When Parishioners Insult Yer Hair

Oh, pigeons of my heart. This made me laugh because I know the writer personally, but it also hurt:

How does an otherwise polite parish minister respond to unsolicited “comments” (less than complementary) about his (short) summer haircut from uninhibited parishioners?
Signed, Concerned in (City That Starts With a C)

AWWWWWWwww, geez. We can’t do anything right, right? If you’re hair’s too long, someone won’t like it. If your hair’s too curly, someone wont’ like it. If your hair’s too short, too blonde, too grey, too edgy, too messy, too prissy… well, someone won’t like it.

Hair is second only to weight as the most commented-upon aspect of a pastor’s appearance. This is a fact that I just made up, but you can quote me on it. “According to PeaceBang, parishioners comment on their minister’s weight only slightly more often than they comment on their pastor’s hair.”

Hair is just so, I don’t know, EVOCATIVE. Controversial. INTERESTING. Remember that character in the Bugs Bunny cartoon, Gossamer? That big red haired creature? “And you’re such an INTERestin’ monster!”
Well, here. Refresh your memory.
We monsters have the most INTERestin’ hair do’s!
And for some reason, people love to comment on them.
I know that I got half a dozen compliments on my hair recently when I wore it pulled back with a headband and a bun. I wear it pulled back almost every Sunday but I must have done it especially nicely or something that day because everyone remarked on it. “We love your hair today! You should wear your hair like that all the time!”
This doesn’t bother me, honestly, it’s endearing and it makes me smile – but there is that insecure part of my inner little tiny guts that thinks, “jeepers i guess my hair looks stinky and terrible the rest of the time i’m so ugly oh i think i’ll hide in my room and never come out again.”
You know those feelings. Your inner 7th grader?

Anyway, my first thought upon reading this letter is, “Is someone really trying to insult or hurt you?”

If the answer is “Yes, I feel that they really are.” Or even, “Not necessarily, but their remarks feel inappropriate and over-the-line,” I think you might address the issue as their spiritual teacher. The angle I would take would be something like this, “Hi, Bob. Hey listen, I wanted to check in with you about something. You’ve made some really critical comments about my hair. I just want to say that while I know that you and I have a strong enough relationship that I can take your criticisms without getting mad or feeling terribly hurt, it seems really important to say that someone else might not do so well with that kind of commentary on their appearance. Because if it bothered me even a little bit and we’re close and I know you respect me, I can just imagine that it might really be upsetting to someone else. ”

The idea here is that you’re letting this individual know that he or she did hurt you (but not so deeply that you can’t have a relationship with them), but beyond that, their insensitivity concerns you in general. Some may disagree with me and counsel you to simply say you’re bothered by the comments and not project beyond that, but I think a person who is that “uninhibited” (as you put it) is likely to be a repeat offender of tactless, hurtful remarks in the community and it’s worth bringing up to them if you have a solid example in hand of a way they have personally insulted you.

The sermon might also be a place to fit in a casual admonition. For example, “Hospitality is about more than setting out coffee and cookies after the worship service. It is our quality of presence not only with seekers but with each other. Sometimes we think of hospitality as a nice religious word for ‘company manners’ but it is, in fact, a spiritual discipline that calls us to be in respectful, compassionate fellowship all the time, in all our encounters. If we are truly hospitable, we become not just a tolerant community but a truly loving community. We notice not someone’s too short summer haircut or off-key singing voice but, in the words of poet Annie Dillard, “each other’s beautiful faces and complex nature, so that creation need not play to an empty house.”

What I think would be a shame is if Rev. Short Hair ignored this teaching opportunity. I know it’s hard, but it sounds like this particular individual needs to know that their remarks feel disrespectful and hurtful, and like a violation of privacy.

Good luck, Rev. Stay cool.

10 Replies to “When Parishioners Insult Yer Hair”

  1. At dinner a few years ago my elderly mom reviewed the ministers who had served her UU congregations between about 1960 and 2000. 90% of her concern was with the ministers’ hair. “His hair was too long/short.” “She was a good minister, always took care of her hair.” and so forth. My mom was a life-long UU and political activist, but somehow the minister’s hair was of transcendent importance.

    I have often observed the same thing in my congregation. If the minister changes her hairstyle, it is the number one topic at coffee hour. I fully realize that in principle we should be better than this. But we aren’t.

  2. No tips to add, but a real hope that you can nip this stuff in the bud. This is probably how one of our local churches got started, and now on a bad day it’s a spiteful, clique-ridden, toxic waste dump. If you’re slightly known there, expect loud rude comments about your weight or appearance or their guesses as to your sexuality from the so-called welcomers, all done just as you have passed by so they can deny if questioned. I expect it takes committed leadership by example to cut down on these things.

  3. This is interesting. Every once in a while I get a hair comment, but mostly because people think I might be making a statement of some kind and they think its funny. I wonder if this is more of an issue for women (I couldn’t tell the gender of Rev. Short Hair).

    On the other hand, a guest once went after me because my stole didn’t match my shirt and tie. She never came back…

  4. I don’t have any good tips, but I do hope it’s possible to change the situation. We have a local church that probably started out with some small(ish) remarks like that, and is now a full-on spiteful, clique-ridden, toxic waste dump on a bad day. If you’re slightly known there, expect loud rude remarks about your appearance and their guesses as to your sexuality from the so-called welcomers, made just as you have gone past them for plausible deniability. Niiiice….

  5. A couple of years ago, when I entered the congregation for the passing of the peace during a worship service, a senior member clutched my shoulders and said, “Why, look at you! You did your face pretty for a change!” (This was in the southern U.S., where “did your face” means “put on your makeup”.)

    I sputtered, “Well, thanks!” and hurried away. Later I allowed myself to feel hurt and embarrassed, but after several days I remembered something I already knew: that as we age, many of us lose the inhibitions that keep us from saying everything that pops into our minds. I often find that the people making those hurtful comments are in the later years of life. Their “appropriateness filter” isn’t working as well as it used to.

    I hope this doesn’t sound age-ist — it’s meant to be the opposite, a measure of grace for the people who built and supported our churches for decades and now have the power to make us feel like schlubs with one zinger about our lipstick or shoes or hair. Of course, I’m not sure Rev Short Hair’s detractors are elderly, but based on my experiences, there’s a good chance…

  6. I wish that my initial response to this post had been, “Oh, my sympathy is with Rev. Short Hair!” But, truth be told, it was not. Instead, I thought, “THANK GOODNESS I’m not the only one whose hair gets more than its fair share of attention!”

  7. As a lay person, thank you for the refresher course on the true meaning of hospitality.

  8. I suppose the liturgical response, “And also with you” would not meet with PB’s approval…

  9. I have been fortunate enough to not have such criticisms, but have sometimes found compliments to be just as deadly. People will come through the line and say, “I just love your outfit” (hair, necklace, etc) – AND THEN SAY NOTHING ELSE. I’m always dying to say, “Thanks, I was just up all night working on my sermon, too.” But that seems ungracious. And if there is only going to be one grown-up in an exchange, it has to be me. When I get enough of these “nice outfit” greetings, I suspect the sermon was a bit of a turkey.

  10. Adam wrote: “…a guest once went after me because my stole didn’t match my shirt and tie. She never came back…”

    I think the correct response to the complaint would have been: “Goodbye. Come back again when you care more about our ministry than the minister’s fashion minutiae.” (I’m assuming that your words “went after” meant that it was more than a comment.)

    Such nonsense should never be encouraged by being engaged. It would be bad enough coming from a member of long standing whose expectations had suddenly been upset by changes in pulpit-wear. The guest has no standing to take wardrobe issues any further than, “Not what I’m looking for!” or “Why do you X?”

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