I have been thinking about ministry in a deep and sad way of late, which is probably why I haven’t had the energy to slip into PeaceBang’s broad, effervescent persona to blog here on image and style and fabulosity that the LORD wishes for all God’s children.
I don’t have the humor to give this message in anything but a sombre way today. It’s Halloween and little kids are gearing up to tromp around for candy, and I expect to hand out a bunch of sugar in about a half an hour.
Clergy are still seen as characters, not as people. If we look like central casting’s Generic Trusted Clergy Person, we are still afforded too much privilege. I maintain that this is still very much the case for white, male pastors.
Whoever you are, though, I have wanted you to shine. With women pastors in mind, I have wanted you to challenge the Central Casting archetype for Frumpy Religious Leader.
I have urged you to be polished, poised, impressive and totally confidently prepared to face a world that still sees clergy in archetypal terms, and as an open, public field for the working out of projections. That is why we approach our ordinations with fear and trembling and know that we will be forever changed by taking on that honorific. I remember so well the first conference I attended with a “Rev.” on my nametag: it fairly vibrated on my breast. It felt like I was walking around with a fire alarm wailing out in front of me. “HERE COMES ALL YOUR HURT, HOPE, FEAR AND PROJECTIONS ABOUT RELIGION AND GOD! HAVE AT IT!”
I’m over that sense of being eclipsed by my title (well, titles, actually) now, and am impatient when someone tries to engage me on that archetypal level. Let’s get real. This is what a seriously religious person looks like now. This is what the Reverend looks like now. She’s not a straw man for you to try to knock down. She’s not a whipping boy for you to work out your anger at the Church on. She’s not a naughty boy fantasy for you to get your jollies with. She’s a person like everyone else you know, but religious life and community are her top priority and commitment. Let’s get real. Let’s talk about what religion means: community practices of compassion and mutual covenantal obligation, reverence, awe, gratitude, benevolent rage at injustice, sacrifice, a counter to rampant divisiveness and materialism peddled by the powerful. Worship. Rites of passage that connect us to the ancient past and that help us move into an unknown future.
I have wanted you all to be ready to stand in any space and to talk about religion and to represent religious community in a beautiful, confident and impressive way rather than to show up meek and mumbly, frumpy and non-threatening, apologetic for our “weird” and outmoded way of life.
You tell me: in the face of the threats facing our communities, does anyone still want to argue that clergy should be sweet, patient, meek, accommodating, subservient to powers and principalities? Are you watching Ferguson? How about the Jian Ghomeshi story? How about the insane fear-mongering about Ebola, and the steady demolishing of the middle class, and the abuses of power in our seminaries?
At any time, any one of us may be called to stand in a space and speak from the authority of our ordination and our faith tradition. Every one of us needs to be ready. This isn’t just work to which right wing demagogues are entitled. This is our work, all of ours. It’s not comfortable and it’s not sheltered. Were you ordained to a ministry that is comfortable and sheltered? Here’s a suggestion: the places we think of as shelters are often closets where institutions we love and honor are storing secrets or perpetuating oppression, often with a polite smile.
This is why I don’t want you to walk around like a stereotypical hipster with a scraggly beard and a silly hat: because when you need to say something important, too many people can automatically discount your credibility based on that hat that looks silly to them. Be ye wise as serpents, Reverends. Only a huge ego and a liberal dose of denial would insist on sporting a look that requires personal acquaintance with you to move past in order to take you seriously as a mature religious leader. Very few of us can be Nadia Bolz-Weber. In fact, only one of us can be Nadia Bolz-Weber. Don’t try. Calm down, ground down, and get real. I don’t like to speak in terms of spiritual warfare, but — why not? It seems perfectly apt right now.
I want you to understand, to be in control of, and to manage your public image very intentionally because when you are “called to the kingdom for just such a time as this” (as a dear friend of mine is near Ferguson, MO right now — and of course she had no way of anticipating this), I do not want you to have to madly scramble for what to wear or how to present yourself. When the moment comes, you should not be speaking truth to society’s evils in scuffed ballerina flats or a 3-sizes too big sports jacket that hangs off of you and looks like something you borrowed from grandpa.
Be ready. Do not think that an important moments in public ministry are something that happen to other people. Start preparing today for that moment when you will be thrust into the spotlight — even a small, local spotlight, being asked to interpret the times through the lens of what God is doing in the world. We must be thinking sharp, challenging tired, weak, shallow theologies that are like comfortable beds to stay asleep in, and be ready to step out and address a wounded world looking sharp.