Have you ever considered how a person’s social location and demographic traits shape their perception and experience of congregational life, or Christianity more broadly? This is a question I routinely think about every time I study a congregation or participate in my own church.
For example, how do males or females interpret or receive different rituals that are part of a weekly gathering? How do those who are economically well-off versus living from one paystub to the next read and interpret Scripture? What about members of racial and ethnic groups who have been oppressed and marginalized in society? How do they come to Scripture, or interact with members of different racial and ethnic groups in a church, or even construct a visual image of Jesus (was Jesus actually blonde haired and blue eyed?)? What about the single person (who is part of the over 1/4 of all Canadians who live alone), or the married couple without children?
I could give many more examples. My point is that individuals and groups approach their religious beliefs and practices differently based on their social location in society. Too often congregations gloss over these differences, but may well find that a key part to their potential flourishing is giving hospitable space and voice to the diverse vantage points of those in their congregation – age, gender, socioeconomic status, and race and ethnicity, to name a few. How might your congregation “do” church differently if these demographic factors were intentionally accounted for?
“Walking the Tight Rope”: Female Pastors’ Behind the Scenes Experiences with Clothing and Appearance
Dr. Kathleen Steeves (PhD Sociology , Sessional Lecturer, Social Psychology, McMaster University)
“Don’t tilt your head to the side. You look like Jennifer Aniston. You have to look like a minister.”
This is the comment the photographer made to Rev. Trish when taking her photo for the church ‘wall of ministerial fame.’ It caused her to reflect on the “appropriate” look for a pastor and, when shared on Facebook, incited the telling of similar stories by other women in ministerial roles. A group of these women came together to create a wall calendar filled with pictures of female pastors from across Canada “at work and at play.” Flipping through the calendar, one sees female pastors at protest marches, nursing babies and studying micro-organisms. One woman poses in the bush with a hunting rifle, while another proudly displays her collection of high heeled shoes.
“Part protest and provocation,” there is a statement on the back of the calendar that indicates its purpose is to cause people to question “what DOES a minister look like? Who decides what is appropriate for a woman in ministry to wear, who she should love and what she should and shouldn’t do with her free time?”
I met Trish for the first time as one of the 44 female pastors I interviewed for my PhD research on the lived experiences of female pastors within the Christian Church in Canada. Growing up as a female pastor’s kid, I was initially motivated by some of my mother’s experiences to sociologically probe what it has been like for other pioneering women in their denominational traditions. Although, in hindsight, I can remember witnessing my mother’s “weekly Saturday night wardrobe crisis” of what to wear on a Sunday morning to church, I did not initially think to ask interview participants about their clothes. Surely there were more “spiritual” or “meaningful” conversations to be had?
It was Cindy (pseudonym), a university Chaplain, who first brought this issue to my attention – and it was very meaningful to her. As we chatted in her office over a cup of tea, I casually asked if anything ever made her feel “self conscious” in the pastoral role, to which she replied: “Well, I do sometimes think about what I wear…” Cindy went on to describe experiences that countless female pastors would later echo: concerns around ill-fitting robs and clergy shirts not tailored to the female body, modesty while getting wet in a baptismal tank, having buttons pop open or getting more comments on a new haircut than one’s sermon.
This conversation with Cindy led me to one of the most interesting and possibly well resonated with themes of my dissertation research: female pastors feel they put in a lot of behind the scenes work to “walk the tightrope” of appearing legitimate in the pastoral role, while still wanting to be stylish, feminine, appropriate, modest, comfortable and approachable. In order to be legitimately heard, women understand that they first have to be legitimately seen.
Women also feel that this is a uniquely female issue male pastors do not consider or experience themselves. Research suggests that, in general, women are more readily assessed by their dress and appearance than men, and more discriminated against based on the form and physical functions of their bodies (Acker 1990; Lorber 1993; Ortner 1974; Phipps 1980).
The tightrope female pastors walk can be succinctly expressed as the need to be visible (approachable, a good example, legitimate, noticeably pastoral and feminine), and yet invisible (not distracting, subservient to God’s work through them, able to be heard). The women I interviewed adopt several strategies to keep their balance, from calendar checking and packing multiple outfits for the events of the day, to assessing and then dressing to the expectations of the most conservative members of their congregations.
And so women walk a tightrope – ever conscious of these potential pitfalls and wary of managing and downplaying themselves so as not to allow gender to get in the way of being a pastor. But the same can be said in reverse – many women would also prefer that the role of “pastor” not entirely limit them from displaying their gender. They want to look stylish, feminine and be able to display themselves in their clothing and appearance as well. This combination of identities and roles demands a new script to be written, and every day, through their normal day-to-day choices, female pastors are in the process of writing it – paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps.
Through their enactment of gender in ministry, female pastors are gradually changing the expectations of their audiences so that church goers and other community members alike see that women can be pastors, and a pastor can look different – perhaps even feminine. Slowly, one calendar, one pair of heels, and one colourfully patterned clergy shirt at a time, an institution changes.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender and Society 4(2):139-158.
Lorber, Judith. 1993. “Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology.” Gender and Society 7(4):568-581.
Ortner, Sherry B. 1974. “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Pp. 68-87 in Woman, Culture and Society, edited by M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Phipps, William E. 1980. “The Menstrual Taboo in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.” Journal of Religion and Health 19(4):298-303.
We’re Listening to…
This Nazarene Life
Rev. Dr. Dierdre Brower Latz podcast interview
Rev. Dr. Dierdre Brower Latz is Principal and Senior Lecturer in Pastoral and Social Theology at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, England. Born in Canada, Brower Latz thoughtfully shares in this interview of her journey into ministry, ideas on calling and vocation, organizational obstacles to church leadership associated to gender, and ultimately how she has navigated her way to becoming a prominent and influential voice at a congregational, denominational, and theological level. Regardless of your theological tradition, you will not be disappointed with this conversation.
An Evening with Dr. Joel Thiessen in the Ottawa area, November 20, 2019 at 7:00 PM at Cedarview Alliance Church (2784 Cedarview Rd, Nepean, ON)- Join Dr. Thiessen as he shares the latest research on millennials in Canada. How are they similar/different than their parents and grandparents? Should we be encouraged or concerned? And what might this research mean for different areas of society moving forward? Click here to register.
Launched in Fall 2018, the New Waters Podcast goal is to help Canadian Christian leaders ask big questions and lead thoughtfully as they engage with faith and navigate the sea of change we find ourselves in. Our second season just launched and will look at how we can best navigate not only our present moment but the future as the church in Canada. To learn more, visit the podcast page.
The 2020 Pastor’s Conference in partnership with The Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University: Life Together: Discipleship in an Age of Distraction; Save the date for February 19, 2020.
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