A couple years back I got a letter from an apparently very attractive aspirant to the ministry who raved on and on about how she was just TOO PRETTY to be accepted as a clergyperson and that was why she had failed in her various attempts to achieve ordained status.
At the time I thought to myself, “Chickie here has a lot of serious issues, and being ‘too pretty’ may indeed be one of them, but let’s file this thought away for further reflection until I hear from a more grounded person about the reality of being too beautiful for ministry.”
And lo, that time has come, pigeons. While I know of several movie-star handsome men in the clergy whose Hotness does not seem to prevent them from being taken seriously, I have now collected several stories of female clergy being taken aside by male superiors and told that their beauty or sexiness is “distracting” and a serious problem.
What shall we call this?
Plain and simple.
If a man is distracted by his completely appropriately-dressed female minister’s beauty and sexiness, that’s his gadnapped problem. The Biblical name for that problem is lust, I do believe. The cultural name for it is objectification. I say “Work on it with your spiritual director, Senior Pastor Horndog.”
No one can keep nobody from hankering after them. That’s God’s truth. You can dress three sizes too big, you can cut your hair funny, let your skin and teeth go mossy and walk around crossing your eyes and tripping over your feet, and some soul is going to be drawn to your body like a moth to the flame. That’s a wonderful thing. It’s also an important truth to remember if you happen to be blessed or cursed with an extra dose of conventional attractiveness — don’t obsess about it, just know it’s there, be beautiful and true in all ways and let people be responsible for their own feelings.
Say, however, that you’re a young female pastor who’s been pulled aside and admonished that you don’t look “right” or you don’t look “professional” by a male OR female senior. Perhaps a kind parishioner has even donated some money to purchase a new wardrobe for you. How should you then respond?
1. In a non-defensive way, bring in an advocate from your religious community right away: a mentor, a senior pastor from another congregation, a bishop, a lay leader. Do NOT keep this a secret. If this is going to turn into a pattern of harassment, you don’t want to be alone in dealing with it. Document EVERY word you can remember from that first meeting and before you do a thing about shopping, call in another pair of eyes to assess your wardrobe and appearance. It may, in fact be that you DO need some sprucing up. It may also be that your supervisor is trying to shame you for being a hottie. Don’t fly off the handle; walk carefully and govern your angry thoughts. We serve a monumentally sex-phobic institution, my darlings — this should neither surprise nor enrage you. Be ye wise as a serpent and .. you know the rest.
Schedule another meeting with your supervisor as soon as possible and be armed with a list of specific questions such as “What exactly seems unprofessional about my appearance?” or “Is there a certain outfit or garment that I have worn of which you disapprove? Why?” or “Could you please provide me with a list of people who have complained about my appearance? It’s important to know if this is just your personal opinion or feedback coming from the community.”
2. Be sure to get clarity on when you are “done” with your make-over, if that is indeed what seems necessary. For example, if the complaint is that your skirts are too tight and your shirts too cropped or your rock-n-roll T-shirts too “edgy,” take steps to fix the problem and then insist that your supervisor sign off, so to speak, on your having done so. Document the meeting and send the minutes to your board president or top lay leader. You do not want this to become a vague, upsetting generational or gender battle that never ends. It should have a clear conclusion so that you are not constantly obsessing over what you wear every day (Our culture is already committed to making women obsess about their appearance — should not the Church be counter-culture in that wise?).
You may choose to include a “Am I looking appropriately professional/clerical?” portion of your NEXT annual review (not every annual review for as long as you serve the church) in order to give the subject one more pass. If the original complaint was, in fact, a veiled grievance about your being too cute and sexy to be in the ministry no matter WHAT you wear, the silence on the matter of your attire should assure you that you can move on with your life and put the fears that you don’t know how to dress at rest.
3. If you want to make a case for why your clothes are entirely appropriate, prepare your thoughts and present them in a mature way to your supervisor. Perhaps you want to be a little more funky because you think the congregation should have someone on staff who might visually resonate with the creative community who has been under-served by the church (“I know that this is an artist’s colony in the summer and I think it’s important that our church pay more attention to aesthetics in general. I am trying to do this with my clothing and you will notice that our Religious Education brochure has been redesigned to reflect a more contemporary aesthetic.”). Perhaps you need to simply say that body conscious clothes are not considered “sexy” any more, but are simply the way most manufacturers cut their clothing nowadays (“My sweaters aren’t actually tight, they’re very standard fit right now. Let me show you some photographs of local teachers, bank tellers, and executives wearing the same fit. I could wear tops that are a few sizes too big, but I think you and I would both find that they look sloppy and send a non-verbal message that a healthy body is something one should hide. Do you think that’s a message we want to be sending?”).
Remember that clothes and appearance are interesting. If we can discuss them without taking the subject matter too personally, we might have a more productive conversation. I know it’s hard. I was once admonished for wearing inappropriate clothing as a high school teacher. I had actually done it on purpose to protest the extreme May/June heat in my classroom (I wanted a bloody fan up there, and not just the dinky kind I could bring in from home), but it was still embarrassing watching my supe squirm as he stammered out his “feedback.” I knew my department head was right and although it got me what I wanted in the end, I was sorry to have shown up for work in a cotton flowered babydoll dress and cotton biking shorts. I had so much more respect for my work than that. I was also 22 years old at the time and didn’t want to be mistaken for one of my students. (But hey, whatever happened to that colleague of mine with the enormous hair, the sky high stilettos, the skin tight suits bursting at bosom and slit high on the thigh who used to have very interesting relationships with her students involving special home visits and long tutoring sessions in the car? I loved her!)
4. If you do establish a need for a better wardrobe, please please bring a sartorially-savvy friend with you when you use that generous donation to purchase new items. I know it’s bizarre and even paternalistic to give a professional person money to outfit themselves with, but this is not an unknown phenomenon in the Church so suck it up and spend it wisely. Do write a detailed thank you note to the person who made the gift and turn the episode into something positive and memorable.
Think how wonderful it will be on your tenth anniversary with the congregation to be able to give that sermon harkening back to the days when you showed up in your dirty Keane’s, hippie skirts and hempen hoodies and Mrs. Cathcart put a wad of cash into your hand and said, “Dearie, welcome to Holy Shepherd. Please get a manicure and a decent hair cut buy yourself some real clothing.” And then you walked into the Woman’s Alliance meeting the next week looking and feeling so much more like a community leader in a pair of taupe heels and a really wonderful bright blue suit with great flared trousers and you suddenly understood that you weren’t a kid anymore, and that you didn’t need to look scruffy to ally yourself with ‘the least of these.'” Everyone will chuckle and some will applaud and you can thank Mrs. Cathcart right then and there for seeing the leader in you that you hadn’t known needed to be brought out, and for making a generous financial gift of confidence in that leader.
And then you take the offering, you know, and connect the whole thing to confidence in the Church and how God works through all of us.
And it will all have worked out.
This too shall pass, my doves. And the next time someone pulls you aside and says that you’re too attractive or pretty to “make it” as a minister, I suggest that you put your hand on their arm, say in your most dramatic tones, “Brother/Sister So-And-So! I can’t BELieve you’re saying that! I mean, you know as well as I do that Jesus was a TOTAL HOTTIE!” Then smack that arm — not gently — wink big, turn on your heel and leave the room.
Don’t you dare feel that you need to respond respectfully to that nonsense.
Now go be beautiful, be faithful, be true, and blessed Sabbath to you all.