The other day, a female pastor posted in a private Facebook group for young clergy, sharing the first comment she received after her first sermon in her first church. Immediately, I was cringing with empathy. I knew what was coming: It was going to be about her hair. Of course it was. What else would someone have to say after hearing a minister preach on the gospel, right?
Such stories are common among clergy. Ministers I know have received unsolicited commentary from parishioners on their relationship status, their pregnancies, their weight, their facial hair, their attire, and just about any other physical or personal attribute you can imagine. During my own short time in ministry, I’ve heard that I am too skinny and that I’m overweight, that my hair is a distraction, that I’m too young, that I’m looking particularly tired, that they’d date me if they could, and even that I have great legs.
We tend to laugh or shrug off these interactions most of the time because we know that there is, more often than not, no malicious intent behind them. We care for our congregation members, and we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or angry. But while not every earnest comment offered by a church member is unwelcome, some of these unsolicited encounters can be frustrating and even degrading for us. They undermine our confidence and our authority.
So why does it happen? I believe for a couple of reasons.
1. Congregations seem to harbor a unique sense of ownership over their pastors’ bodies and lives. For one thing, our highly visible roles lead people to develop a feeling of familiarity with us and our stories.
2. Clergy have long been expected to be paragons of piety and purity. As public religious figures, we’re assumed to represent the moral ideal — an example for others to follow — and as a result, we become archetypes rather than human beings. We are measured up against an image of what a perfect Christian pastor should look like.
These tendencies are inherently flawed because, of course, we have personal lives; we are real, imperfect, and human.
But when you dig deeper below the surface, this kind of commentary comes from an inappropriate and deeply problematic place: The standard against which we are measured upholds discriminatory and oppressive definitions of normativity. Whether consciously or not, the “ideal pastor” image celebrates maleness over other genders. It celebrates heterosexuality, able-bodiedness, fitness, and married status. In my denomination, at least, it also celebrates whiteness over other races. When we are criticized for something in our appearance or personal lives, it is almost always based on how we fail to live up to these normative ideals of identity — which, it’s worth noting, have nothing at all to do with faithfulness or morality.
Female clergy experience this reality to a particularly complex and intense degree. Though nearly every pastor I know has received some unwelcome commentary, most of the clergywomen I know get comments on a regular basis. This is especially true for those of us who are young and single and, in my case, further complicated by assumptions about my bisexuality. The lenses through which women clergy are viewed and evaluated are compounded by sexism. On some level, many people encounter us with distrust and judgment for our inability to fully embody the image of a male pastor. Our voices are critiqued for pitch and vocal fry. Our hairstyle is regulated more ardently than our theology.
Moreover, traditional religious expectations of pastoral purity are unrealistic and damagingly repressive — particularly for women. We’re faulted for clothing, make-up, identities, and even body shapes that reveal our existence as sexual beings. Simultaneously, sexism demands of us — as it does of all women — that we fulfill patriarchal standards of feminine beauty for the pleasure of the male gaze. We are expected both to be entirely divorced from sex and to be desirable sexual objects.
This menagerie of absurd and dehumanizing evaluations is how a female pastor could — in a single day — be critiqued for her hair, “complimented” on her body, condescended to about her preaching voice or age, and sexually or romantically propositioned. Some of these experiences are more common than others, but they all happen — and probably more often than you would believe. If it sounds like managing these intersecting expectations is job in itself, that’s because it sort of is. It’s an exhausting one that others often don’t recognize or understand, let alone counteract. Sometimes I find myself wondering, “Would they say that to my male colleague?” or “Would they say that to their doctor?”
The point of all of this is not that parishioners should be afraid of ever interacting with or casually commenting to their pastors. We appreciate parishioners’ desire to know us and be in relationship with us. For most of us, those relationships are what give purpose to our work.
The issue is that the problematic framework that allows these more inappropriate interactions to persist inhibits our ability to minister effectively to our people. We must examine and break down repressive and oppressive projections of pastoral purity, symbolic representation, and sexism. Only when these impossibly restrictive and, frankly, un-Christian expectations are dismantled will we be left, unfettered, to live fully into the work to which God has called us: to walk alongside others in struggle, in joy, and in faith, as equally imperfect and beloved children of God.