do be cute?

clementine trio

Shortly after I posted some of my ruminations on being young and a woman and on my way to being a pastor, a friend asked me if we could have tea and talk further about some those ideas. I was thrilled: there’s nothing more satisfying for a writer than to know that her ideas have made the leap from the page to someone else’s mind and are bumping around in there. And it’s even more fulfilling to have the pleasure of continuing the conversation in person. So last Saturday, I went over to my friend’s apartment, where we sat at her counter, steeping and sipping jasmine tea from the squat black teapot she recently bought.

We talked for a while, letting our conversation drift from one thought to another like steam. Many of my habits resonated with her; she’s in seminary, too, and could identify with my attempts to develop my confidence and sense of authority. She said she liked the meaning that skirts had taken on, that they had become a sign of what I was giving up for the sake of a deeper pastoral identity.

But she was also worried. It bothered her that the ways I avoided being cute were also ways of minimizing my femininity. Pants, no skirts. Dropping the voice. Do we have to be like men? she wondered.

I shook my head emphatically: No!

As she was explaining her reservations to me, I realized that I had written only one part of a much larger dilemma—and a dilemma that’s not unique to me or even to female pastors. Women have asked this question for years, and with particular urgency since the 1960s. The variety of answers proves our ambivalence. We burn our bras; we wear pantsuits. We grow our hair long; we chop it off. We stave off motherhood until our forties; we embrace the vocation of homemaker; we try for both: full-time professional and full-time mother. We can’t make up our minds. While certain movements have championed one side or the other—either accentuating our femininity or neutralizing it—women as a group can’t make up our mind.

Even within myself, I feel torn. On the one hand, I am absolutely sure that I do not need to become a man. (Is there anything more obvious?) I don’t even necessarily have to become more masculine. But I still don’t know how best to be a pastor who is also a woman. Who is also, very simply, Grace.


clementines on the sill

That last part is what concerned my friend the most, I think. Although she appreciated the symbol the skirt had become for me, for her it meant something else. She likes skirts, she said. Wearing a skirt is part of what makes her her. So it’s not just an issue of giving up our femininity. It’s an issue of personality, of identity. Does becoming a pastor mean that I have to smother my Grace-ness?

Again, no, but this time I was compelled to qualify my answer, which led us deeper into conversation about the pastoral vocation. The answer to the question about Grace-ness is, at one level, yes. The church has long used the language of office to define the ministerial calling. In the Reformed Church in America, men and women hold the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. We put on a much larger identity like it’s a suit of clothes. In some congregations, vestments visibly depict this office: when a pastor slips into her robes on a Sunday morning, the vestments symbolically invest her with the authority of one who speaks on behalf of God. The authority is lodged not in the minister herself, but in Christ, the Word; and in the Bible, the Word that points to Christ; and in any of her words that also point to Christ.

In that sense, a pastor ought to be transparent to Jesus Christ. Her own personality and identity are irrelevant. What is important is Christ.

dimnent chapel

But obviously that’s not where it ends. The answer to Does becoming a pastor mean that I have to smother my Grace-ness? can also be answered with a hearty No!

First of all, it’s simply impossible to shed my identity. Of course, that identity is embedded in Christ, the true human, but the location of my identity in Christ doesn’t negate that identity, which was given to me by Christ through whom I came into being. I am a particular person, Grace Elaine, the daughter of particular people, the wife of a particular man. I was born and grew up and moved and have lived in particular places. I’ve experienced particular events, felt particular emotions, read particular books, eaten particular meals. I am the sum of a wild constellation of people, places, experiences, thoughts, habits. And there’s no possible way for me to discard those.

Secondly, God’s call upon my life was not accompanied by a demand to jettison my identity. Deny myself, yes, but not refuse to use the gifts God has given to me. That’s nonsensical. The Spirit gives gifts! To be used! In the service of God, the church, and the world! If I work as a pastor without the identity God has given me, I cause the whole body to suffer because I force it to function without, say, its fibula. The whole point is that each of us serves a different purpose. And for that, I most certainly need to be Grace, with the body, gestures, voice, mind, heart, and spirit that God has given me.

So I’m obviously not settled here. But I wanted to come back here after the conversation with my friend and clarify that I’m not asking a whole generation of female seminarians to skip the skirts in favor of pants. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find myself comfortable enough to wear a skirt, or maybe we’ll end up in a church with robes and I won’t have to bother with the question at all.


3 thoughts on “do be cute?

  1. Even living with a mother who is a pastor, and going to a church with two female pastors, I can honestly say I had never thought about ‘giving up’ a part a femininity to be a pastor. But now that you say it, I can’t recall a time any of the female pastors in my life wearing skirts. I think especially in my slightly rooted in the past church, it is an issue of authority for some church members.
    But I also think you have to give up some personality in other ways. Because of church politics, it can be hard to be a minister and truly open yourself up to the congregation. People seem to hold spiritual leaders to a slightly different standard, so you almost can’t let congregants see 100% of you.
    Blessings on your journey,

  2. Great observation, Kathryn, that there’s another element prohibiting full personality disclosure — the simple fact that you’re the pastor and not a fellow congregant. That’s another expectation I fight against: no part of me wants to be called “Pastor Grace” and hide behind the office. I want to be just plain Grace and be as vulnerable as I would in my normal life. But I also know that pastors who don’t set boundaries end up hurting themselves, their families, and their congregations. So I have to figure out how to navigate that part, too.

    Thanks for reading along! Blessings to you, too. Did I hear you’re planning on seminary in the future?


  3. Pingback: vocational schizophrenia | Forsythia Root

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