Women clergy were supposed to rewrite the old, patriarchal rules. Instead, many ordained women have bought into the old conventions -and added a few of our own.
Thirty years ago ordained women were a relatively rare phenomenon. Now they are almost a cultural commonplace, constituting 30 percent and more of the population of aspiring ministers in some mainline Protest seminaries.
Why, then, haven’t female clergy felt freer to challenge some of the shibboleths that historically have plagued their male colleagues: lack of privacy, inflated congregational expectations, lack of self-care?
It may be in part because we haven’t been reflective about the time needed to make this cultural transition in leadership.
Without substantive reflection and support, we place women in positions that ask them to model nurturing and non-hierarchical leadership while exercising authority boldly and confidently.
As part of a projected anthology on ordained mothers, I have recruited women to write about their own experiences in congregations.
In their essays they share both the costs and blessings of bushwhacking in this still relatively new territory. They describe confronting the expectations of colleagues who want them to be shooting ecclesiastical stars, expecting a third child while working full-time in a congregation, making sure they present a harmonious family life while out in public.
Clergywomen still grapple with the notion that they must be consummate parents to their own children, if they have them, and to their parish family.
And they aren’t wrong to think, in a terrain where most of the regulations aren’t written down, that they may be judged more harshly than their male peers.
Married or not, this ambivalence about what it means to be a female leader, and desire to be all things to everyone, is more than internal. It is reflected in the public image clergywomen project.
Too often, at least on the East Coast, ordained women dress in a manner appropriate to a hippie love fest or a Goth birthday party — peasant skirts or a funereal calf-length black suit, with hair and shoes to match.
Convinced that this decades-long reluctance to move out of the sartorial safety zone reflects something more than a desire to make a fashion statement, I queried the Rev. Victoria Weinstein.
Under the pseudonym PeaceBang, Weinstein writes Beautytipsforministers.com, a popular ‘blog for clergy interested in moving beyond chunky shoes and badly fitting slacks.
“I don’t know that women tend to see themselves as leaders. We haven’t been socialized to think that way,” said the Massachusetts Unitarian pastor, who terms her goal the “de-frumpification” of the American clergy (male and female).
Wearing clothes that fit well, and are appropriately feminine makes a statement, she says. “I am an individual, I am confident and I understand how clothes work.”
If many of us aren’t quite ready to claim our gifts as female clergy leaders, it may be because we don’t have the freedom, internal or external, to admit that we have limits and need help.
As a parish associate, I preached many well-crafted, dramatic, allusive sermons. But the one that people remember is where I describe hurling a plate of baby food across a breakfast nook after one of my kids had dumped it on the floor for the umpteenth time.
Anxiety, exhaustion and perfectionism aren’t solely the province of female clergy. If we felt free to voice these feelings more openly, to share them with our congregational families, perhaps male clergy could feel freer to admit that they suffer from some of the same stresses.
Think of how liberating that might be for parents torn between their jobs, caring for elderly parents and young children, or their kid’s sports schedules. Allowing themselves to be honest about the cost of leadership might be one of the biggest gifts women bring to the table — or the altar.
Ironically, this candor could also liberate them to be the audacious and confident servant leaders contemporary American congregations need and deserve.
Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and Episcopal priest who lives and writes in Glenmoore, Pa.