color had a different historical experience and theological orientation toward majesty and respect and never embraced the church culture of “Come as you are” that white folks found so attractive. – PB]

  3. The funny thing is, that WHEN white clergy could ride along on cultural coat tails, they DRESSED LIKE MINISTERS! It might have been a shiny black suit, but it was a black suit in an outpost town…Does it not strike people as insulting to say, “Look, I’m a normal person, I dress like you” and then to dress like a SLOB?

  4. and related to this image issue is the question of “fat” – there is a huge prejudice against fat people in our society – maybe this “shouldn’t be” but it “is”. I have found myself when listening to a very overweight luminary in our denomination thinking “what can he tell me? – he can’t manage his own life”. I know most of our sins of omission and commission are not written on our faces or bodies like Dorian Grey; however, its hard to remember to cast the beam out when a mote is so visible

    clergy life with its loose but demanding structure isn’t conducive to careful eating – we know this – but still….something to ponder

  5. I think much of this holds true for academia as well. There is a general loss of respect for the professoriate to which faculty members seem oblivious. Dressing like an absent-minded professor just reinforces the idea that academics are out of touch. This isn’t quite true at my esteemed employer, whose name has a lot of cachet and where the faculty members dress fairly well (business casual for the most part). Sorry to join in the conversation so late!

  6. Preach, Rev! I feel like I’m watching this slow transformation to professional obliviousness happen during seminary. Perhaps it’s necessary since seminary is so hard, but my peers are coming under the impression that they have credibility with non-religious people. We will only matter when we demonstrate ten times over that we matter.

  7. Thou hast nailed it. I speak as a layperson who attends church regularly and gives time and treasure. Lately, though, when I’m choosing whether to spend time and donate money to a church-based social justice organization or a secular one, I scrutinize both organizations pretty heavily. Recently, the secular organizations have won because I look at church-based organizations and see infighting, out-of-control egos, and general lack of regard for people’s time. Added to that, when I attend a major (and lengthy) event in my denomination and see clergy in high-water slacks and clogs, I think: “If this event isn’t special to you, tell me again why I’m spending most of the day here.”

  8. I had a professor at Seminary that said, with a great deal of love, “Don’t assume anyone will know who you are, what you do, and why you matter”. Assume nothing.

    It means we have to prove ourselves continually, but what is wrong with that? I take a great amount of joy hearing people say “You’re not at all what we thought you’d be”. That phrase used to bug me, now it is taken as a compliment.

    The whole scenario; how we dress, how we carry ourselves, how we view ourselves is about self-awareness. If we walk around in a daze with a rumpled outfit on because we’ve been on the run since 6:00 am., it doesn’t show how hard we work, but how overwhelmed we feel.

    We deserve to treat ourselves better, and when we do that, we can show that to the world.

  9. On cultivating an image, from the 1993 documentary Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham, written and presented by Randall Balmer, on PBS Home Video: “Charles Templeton, one of Graham’s fellow evangelists with Youth for Christ, recalls that drama and colorful costumes were part of a deliberate strategy. ‘The last thing in the world we wanted to look like was the average parson with his clerical collar and his black suit. We used to wear very flamboyant ties, sports jackets and slacks, never suits.’”

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