Okay, so that isn't exactly how that old song goes, but same general idea. A female minister's appearance and sexuality sometimes seems to matter more to people that a male minister's. It's one of the reasons some people are uncomfortable with women in ministry to begin with, isn't it?
This week, our question comes from a colleague who is uncertain how to handle comments about her looks. Read on:
I am still not sure how to reply to comments about how I am "too pretty" to be a pastor. Or comments about pictures on facebook, "should pastors be that beautiful?", "is it appropriate for pastors to be sexy?"
Now, I'm not posting pictures on fb where I am dressed like a slutty nurse at halloween or anything. And I'm not even sure I can even get my head around being called "beautiful" or "too pretty" in the first place. But how does one reply to such comments? Generally, I try to just say thank you, deflect, and move on to something less awkward.
But on the other hand, part of me wants to scream, "shouldn't we expect our clergy to be exactly who they are--frumpy or fashionable, thin or thick, etc--and spend less time trying to fit us into some outdated notion of what a female pastor should look like?"
Welcome to new matriarch RevHRod, who responds:
While my mother always taught us to say "thank you" to a compliment, my inclination is to respond to these questions by asking, "Why do you ask that?" Put the responsibility for clarification right back where it belongs. It may be an innocent compliment or it may be that this person just doesn't quite know how to deal with women clergy. Asking the question, lets them do some pondering and keeps you from looking defensive.
I can assure you, I have NEVER had this problem! Take it for the complement that it is unless it is a come-on. You know the difference! 'Come-ons' need to be discouraged the first time they happen. And for God's sake don't ever flirt even for fun! It will really confuse them.
Know too that you will find envy from spouses, but you can ignore that too as long as you are genuine about your care for them.
You have not said what kind of parish you have but I wouldn't be surprised if it is small town. Both older men and women in smaller towns tend to have rather out-dated images of roles. It is what makes small towns work--everyone has their niche. I was the 'first woman' in every church I served and was always dealing with those issues of gender definition. Allow yourself to define the ministry in YOUR way always being aware that the older folk will have difficulty. And laugh! Most of all laugh. Have some funny stock phrases in your repertoire as come backs. [Hmm, that isn't what MY mirror said this morning! or 'Oh, shucks!' finger in the dimple] just to make them comfortable.
Often it is their lack of being comfortable with a capable or good looking woman because you may be better than anything they have ever had before. Help them to be comfortable with you and you will find that those comments will fade as they get to know you.
And Martha writes:True fact: People aren't always good at putting things into words. We do it for a living, so we may set the bar a little high for others. With that in mind...
While I must admit that no one has ever come close to saying I'm too attractive to be a pastor, I do receive compliments with some frequency on a range of personal matters (hair cut, hair color, pink sweater, new shoes and so forth). Now, I might tell my doctor I like her sweater, but I wouldn't tell her she's too pretty to be a doctor, and I probably wouldn't talk about her sweater either. It feels like a violation of a professional boundary, right? But we are in that odd profession where we are expected to maintain ethically correct boundaries at the same time people think we are their best friends or long lost daughters or surrogate sisters.
It's my practice is to measure the intent of the person offering the compliment. Usually they are being nice. Often that niceness sounds awkward. Sometimes they are trying to say appreciative words and find it easier to make them about superficial matters than the thing they really mean. In all those cases, I smile and say "thank you," or if I want to give it a Southern polish that is also intended to bring the conversation to an end, I smile verrrry sweetly and say, "Well, aren't you nice?"
But sometimes it's not nice at all, particularly if the person is using remarks about appearance to minimize us or undermine our authority. I'm five feet tall, so I sometimes get this in the form of kidding about my size. If you suspect that is the motivation, you may want to find a moment in the life of the church to reflect your values about how we accept people regardless of appearance, just as Jesus accepted people regardless of their social status. I trust some text will come along at exactly the moment you need to say it.
When it goes beyond saying you're pretty to wondering whether it's okay for you to be sexy, we've hit the creepy mark. That's a legit thing to talk about with your Pastoral Relations Committee, if you have one. Get some lay feedback. It's possible the person saying you're too pretty and/or raising the subject of your sexiness is actually predatory, and other people may experience that, too.
Lastly, your Facebook page is not the place for church members to be remarking on your appearance. I would recommend setting up some restrictions on Facebook, especially for photos other people tag that may present you in a less careful way than photos you choose yourself. You can set up a group of people restricted to Public status updates (go to Privacy settings and then to the category where you manage Blocking. At the top there's a place you click and then set up the restricted group). You can't control what people write on Facebook, but you can control who is able to read your updates and post on your page.
Thank you, matriarchs, for your good input. What about others of you? What is your experience with this issue, and how have you handled it? Please join us in the comments section for more conversation. And, as always, if you have a question for the matriarchs to discuss, send it our way at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.