And On My Birthday, Too!

How lovely to learn of this article by obviously brilliant Religion and Philosophy professor Courtney Wilder. Thank you for your insightful analysis, Dr. Wilder. I’m now heading to the hallway to dance a few bars of “Too Legit To Quit.”

(guitar riff) BOW dow dow dow
Can’t touch that!

The Sacred and the Sartorial

— Courtney Wilder

At first blush, the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers does not seem like a hotbed of feminist theology of the body. Written primarily, though not exclusively, for women, the blog includes posts on a wide range of topics related to clergy and their professional dress, including how to discern between attractive, trendy shoes and those that are too sexy for ministry, the difficulties of achieving professional-looking hair, what constitutes good makeup, and how clergy should dress for weddings. The advice is practical, the commentary is very funny, and the images are consistently good.

As one reads more posts, and reads them more deeply, a distinctive pastoral theology begins to emerge, a theology that embraces the physical presence of women in ministry. The author, whose nomme de blog is PeaceBang, is otherwise known as Reverend Victoria Weinstein, the Harvard-educated pastor of First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, Mass. She addresses her readers with a range of endearments, including “darlings,” “my revered pigeons,” “kittens,” and “my pets.” Blog posts include examples of especially good fashion choices on the part of clergy, images of garments which would be appropriate in clergy wardrobes, critiques of dowdy or inappropriate ministerial outfits, and answers to readers’ questions.

What keeps the blog from being either frivolous or harsh is Weinstein’s consistent recognition that female clergy occupy a professional and theological space that requires them to respond to a long and often critical tradition. In a post titled “Too ‘Hot’ For Ministry?” Weinstein offers advice for young, female members of the clergy who have been instructed to tone down their attire because someone, perhaps the senior pastor, considers them too attractive. She writes, “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.” In the remainder of the post, Weinstein offers practical advice on how to navigate this especially thorny situation.

The purpose of the blog becomes clear when Weinstein reflects on the connection between professional appearance and what it means for congregants to have their pastor present in the room. She writes, “I guess what I am trying to say is that in some way, our ministerial bodies are not just personal but are also communal. This may be neither rational nor fair, chickens, but that’s just how it is. When one of our beloveds is dying, it’s not just anybody who shows up who can represent the church. It’s when your particular body shows up that the Church is there at bedside. You know it, I know it and God knows it. When you become a ‘Rev.,’ your body isn’t just your body anymore. Maybe not fair or rational, but I think that’s how it works.” Beauty Tips for Ministers is not only about how the pastor ought to look, but about why it matters.

Thus what separates Weinstein’s approach from secular guides to professional dress are first, her ability to exercise pastoral care in guiding her readers, and second, her clear conviction that having (and dressing) a female body does not interfere with a pastor’s vocation. Indeed, Weinstein argues that for female clergy dressing one’s body ought to reflect both affirmation of one’s gender and acknowledgement of the leadership role of clergy within the community. She identifies the tendency of some female clergy to efface their gender and/or sexuality in their professional attire and argues that this approach does no one any favors; instead, she advocates for a model of religious womanhood that is frankly feminine, and simultaneously highly professional and even sartorially conservative. In so doing, Weinstein presents a deeply feminist view of religious vocation: She holds that not only are women suitable to be clergy, but that women can most powerfully embody their vocational calling when also attending to the care of their own bodies.

Visit Beauty Tips for Ministers at www.beautytipsforministers.com.

Courtney Wilder, Ph.D., teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department of Midland Lutheran College, an ELCA institution in Fremont, Nebraska. She is a past Junior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center.

From Martin Marty’s Sightings blog, University of Chicago.

14 Replies to “And On My Birthday, Too!”

  1. One of my clergy sisters steared me to your blog. It is very interesting and I never really thought about what I wear when in worship because I normally wear a robe. During the summer we don’t wear robes and I have become much more conscious of what I wear because after 10 years of being a single widow I now have a boyfriend. When I wear a skirt he looks at my legs and he says other guys probably do as well. So a clergy women are we not to wear something that shows our legs since men might be distracted? A dress or skirt make me feel more feminine and I enjoy dressing up for Sundays. What are your thoughts? Also I have a very important interview with people that will decide whether I can become commissioned on my way to ordination at the end of this month. What would say confident and authoritative to them?

    [Sharon, my dove, read the archives! As far as men looking at your legs, they will do so if you wear a skirt. They will do so if you wear pants. If they can’t see your legs, they will look at your neck, your bosom, your rear, your feet, or whatever other part of your anatomy that they enjoy gazing upon. They will mostly do this in an unconscious, purely reflexive way that does not equate ogling or objectifying you, but some of them will. So will some women, who may also be looking at you critically, or with lust, or with jealousy, or with disdain, or…. or,… or… get my drift? We serve embodied, flawed human beings in our congregations. We serve spiritual, enlightened human beings in our congregations, who happen to be the same people as the embodied, flawed ones. Please continue to dress up for Sundays, which is obviously an expression of who you are what you love (feminine, beauty, formality on the Sabbath, etc.). Men are responsible for themselves, and I have never heard of one yet who found his pastor so sexually alluring that he lunged out of the pew, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her back to his cave. Let’s give our dudes a bit more credit than that. Re: your interview: YOU say confident and authoritative (?) to them, not your clothes. But your outfit does matter. Check the archives — there’s tons of good stuff in there. – PB]

  2. What a great natal present! Happy birthday,dear PeaceBang, and may your swash always buckle, tastefully and (of course) properly fitted!

  3. Happy Birthday and grats on the kudos, PB.

    Gina, you cracked me up. For some reason about half my friends are Capricorns and I will remind them with whom they share a sign.

  4. This is wonderful, PB! I saw it first in my subscription to “Sightings,” then came here to see what you had to say.

    I hope this leads to more recognition for you and a stronger sense of feminine appropriateness and authenticity in our clergy sisters.

    You go girl!

  5. Happy Birthday, PB! The article is great – except she forgot to mention how wonderful the writing is. So I will.

  6. What a wonderful piece–she totally gets the purpose of your blog! Beautiful blessings to you in 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.