Gail Song Bantum on the awkwardness of answering that question as a pastor in Seattle.
When Gail Song Bantum first moved to Seattle, she did what most women—and, honestly, what many men—do: she found a new hair salon. After an enjoyable time getting to know her stylist and some of the other women at the salon, the conversation took a dramatic turn. Gail was asked this simple and familiar question: “What do you do?”
I recently had the chance to interview Gail about why this question caused her such discomfort. Here’s what she said.
Gail: Now, this wasn’t a difficult question. The answer wasn’t something I was confused about or unfamiliar with. But, I started dancing around it!
Marisa: I’ve been there—my sister and I used to tell people that our dad was a counselor because “pastor” was just too embarrassing! Then of course we would feel guilty and begin that fun shame cycle.
Gail: (Laughing) I get that, but this was a new feeling for me. I’d been a pastor in other parts of the country before and had never felt that I needed to hide it. In that moment at the hair salon, I felt really convicted. I had to ask myself, “What is it about here that makes me timid, scared, embarrassed to say that I am a pastor?”
Marisa: How did you answer that? What is it about here—about Seattle—that made you feel uncomfortable, as opposed to other places you’ve pastored?
Gail: Well, I was coming straight from North Carolina where I’d gone to school and had been a pastor for years. There, the role of pastor is something that’s respected. It’s still an environment where people go to church regularly and it isn’t so freakish to be part of a faith community or be a pastor—it’s part of the culture. Here, when the role of pastor isn’t entirely unknown, it’s almost despised. There’s a deep cynicism in Cascadia about the church, and especially about pastors.
Marisa: How does that affect the way that you pastor?
In other places where the role of pastor is familiar and it is a trusted profession, people come to you. Here, I am the one doing the initiating with people.
Gail: The starkest contrast between here and North Carolina is that, pastorally, I spend most of my time here earning trust and building relationships. In other places where the role of pastor is familiar and it is a trusted profession, people come to you. Here, I am the one doing the initiating with people.
Marisa: Do you think the reason why there’s such cynicism about pastors here is because Seattle is typically “unchurched” so the position is unfamiliar, or is it because of the particular role pastors have played here?
Gail: Probably a little bit of both. I think mainly it has to do with the culture—it is incredibly cynical, yes, but it’s also an extreme culture as far as the church is concerned. There is no nuance here—not a lot of middle ground. Either a church is super liberal or super conservative.
Marisa: Why do you think that is?
Gail: I can’t exactly tell you why—but what I sense is that it’s the combination of people here being highly intellectual and progressive, while also being deeply jaded about the church. So, some churches react against that in their own ways.
Marisa: I have not been in your church building since it was Mars Hill Church, under the leadership of Mark Driscoll. The implosion of Mars Hill has had a significant impact on our city. How has that impacted Quest Church?
Gail: It was a difficult situation and one where we never wanted to be celebrating a church’s demise. At Quest, we talk about being “on mission”—joining God’s mission and pointing to the ways that God is at work in our neighborhood. We had already been here in this neighborhood working with the homeless when Mars Hill Church imploded, so it did mean something tangible for us: we were able to move into this space since we had outgrown our older space. But yes, I think what happened with Mars Hill Church contributed to the deep cynicism we’ve been talking about, for both those outside and inside the church.
Marisa: So, in light of everything we’ve talked about, what do you think is the current challenge for the church in Seattle?
The challenge for the church today is to continue to explore issues of social justice, but to do so as “the church”—as people who are followers of Jesus.
Gail: The challenge for the church today is to continue to explore issues of social justice, but to do so as “the church”—as people who are followers of Jesus. The current situation of this progressive, white movement within the church has given Christians an out—an out where they can pursue causes without having to talk about Jesus. Without really having to live as Christians.
Marisa: So, what does that look like as you pastor at Quest?
Gail: We try really hard in our ministries to not hide the fact that we are a church. In our advocating for the homeless, it is clear that we are doing what we’re doing as part of a church.
Marisa: In essence, then, part of what it means to pastor here is to, as you’ve said, earn trust and build relationships, but also not to dance around Christianity—as was the temptation when you first moved here.
Marisa: I have to ask, how did you answer the hair stylist’s question?
Gail: I eventually stopped dancing around the issue and told her the truth: “I am a pastor.”
Marisa: How did she respond?
Gail: Well, she recoiled a bit, scrunched up her face, and said, “You don’t seem like a pastor.”
Marisa: I’m pretty sure she meant that as a compliment!