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Monday, May 31, 2010  

Some Advice for the Short-Conning of Pastors

So you decided to make your way in life by ripping off ministers of the Christian Church. There are easier and less ethically troubling ways of getting what you need, even confining yourself to ill-getting them. Pastors do not have a whole lot of money, by and large, and neither do churches. Churches and pastors with more than a few bucks to be swindled out of will generally have hard-to-penetrate bureaucratic processes for getting at their resources. Moreover, defrauding clergy violates some of the Ten Commandments--seven and eight, most obviously (or eight and nine if you go to a church that numbers them wrongly), but also a side of two and, if you do it on a Sunday, three (three and four, ditto). As a billboard in rural Wisconsin once informed me, these rules are not in fact mere suggestions. But if you were any good at other ways of making a living, even dishonest ones, we wouldn't be having this little talk. And after all, people are going to rip off and get ripped off, so we get no exemption, and you might as well give us a decent performance--since you can't rip someone off who doesn't on some level enjoy getting ripped off.

Having spent a number of years now in the kinds of churches that entertain the travelers of the Grift Circuit, I've learned a few things about rip-off attempts that would benefit the world were they better known. I've seen some great efforts--even ones leaving me not entirely certain that they were scams--and some that were just shamefully bad. A few do's and don't's:

DON'T try to appeal to naked pity. Straight-up sob stories are not usually effective. We hear a lot of them. We give a lot of our and sometimes our congregation's money to fund social service agencies and other emergency aid outlets. And a lot of us are compassion burnouts. We need variety in our lives like anyone else.

DO appeal to more complex motivations. Be in some other kind of trouble, something that doesn't immediately call dollar signs to mind. Ideally, something that is at least partly of your own making. Remember that our business is aiding sinners, not victims. Protection from danger is a good thing to need, or moral counsel for a serious dilemma. Most of us imagined helping people in tight spots or wading into morally ambiguous waters. Let us do that!

Relatedly, DON'T act really religious. Pastors are often less pious and less gullible than you'd expect, and it's not unusual to meet a good-hearted pastor who distrusts or even scorns ostentatious sanctimony. Besides, if you are so God-fearing, full of faith, and quick with a Bible verse, surely a pastor who actually knows you would have fronted the cost of a weekly CTA pass. Like the pity case, this play is just too obvious.

On the other hand, DO come off as skeptical, reluctant, and even morally dubious. You don't have a church. You don't feel at ease in one. Remember that most pastors don't really believe in innocence and aren't attracted to it. We expect people to be radically flawed and are gratified when someone doesn't pretend not to be. It validates our worldview and it engages our need to be helpful at the same time.

To summarize where we've been so far, a bad play goes a little like this: "Good morning to you, pastor! Praise the Lord! How are you today? Me, I'm blessed/doing my best to pray without ceasing like the Lord says/just trying to walk in His ways. I was wondering if you could help me with a little problem I'm having." OK, at this point I know you're a fraud and you're after money that I don't have. My listening strategy immediately shifts to getting you out of my church as fast as possible so I can catch the rest of the White Sox game.

A good play starts out like this: "Look, pastor/father, I don't know if I should even be here." At this point maybe offer to leave. A risky move, but potentially persuasive. "I'm in trouble. I thought maybe if I could talk to someone or pray with someone I could figure things out." If you're good at selling this part, money hasn't even entered my head yet. However hardened and cynical a pastor might be (and there are urban pastors who make beat cops look like Henry James heroines), he or she most likely still believes in the possibility of the sincerely lost sheep. More than that, some of us are still eager to meet these creatures. This is a hard part of the short con. You need to seem a little desperate, maybe even a little scary, but not to the point where the pastor puts you out or calls the cops. It's hard to juggle multiple suspicions. If my first thought is, "what if this guy is dangerous?" and you're in the door long enough to resolve that fear, my mind will not immediately leap to "what if this guy is ripping me off?"

Moving on then. DON'T talk about money early on in the pitch, or at all if you can avoid it. Remember that we didn't get into this line of work to hand out cash to people, we don't really like dealing with money (unless we're crooked ourselves, in which case good luck), and many of us are oppressed by our personal and institutional need of it. The sooner money comes up, the sooner the clock is ticking until we figure out that something's suspicious.

On the other hand, DO stick with a compelling story. We did get into this line of work, often as not, to hear people's stories. Give us a good, meaty problem--something likely to be outside of our daily experience but not outlandish. Get us engrossed in the story and have us looking for ways to help. Make sure to repeat some bad religious advice you got from another pastor. This bank-shots our desire to help off of our vocational vanity. We don't want to give out money, but we do want to provide counsel, forgive sins, give aid, make calls on people's behalf. If you've got a good story and--this is crucial--you tell it in a disorganized, non-linear fashion, reluctantly dropping new and fascinating details, you stand a good chance of really engaging your target.

Doing this plausibly is enormously difficult. Even a noob like me has heard a lot of BS and is not as bad at detecting it as you might think. It requires good acting and patience, because the most effective play is one that leaves the mark to suggest giving the money, especially as an alternative to doing something more difficult.

If you do all these things well, you'll walk off with a twenty more easily than a wheelchair-bound dialysis patient can get a five. A really good confidence game is just a one-person play in which the fourth wall is totally demolished. If you can get people to want to believe it, they'll believe it, and if you can get them to believe it, they'll want to participate, too.

There are not a whole lot of true confidence tricksters in the world, but their line of work is theologically significant insofar as human interactions often have the structure of a confidence game. The truth of a given matter is not always the most important concern. The way we typically select and withhold details, everywhere from the personnel file to the funeral sermon, is meant to give a particular impression or create a particular effect rather than bear full and fearless witness to everything we know and are. A pastor wants to be complimented on a sermon he knows was mediocre because he's depressed and wants to be validated by his people. The people want to give the compliment because they want a good relationship with their pastor. Except for the very few things we witness or are informed of by reliable third parties, we have to take people's confessions at something like face value. The presenting issue--the mediocre sermon, the desperate trouble--is sometimes not much more than a baffle hiding the emotional needs behind the relationship: for validation, for a sense of purpose, for self-regard, for the relief of anxiety, for belonging. A good confidence game will be indistinguishable from a truly needy case, and it will succeed for the same inter-psychic reasons.

In long human relationships, confidence (or its lack) comes from endless iterations of interactions. I wholly trust my parents, for instance, to be honest with me in matters pertaining to my own well-being and to look out for my interests as far as they can. When I take their advice, it is not because I have investigated it thoroughly myself but because I have always experienced them as capable and trustworthy. It is fascinating--and revealing--to see human beings attempt to create that kind of confidence in the space of one conversation.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 1:27 PM
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