I was recently at the closing session of a pastors’ retreat. As the leader ran through the schedule for the final session, which included extended times for prayer and communion, he asked, “When should we take a group photo?” The developing consensus from the mostly-male group was to do it at the end of the session. I could feel the anxiety mounting among the row of women I sat with. I blurted out, “The ladies would respectfully ask that we take a photo now before we cry and lose our mascara.” The surprised look on the leader’s face revealed two things: recognition that the thought of how women’s unique concerns would intersect with the timing of a photo had never entered his mind, and also respect that I would speak up for what was important to a woman. A murmur of whispered “thanks” came from several women around me. The irony is that a woman is simultaneously shamed for seeming to be overly obsessed with her appearance and criticized as emotional and unkempt when she has mascara streaking down her face.
Along those lines, do men pastors spend as much time as women pastors planning their appearance before they preach? It’s not a matter of vanity; it’s a matter of self-respect and reflecting the image of God in us. The perfect outfit is a tenuous balance between our desires and other’s perceptions. Feminine, but not too feminine. Confident, but not bossy. Bold, but not uncaring. Attractive, but not sensual. Comfortable, but not sloppy. Authoritative, but not impersonal. Stylish, but not attention-seeking. Mature, but not matronly. Suddenly my wardrobe has become an analogy for my life. Very few outfits fit that narrow bill, even if they do fit my curves.
And speaking of curves, women’s bodies are different than men’s. As a young worship leader and nursing mother, I had the horrifying experience more than once of realizing my milk had come in during a hands-raised kind of worship moment. Suddenly, the “Spirit” was leading me to move from the arms-wide-open posture of praise, to the arms-crossing-my-chest posture of a contemplative. And the band and congregation followed right along with me. They didn’t realize the move of the Spirit was actually a move of my biology.
Nothing reminds you of your biology faster than realizing you’ve just started your period as you stand to begin preaching a sermon. While most public speakers are adept at appearing confident even if they don’t feel it, a surprise awareness of feminine hygiene adds a whole additional layer complicating the ability to keep a straight face. Alas, I have survived such a moment, and I made it to the restroom with the sermon complete and before the problem became a disaster. Every woman has often experienced that terrifying 100 feet between the desk drawer that keeps our feminine products and the restroom. As a pastor on a Sunday, it’s very rare for me to walk 100 feet without someone stopping me, which isn’t normally a problem. It is, however, a problem if I have a tampon in my hand—because, of course, the perfect outfit that fits the narrow bill mentioned above very rarely includes pockets.
And on the topic of pockets, do the men pastors ever have to worry about where to connect the microphone battery pack to their clothing? Only a fraction of the outfits I own that fit the narrow bill have pockets or a belt to hook a battery pack into. I recently got some tips from a fellow female pastor on how to discretely attach the battery pack to my bra. This, of course, involves going to the church restroom and stripping entirely out of my clothing both before and after the service. But it’s better than being restrained on stage because the battery pack is sitting on the podium like a leash.
I grew up listening to male preachers. As a young female, I learned to interact with sermon analogies that included topics I wasn’t interested in, such as golf, hunting, or fishing. I’ve heard countless football illustrations. And believe it or not, I was intelligent enough to apply the principles to my life, even though I have never played on a football team. However, some men seem to tune out during my sermons if I use motherhood illustrations or “overly feminine” analogies. I can see the lack of attention settle over their eyes as they mentally check out. I believe we have done a disservice to men to not encourage them to use their imaginations in the same ways women have done our whole lives. Once I used a knitting analogy in a sermon. And I was proud of it. But I also went home and scrupulously analyzed that particular part of my sermon more than any other point. I’m stuck in a catch-22. If I push the feminine topics too much, I have an agenda, which is perceived as a bad thing. If I don’t, I do a disservice to both the men and the women in my congregation.
And then there is the very real matter of the theological debate around women in leadership. I whole-heartedly appreciate and honor my complementarian brothers and sisters, especially in regard to their desire to uphold the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, a desire I share with them. But I never know how to act around them. I interact in conversation with them while also having another conversation in my head. On the outside, I’m engaging in discussion to show that I believe my thoughts are important, but not too much to look like I want to prove a point, or worse, to prove my self-worth. On the inside, the dialog runs something like this: “You believe I shouldn’t lead or teach. Does that mean that what I have to say in this conversation doesn’t matter to you? You believe women should not be pastors. Therefore, you think I am outside the will of God. What I embody is ungodly. You believe I am a sin.”
I can’t change my gender. And I can’t change my calling. And I choose to obey God in saying yes to that calling. Yet that makes me wrong—makes me a sinner—in the eyes of some people I greatly respect. I still don’t know how to grapple with that one. Picking the perfect outfit is much, much easier.