I just want you to know,” said a member of the search committee to me after she extended the committee’s invitation to be their candidate for pastor, “that there were a couple of people on the search committee who had a little problem with your nose ring. It’s not a big deal, but it is a deal.”
I had expected this conversation to happen. For months, all through the fall and winter when I was preparing my profile for circulation and preparing to interview with churches, I had agonized about what I should do about my nose ring. My father told me simply not to wear it—“Don’t give them a reason to reject you.” My field education supervisor noted that, “Someone may use that as a reason for not liking you,” a red herring to mask resistance to a young woman’s leadership. Several of my seminary friends scoffed, “Ha! That nose ring is barely noticeable! They should be more worried about your theology!”
None of this was particularly helpful. I found myself working myself into a frenzy of terror and frustration, compounded only by the ever-increasing piles of homework I was expected to complete while seeking a call. Finally, my sister-friend at seminary, who was about two months ahead of me in the process, offered her experience of the in-person interview that had led to her recent call. “I just had to be myself, and leave it to them to decide if they wanted me as their pastor.”
A Question of Identity
This subtle reframing allowed me to consider my dilemma from a whole new vista. How important was my nose ring to my identity? As it turned out, important enough to wear to an interview with a small church in rural Iowa—even though I knew it was risky, even though I desperately wanted to be their pastor. They deserved to have the real me present at the interview, and I deserved to know if they truly wanted me to be their candidate.
Don’t get me wrong—this nose ring is hardly noticeable, at least as far as such things go. It is a tiny silver stud, no hoops or dangly things, and rarely does it include a jewel any more extraordinary than a faux diamond. And I am not unmindful of how different rural Iowa is from Berkeley, where I went to seminary, or New York City, where I’d gotten my nose pierced in the first place, and that even such a tiny thing as this could be very alienating to people. But it is a part of me. And if that part of me was so alarming that a congregation would refuse to call me as their pastor, then perhaps God was calling me elsewhere.
Happily, this did not prove to be the case. While it was a “deal” with some of the older women in the congregation, others saw it as a delightful sign that I would bring youthful energy to the church. Still others thought it too ridiculous to merit discussion, and were outraged that it would even come up in conversation. I daresay several people (including some of the youth and children) didn’t even notice. During my candidating weekend, I wore my nose ring to all the potlucks and meet-and-greets, fielded several interesting questions about it and our probable transition to rural Iowa, and waited for the Holy Spirit to direct me concerning the nose ring during my candidating service. Sunday morning, as I was ready to walk out of the hotel, the Holy Spirit said, “Go gently on the older women,” and I removed my nose ring without any hesitation or regret. As it turned out, barely anyone noticed its presence or its absence, and no one cared. The congregation unanimously affirmed my call, nose ring and all.
Changing Culture, Shifting Expectations
The question of identity and pastoral responsibility is one that all ministers have to face, no matter what generation they are from. For Gen X ministers, however, the questions are different. “Your wife will play the organ, right?” has been replaced with, “How does your significant other support your ministry?” Likewise, “You will work constantly for us, won’t you?” has been replaced with, “How will you care for your family?” Particularly in my milieu—which I characterize as predominantly white, typically middle- to upper-class, and socially progressive—clergy are being asked new questions. “Are you comfortable being ‘out’ in this community?” “How will you connect with people your own age?” (This question was crucial and ultimately very challenging for a single friend of mine, who served a small church in a small Georgian town!) And of course, “What about that nose ring?”
Such questions signal not only a shift in pastoral expectations by congregations, but also an acceptance of the changing social mores in U.S. culture today. However reluctant this acceptance may be, churches have come to realize that they need to consider the “whole person” when seeking a pastor, and that this requires new kinds of questions. Many Gen X pastors, in particular, expect and even relish the opportunity to respond to such questions with our words and our deeds.
Balancing Personal Identity and Pastoral Duty
Generation X as a whole is notorious for being independent and fierce, refusing to take the well-traveled path in favor of new adventures, new journeys. Additionally, we Gen Xers guard our personal integrity as one of our most prized assets. This is a necessary corrective to previous generations, many of whose members felt they had to give everything and save nothing for the sake of their own spirits. Yet the pendulum can swing too far, guarding personal integrity at the cost of ministering to others. We younger pastors must weigh the balance between personal integrity and pastoral duty in new ways, with fewer supports and resources to do so appropriately.
For example, one male youth minister loves to wear his hair long, but knows that this causes great consternation to a number of the elderly women in the congregation, for whom such a hairstyle is disrespectful and perhaps even dangerous. As a result, he occasionally cuts off the long hair for “Locks of Love,” an organization that makes wigs for people who lose their hair from chemotherapy. Now, when the women want him to trim his hair, they simply ask, “Isn’t it about time for another donation?”
Acts of Liturgical Disobedience
While congregations may be accommodating on certain issues, sometimes it is the clergy who must be accommodating to the will of the congregation. Some Gen X clergy (and, doubtless, clergy from other generations, too) engage in what my colleague Timothy J. Luoma calls “subtle forms of liturgical disobedience” as they try to maintain individuality in a role that seems to demand a measure of conformity. Often these acts of “disobedience” revolve around issues of appropriate clergy attire. One pastor, in response to a congregational expectation that she wear collared shirts, tie-dyed a clergy shirt and wears it to worship. Another, after his congregation “insisted” he wear a necktie, wore several featuring Marvin the Martian, a popular cartoon character. Working within the constraints required, many Gen X clergy find similarly creative ways to let their spirits and personalities come through.
While serving an international church, one pastor encountered the issue of “appropriate travel companions.” She reports that the expectation of her congregation was that “as a woman, I should only travel with women.” By contrast, she argued, “Our generation can have mixed friendships, so if my travel companions were men and women, why should the church care?” Despite the fact that they did care, she traveled with men and women, even arguing at times that it was beneficial to have men along “for security reasons.”
Unfortunately, while one may cheerfully obey the letter of the law while still attempting to challenge its spirit in such situations, not every case lends itself to such subversive activity. Take Kharma Amos, a 30-something pastor in an MCC church in northern Virginia.
In her congregation, composed mostly of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the use of the term “queer” when referring to the LGBT community, or even individual members of it, is a problematic one. “In our generation,” she says, using the term “queer” in public discourse is “totally acceptable. In the generation of many of my congregants, it’s not.” How, then, might Kharma even begin to address the issue of appropriate and relevant language in her congregation—to say nothing of the larger, heterosexual community that surrounds her?
A Shortage of Supports
With such new and peculiar questions emerging, is it any wonder there are so few resources for us? Yet most Gen X seminary students and pastors know that if we are to do ministry with generations other than our own, we will need to ponder these questions deeply, to pray and to discern what is right for the good of the whole as well as what is life-affirming for ourselves. Those answers may be different than we expected, but we must accept that ministry often involves sacrifice on the part of pastors. Sometimes we must give up what we want in order to do what we need to do. In so doing, it is possible to find a deeper sense of integrity that is both rooted in community and located within each individual.
But opportunities for such prayerful discernment are often quite difficult to come by. The relative dearth of Gen X clergy makes creating discernment communities among that age group even more challenging. Statistics often vary in the particulars, but it is nonetheless clear that, in nearly every denomination, young people are simply not entering the ministry in large numbers. This “clergy crisis” not only bodes ill for the future, but those who do choose to enter the ministry find few peers who are in a similar “place” in life with whom they can connect.
Furthermore, many Gen X ministers face patronizing or belittling attitudes from other ministers in denominational and local ecumenical settings. While I am often praised for my “energy,” my input is often slighted with such comments as, “How sweet,” or “You’ll learn.” Often these remarks come from well-meaning but older ministers with many years of experience, but their effect is nonetheless aggravating and belittling. While some of these comments surface as a response to my gender as well as to my age, I have learned that older colleagues often treat Gen X clergy with such seemingly benign acts of head-patting. This, in turn, makes it difficult for us to feel comfortable risking the vulnerability required for meaningful theological reflection on the new questions of ministry.
Yet there are signs of hope for peer-supported reflection on these “new questions.” Gen X clergy are a resourceful bunch. If the need is present, you can be sure we’ll throw ourselves into addressing it. Covenant groups composed of seminary friends, denominational peers, and local ministerial alliances are places where many Gen X pastors find spiritual nourishment, provided there is a critical mass of young clergy to support them. In addition, some organizations have seen this need and are actively seeking to fill it. The First Parish Project, a Lilly-funded initiative from the Hinton Rural Life Center in North Carolina, provides an opportunity for ongoing reflection and resource for young, new clergy. Meeting six times over the course of two years, a group of 26 clergy under the age of 35 come together to worship, pray, support, and challenge one another. Small groups within the larger one provide deeper connection and relationship, and group members can stay connected through scheduled online chats and more “traditional” methods, such as letters and phone calls.
In the eight and a half months since I’ve been serving First Congregational UCC in Red Oak, I’ve performed two memorial services for women I’d never met. I kept my nose ring out for both services. My sense of responsibility to be the pastor for these women and their families (whom I’d also never met) overrode my personal preference concerning my nose ring. It just seemed more respectful of me to leave it out. Perhaps, years from now, when I bury the women and men I have come to know and love in this church, I will wear my nose ring at their graves. But not today.