This being International Women’s Day, I’ve been reflecting on all the women who’ve had so much influence on my life.
But then, it so happens that I did a lot of reflecting on all the women who’ve had so much influence on me in writing The View From Down in Poordom.
The book begins and ends with stories about my mother, Goldie McKay, and my Aunt Newell Chasteen, two strong women who were miles apart in their church affiliations and theologies but deeply respectful of one another. (Scroll down for more about the book and a link to the introduction based on their stories.)
Many of the clergy and lay leaders who’ve impacted my life and informed my theology and ministry were women.
Years ago when I was exploring candidacy for ordained ministry, I was active in a small, rural United Methodist Church.
The preacher was a woman and I saw up-close and personal the difficulties women clergy are up against in so many churches.
This pastor, a dear friend and mentor who helped me determine if I was truly being called to the ordained life and graciously allowed me to preach and teach to explore the calling, was once called in by the church’s lay leaders because she had an appointment every Thursday at 3 p.m. for a manicure. They told her that she needed to go to the beauty shop on her day off because she was expected to “work” from 9 to 5 and could use that hour to visit shut-ins and others.
Fortunately, her district superintendent (a sort of supervisor figure over preachers in the United Methodist Church system) came to her defense. He explained to the congregation’s lay leaders–who were never any too happy to have a woman appointed to their little East Texas church–that a preacher is never not working, that a preacher is on duty 24-7.
The preacher, he reminded them, is going to “go to work” and come to your side if you have a death in the family or some such tragedy in the middle of the night.
Being the pastor of a church is the hardest “job” in the world.
And 10 times harder if you’re a woman and never mind that women clergy tend to be just as good–and so often so much better–than men.
I’ll go so far as to assert that women–who are nurturers and therefore are much better listeners than men–are typically much better than male clergy.
I have this Facebook friend named Elaine Heath. She’s the Dean and Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology at Duke Divinity School, which is only one of the best seminaries in the world is all it is. (See more about her and Duke Divinity here.)
She raised this question on her Facebook page the other day–and got lots and lots of interesting replies from women, some of which I’ve culled to share with you>
Q.) Okay, women friends, what were you warned about that didn’t stop you? I was warned that seminary was a waste of time and money because no church would want a woman pastor.
A sampling of the mind-boggling reponses:
I was told not to wear my hair too short or people would think I am a lesbian, and not to wear it long because men like it too much. I was told not to allow toe cleavage to show when I preach because men would find it distracting, and oh so many other warnings against my very dangerous embodiment as a woman. I decided it is best to simply be myself and use common sense.
I was warned that God didn’t call women to be ministers.
I was warned to not continue my career until I was done having babies.
When I was in my final year of Divinity school in 1980, I met with my bishop to discuss this evolving, wonder-filled call I had received to ordained ministry. He told me that he thought I should first get married, have and raise my children and then, when they were grown, maybe I could be a part-time children’s director at a church. Many years later, when I was a District Superintendent, during appointment making season, one of my district churches told me that they didn’t want another woman pastor because “we have already had one.” But this is one of my favorites: on my last Sunday in a church I had served for 12 years, a little boy who had only known one pastor (me) asked his mom: “Mommy, can guys be preachers?”
I was warned: not to mention my cultural background, not to speak unless invited (lest I make a fool of myself), not to wear a collar (as it made me look like a try-hard), not to preside at sacraments in ecumenical settings, not to wear earrings when preaching… not to use non-gendered language, as it is off-putting, not to hang my clothes on the Manse clothesline… (I really reckon the last is the best!)
I’ve been warned that because I’m a layperson and a woman, my ministry won’t be taken seriously.
I was warned about going into the military, flight training, ordination, and church planting.
A lay leader in my first field ed placement warned me that pants were inappropriate for a woman to wear when serving communion. Persisted.
The matriarch of a recent church wielded her Bible around like a weapon, shouting at me “if you don’t learn how to read the Bible correctly…” Persisted.
I was warned that I don’t look like a pastor and I quote “you will be seen as dangerous for other women around their husbands and boyfriends” so the solution was to dress in suits and more “professional” clothing. I was so shamed. I dress in business casual most days and tend to try to emulate the styles I see my age appropriate friends wearing. The person even pointed out I wore a spaghetti strap dress at annual conference the dress goes down past my knees and is from Ann Taylor lofts summer collection. I would never describe it as “sexy.” I cried for days I’ve never felt more ashamed of the way I look. The amazing thing was that sooooo many people not aware that I had just been told this by a woman and someone I respected said the exact opposite about me “you are so relatable because of the way you look” “I love your style thank goodness you can be you and do this job.” The best part in all of this is I now lead a church that is growing really quickly in the millennial age group (one that everyone says is impossible to grow in) and many people have expressed that part of the reason they felt so comfortable was that the pastor resembles them and they feel safe in the space- guess what- there are lots of young married couple and older married couples and I have been asked to spend time with spouses as they have been struggling theologically- there seems to be no real concern that my femininity is dangerous or that I dress in a manner so as to entice their significant other. I also get complimented on the content of my message way more than the way I look!!! I think what hurt the most is that I have tried to look professional and maintain style because I have seen so many clergy go the opposite route and become “frumpy” in an un-relatable way.
I was told by men and women that I should wear “pumps” instead of sandals; hose instead of bare legs; that a little make-up would be nice; but I was ALSO thanked by men and women, for wearing sandals, jeans and no make-up
I too was warned I would go to hell and was leading my congregation there for being a woman pastor.
I was warned by men that people don’t like to hear women’s voices, especially in the pulpit, something to do with a grating quality. But then, I was told my voice wasn’t too bad……
I was told my earrings were distracting by a woman after a particularly challenging sermon, so I said I was sorry she chose to focus on that instead of what I was saying. I got a puzzled look.
I was told no one would ever take me seriously because of the way I look. I even had a woman pastor tell me to ‘cover myself’ because I was wearing a crew neck top. She thought I should wear a turtleneck. (Btw, turtlenecks don’t diminish womanly curves😂).
I’ve found sadly enough that other woman tend to say those things more than men. They’d rather tear down than build up.
I went before my District Committee when I was about 5 months pregnant. Room full of men. One of them asked me how I expected to be a mother and care for a baby while I also serve a church, or something like that. The Spirit came upon me I believe and I said something like this: “Like all of you I know I will struggle with how to parent my child and serve in the church. I ‘m sure I’ll need to rely on the help of family and friends, and I know it won’t always be easy. I assume all of us struggle with how to give of ourselves to our families and to the church.” Or some such words. The question was not a bad question, and I struggled with it many times for various reasons. But it was a question men should answer as well as women. That was the problem in my opinion. In the end Ken was ordained before me and I got to be on the receiving end of lots of advice about being a “good minister’s wife”. So much advice that I became anxious and worried, until finally a trusted friend (also a minister’s wife) said, “Pam, think about it. Are any of those people a minister’s wife? No? Then what do they really know about being one?” Her advice was to love my husband, find something meaningful to do in the church and be myself. Great advice for a spouse of a minister, or for the pastor when you think of it.
Support your preacher, especially if she’s a she.