I had never thought much about my hair until I went to seminary. When I started seminary and began envisioning myself as a clergyperson, I started looking at the style of women pastors, particularly women head pastors. And I noticed that virtually without exception, they had “The Haircut.” The Don’t-Think-of-Me-as-a-Woman-Think-of-Me-as-a-Pastor haircut—short, shapeless, unfeminine. As my classmates began to take on internships, and as I noticed more and more of them getting the snip, my hair began to take on Samson-like power in my mind, and I feared the day when I would have to lose it. Could I be a pastor, and still be feminine, long-haired me?
I am, gender-wise, extraordinarily feminine. I was a cheerleader in high school. In my senior year, I was actually the only cheerleader in the school’s calculus class. I stood out on game days in my miniskirt and curly beribboned ponytail, doing integrations at my desk. I moved between two worlds. And I learned just as much from cheerleading—through the sweaty, painful practices leading to glorious stunts and dance and gymnastics, all with smiles on mouths lipsticked with the team’s uniform shade—as I did in calculus. I was used to people assuming that I was an idiot in calculus and assuming that I was a nerd in cheerleading.
I found that seminary is definitely more of a calculus kind of place. There was a sort of uniform of jeans and earth-toned sweaters. There were no miniskirts, and definitely no ribbons. Even in our schoolwork, there was some kind of honor, I often felt, in being as humdrum as possible. While most of my classmates would simply read their papers aloud and call it a “presentation,” my presentations had visuals, interactive components, sometimes food, and I was even known to incorporate clips from popular television shows such as Friends. I attained a reputation for what one of my fellow students called “style over substance.”
So I rebelled by being myself—a girl. Without really thinking about it, I started wearing more skirts to class. And more pink. And more heels. And my hair just grew and grew. By the time I graduated, it reached to my waist—long, straight, and blonde, blonde, blonde.
All this led me to think, more and more, about questions of style and substance. I believe that in many historic Protestant churches, we are afraid of style. In our hearts of hearts, many of us believe that style is for the megachurches. Style is for the black church. Style is for the Catholics. At best, this tradition of dullness speaks out against the idolatry of style. After all, style is the god of our culture, which I would argue worships the image more than any other culture ever has. Between TV, the Internet, and digital billboards, we are flooded each day with flashy eye-candy that does not invite deep reflection—no wonder so many churches resist putting up a projection screen at the front of the sanctuary, fearing their worship will become “commercials for Jesus.”
Yet this attitude of substance-over-style can become elitist. It is yet another incarnation of what Rosemary Radford Ruether described in Sexism and God-Talk as the dichotomization of material and spiritual energy. Ruether recognizes that all women, including women of the dominant race and class, have often been identified with the “matter” side of the equation. So have female and male people of color, the poor, and nature itself. And I believe this identification of women as “matter,” as “style,” continues in the way that women are viewed professionally, particularly in ministry. The more people consider our appearance, the less they consider what we are actually saying. We are subject to scrutiny for our style.
Sometimes when I’m up in front of the church with the older male head of staff, I feel like Kelly on the show Live with Regis and Kelly. Nobody really notices what Regis is wearing, but we all evaluate what Kelly is sporting. People comment on my shoes, my jewelry, my hair, of course, and what I might be wearing under my robe. I am unabashedly viewed as matter, as style. And I know from my conversations with other young clergywomen that this experience is a universal one for our set. Male pastors and older women are definitely subject to scrutiny for what they wear. Yet younger women are particularly subject to being viewed for their style because television and the media promote young women as objects. Thus I have sometimes felt that my style is more important to the congregation than what I am saying about God. I wonder if I should keep my “girliness” out of the pulpit, so that people will direct their attention to spiritual matters.
“Style” speaks to the senses. “Substance” speaks to the mind. We have been taught to divorce the two, never trying to manipulate our audience by invoking the material. Yet my style-over-substance critics never recognized that even their black-and-white, two-dimensional presentations inhabited the world of matter. Their ascetic simplicity spoke volumes in itself—but they never recognized this reality. I have seen the same thing, all too often, in the pulpit—sermons meant to convince listeners intellectually of a particular theological point, but that made little reference to the sights, sounds, and experiences of the listeners’ actual lives.
While in seminary, I took a course called “Preaching as Celebration,” which taught preaching from the black church tradition. There, Frank A. Thomas taught, “Western homiletical thought, based on cerebral process, has been overly concerned with content.” Thomas taught that Jesus had content, but Jesus had sense appeal, too. Jesus talked about real-life experiences, wineskins, and wells. Thomas taught me, from his own tradition of the black church, about the holiness of the interaction of substance and style.
I believe we as young women have an opportunity to own this holy interaction, this incarnation, as part of our ministries. From my many conversations with young women clergy on this subject, I have concluded that as a young woman, you will never get away from being looked at. But you have some control over what people will see. We have an opportunity to have a ministry of style. We have an opportunity to show our style, to own our style, to be intentional with our style, and to allow our style to redefine what it means to be a child of God, a Christian, or a minister of Word and Sacrament. God called you, so be yourself. For some of you, being yourself means going without makeup, even without shaving, and telling your congregants, well, this is how God made me. For others it will mean becoming a welcoming congregation to some nontraditional members with dyed hair and nose rings. For me, it is proclaiming, in my pink, my high heels, and my cute skirts that yes, I am a minister, and yes, I am a girl.
The Girlfriends’ Checklist:
Never forget that you are an embodied person. God called you to ministry just as you are. Be yourself.
Keep your sense of style, and allow your style to be a ministry to your congregation.
As a young woman, recognize that it is more likely that people will notice, and comment on, your style and embodied self.
Wear a “robe.” Find a pastoral identity that works with your style and embodiedness, but remember that for most people, your authority comes from your ministry and relationship with them rather than from your appearance.
Find your voice and speak God’s Word.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry
by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley
As increasing numbers of young women are discerning a call to ministry, entering seminary, graduating, and searching for the call to a parish or other ministry setting, they need to be aware of the realities that face them. The Girlfriends’ Clergy Companion is about the nitty gritty of ministry for young female clergy—how to maintain a sense of personal style, what it’s really like to be a solo pastor, how to date, what to do when they’re ready to quit.
Blessed Connections: Relationships that Sustain Vital Ministry
by Judith Schwanz
In Blessed Connections, seminary professor Judith Schwanz focuses on the person of the minister and the relational system of the minister’s life. She spotlights three areas of connection—relationship with self, relationships with other people, and relationship with God. Attending to these three primary connections will strengthen the pastor and cushion her or him against the pressures and stresses of daily ministry.
Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock
Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. From proper ways to respond to rumors to relating information about a staff firing to the congregation, Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, Carol Howard Merritt describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults that both nurtures relationships and fosters spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.
Can you, will you? Could you, should you?
Join Ed White for an exploration of the keys to an effective long pastorate, including how to assess the choices and decisions that can set you on the path to a rich, meaningful, and long association with a congregation.
October 18–20, 2011:
New Vision for the Long Pastorate
Roslyn Retreat Center, Richmond, VA
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