Maternal Instincts, Paternal Church

Women clergy were supposed to rewrite the old, patriarchal rules. Instead, many ordained women have bought into the old conventions … Continued

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.

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  • Thomas Baum

    TO ELIZABETH EVANS:You wrote, “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.”If you notice, Jesus took a lot of what He taught from everyday life including His Own.Being a Christian is living in the day to day world.Jesus didn’t come to us in a vacumn before He began His public ministry, He was what we would call a blue-collar worker so He also brought to His ministry His Life experiences also, as it says, “He grew in Goodness and Grace before God and man.Jesus was True God and True Man, as I put it He was 100% God and 100% Man, just as you and I are 100% from our dad and 100% from our mom, so was He.You also wrote, “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.””Well, we are all individuals, every member of the human family and unless the clothes are mandated then we should dress however we wish, the clothes are not the message.As far as, “I understand how clothes work”, I find that statement rather sad considering “The Good News” is what is important and clothes should not get in the way of “The Good News”.Sometimes, we can get so caught up in the details that we miss the big picture whether it be in what we wear or what the bible and “The Good News” really is.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • spiderman2

    I noticed that churches which allow women to preach become liberal and stray from the teachings of the Bible. No wonder Apostle Paul instructed the early church not to allow women to preach.

  • Bev

    My mother was ordained over 40 years ago. She was in the pulpit before my father heard his own calling. During their long marriage of 50+ years, they often served as clergy-partners – but usually two-for-the-price of one. She held that unenviable role of both preacher and preacher’s wife. And each brought their own unique style and point of view to the pulpit – and BOTH saw each other as equal in the eyes of God. My father has since died, and my mother has retired from active ministry, but she still preaches on an interim basis, still sings in a choir, and remains active in the church. She is one of the true pioneers of women in the ministry – her life is truly one of God’s calling.

  • Shekinah Glory

    It’s sad that even in the Body of Christ, women have to be more concerned with how they look than men. It’s an extension of the obsession with women’s physical appearance in the larger society. As a female pastor-in-progress AND woman of color, I find it ironic that women make up the majority of congregations and patriarchy continues to exist. The sin of patriarchy will end when women realize they are made in the image of God and are divinely equal to their male counterparts. We are ESSENTIAL to a healthy community of faith. I believe that all God is waiting for is the boldness of Her daughters to say “I’ve had enough”. In addition. we will have to deconstruct the male sin of making the church, church doctrine, and God over in the male image. The HUGE influx of women into ministry is a movement of God and the beginning of the end of patriarchical abuse. If women clergy speak the truth we are gifted to tell, God will do the rest.

  • Roy

    Comes now Spiderman2 who, having previously revealed his neochristian hatred, now reveals he is a mysoginist as well.

  • Laurel Zimmerman

    I don’t believe that men suffer from all this guilt and perfectionism. I would hazard a guess that 90% of them never even think about taking care of everyone else’s needs, much less doing it perfectly. If I sound mad at men – I am.

  • Paganplace

    Anyway, not to ramble too much, but really, how many of these notions of what’s ‘Feminine’ do you suppose, are actually *class cues?*

  • dionysis

    Why don”t you women just focus on bearing children and going to the mall. This stuff is over your head. Go make me a sandwich.

  • Paganplace

    ” dionysis:Why don”t you women just focus on bearing children and going to the mall. This stuff is over your head. Go make me a sandwich.”OK, you’re a sandwich. Stand still. 🙂 (Either read up on your mythology or thanks for the alley-oop. 🙂 Blessed be.) 🙂

  • Paganplace

    Still, whether or not that particular bit was satire or not, I have to say I’m just overwhelmed by the arguments of those who claim sexism isn’t a going issue in the modern Christian world. I thought I knew, but, I can see I was just so underinformed.