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Our Bodies, Our Selves: Women’s Bodies in the Pulpit

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

“The Crowning” by Sara Star

I was just one year past the anniversary of my ordination and ten weeks pregnant with my first child when my partner and I sent out the invitations to the annual Holiday Party at the Manse. We were waiting until after Christmas to tell the church about my pregnancy, so we hadn’t told a soul. But that didn’t stop Melvin. We were standing in the dining room when Melvin sidled right up to my husband and me with a drink in his hand and, in the casual manner of many an octogenarian, commented, “Pastor, I can’t imagine why, but it seems like your husband keeps getting thinner and thinner, and you just keep getting bigger and bigger!”

What does one say in a moment like this? I cannot remember what I did, but I suspect I laughed it off. On the other hand, I am still telling that story today. My family laughs about it now—about how Melvin’s adult grandson collapsed in laughter behind me in the aftermath, and about how Melvin showed up to church the next Sunday and sheepishly asked my husband if he needed to find a new place to worship—but as I reflect on my ministry, on the ways in which it has been changed by the growth of my family and the confidence that comes from experience, I am reminded that, as a woman who is a pastor, my body presents a particular challenge to those with whom I serve.

I am not alone. We all have stories (or maybe the better term is battle scars) that reveal the ways in which the people with whom we minister have invaded our personal space, have invited themselves into personal decisions about what is appropriate for us and what is not, or have defined the terms for us of what it means to be a minister in a woman’s body. We know what it is like to be told, like one minister, that our clothes are too revealing, without any context or explanation about what “revealing” means. Or to find ourselves on the receiving end of comments and judgments that evaluate our weight, our relationships, even our hairstyles with the same level of concern as the content of our preaching and teaching.

And then there is parenthood. As women who minister, it is inevitable that our personal choices around childbearing will, at some point, become a point of public discussion in the churches where we serve. And because the church as an institution tends to glorify traditional, heteronormative definitions of what it means to parent successfully, our very real lives as women can become a battleground over cultural ideals of parenting, motherhood, childbearing, and the work-family balance.

Amanda was already married and a new mother when she was ordained as a UCC minister. She entered ministry with a strong and healthy sense of identity as a parent, a minister, and a queer woman. But she quickly discovered that even in her progressive UCC congregation, assumptions around her body and parenting were inevitable. And because she is a parent, “there was a level of assumption that I have given birth. And no matter what, the fact that I had children meant that I must be sexually active. People went there. I didn’t expect that.”

For Amanda, being a parent thrust into the public sphere all kinds of assumptions about her health, her marriage, and her body. And, as a queer mother, she found herself working against her congregation’s attempts to “typecast” her. “Because I had a wife, I was put into this sort of ‘dad’ role, so guys around me treated me as one of the guys.” She shared that it caused her to start consciously dressing in a more feminine way at work while also pushing back against the sexualization of her body in the church.

For other young clergywomen, becoming a parent can threaten one’s job security. Bethany shared that, when she found out she was pregnant in her first call, she was immediately informed that it would cost her. “I was told not to expect an allowance for anything. I was to be a mom separately.” Implicit was the assumption that she needed to make a choice—she could either be a good parent, or a good pastor, but she could not be both, at least not at church. “They wanted kids,” she shared, “just not mine. They wanted him, but not with me.”

If there is a common theme in the experience of clergywomen who parent, it seems to be that their identity as a parent becomes a crucial part of how they evaluate the terms of their ministry. For Bethany, her congregation’s negative attitudes towards her identity as a mother ultimately led her to seek out a more supportive pastoral environment.

And she is not alone. When Cordelia became a single parent through adoption, it revealed real prejudices about parenting in her upper-middle class ministry setting. She found that leaders within her church seemed to resent her child. “I was told she was not welcome in worship (even with someone else holding her) or at any event or group where I was working. I was told by one parent that they were paying me to watch their kids, not my own.” In that environment, her identity as a single parent was treated as a problem that she had to solve on her own. At one point, the experience let her to seriously questioning her call to ministry.

Ultimately, Cordelia left her call and chose to focus on her child, who was “the most important thing to me.” That decision—to honor her identity as a parent over a ministry context that viewed parenting as a liability—ultimately gave her the time and space to seek out opportunities for ministry that would honor both identities. Today, she happily serves a small church in a small town, where her child is embraced and her ministry is valued.

The truth is that church folk have a tendency to forget that we are not their family. We are not their children, or their grandchildren either. But the intimacy that is inevitable in ministry tends to blur the lines between what is acceptable and what is not. In unhealthy churches, that boundary-crossing can feel intrusive and toxic to our identity as pastors and as parents. It can lead us to feel that our children are not welcome, that the fullness of who we are is not welcome. In these cases, perhaps the only answer is to walk away.

But in a healthy church setting, one that affirms the ministry of clergywomen in all of its uniqueness and its fullness, this same intimacy can become the life-force that sustains good ministry. In Kathleen’s case, the experience of becoming a mother was incredibly positive. She credited this to the fact that her church had eight members in the congregation who were also pregnant at the same time. For her, becoming a parent while also pastoring her church deepened her sense of intimacy with those around her. She found herself empowered to explore these connections more fully in liturgy, exploring the physically evocative language of Incarnation and the gritty realities of embodiment more explicitly in worship.

Amanda was surprised to discover that when members of her congregation learned that she had not physically birthed her children, some of them treated her as though this meant that she could not understand the female experience of giving birth. But her experiences of parenting without giving birth have enabled her to identify with and minister to women in the queer and trans community who wanted to parent, but weren’t able, or chose not to be pregnant.

At the end of the day, so much of our calling is wrapped up in our experience in the world.  And many of the experiences that are so often marginalized and silenced in an institutional environment are precisely the things that have the potential to make us better pastors. Our experiences have the potential to help us to find common ground with our neighbors in the pews and on the streets who experience oppression, victimization, silencing and policing from the dominant culture that is more interested in silencing opposition than in creating life. We have a unique opportunity as clergywomen to model another way, to break down the barriers that constrain those around us. To use our privilege in the pulpit to advocate for and stand alongside those whose voices are not heard.

Why? Because we know what is at stake. For we have been in the trenches. We bear the physical and spiritual scars on our person. We know how despairing it can feel to be limited, and how freeing it feels to find ourselves fully embraced. When we embrace the fullness of who we are, and enable others to do the same, the church is a stronger, healthier, more welcoming and faithful place.

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Taking Your (Maternity) Leave Edition

feet of newborn - Caucasian

Newborn feet – fearfully and wonderfully made!

Dear Askie,

I’m preparing for the arrival of my first child (a girl!) in September. My congregation is very excited about my pregnancy, but I’m not sure they really “get it” about maternity leave. I have six weeks of paid maternity leave, and am extending that by using two weeks of vacation time. The problem is that I keep hearing people mention things that they assume I’ll still do while I’m on maternity leave. Congregants say things like “Oh, you’ll be on maternity leave then, so I’ll just email you,” or that I’m welcome to bring the baby along to the Fall Festival (three weeks after my due date, so I’ll definitely be out). I’ve also heard a lot of comments about how great it is that the church is being so generous to give me maternity leave, and it’s hard to know how to respond. At the same time, these folks are so sweet and so kind, and so excited to have a new baby at our church – they’re knitting blankets, making sure that the nursery meets my needs, and I think they’re even planning a surprise baby shower (someone let the secret slip). How do I navigate this new phase of life and ministry?

Expectant Pastor

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The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The Women Who Make it Possible

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

The author and her son before his first day of day care.

I love being a parent.

I love working full time.

I love not having to worry about whether I am going over my half-time or three-quarter time limit. I love getting to throw myself wholeheartedly into my church. Frankly, I love getting to use the restroom by myself.

For my family, both parents working in churches full time is what has felt right to us. Both my husband and I had working mothers and neither of us felt called to be at home. We are keenly aware though, that this choice was only a viable choice to us because we have lived in two places where excellent day care centers were available for our son.

I am weirdly passionate about day care centers. Read more

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: PK’s in the Pews Edition

children in churchDear Askie,

My husband and I are both clergy, and parents of three kids, ages 3, 5, and 6. Although we’re a clergy couple, we never actually both had Sunday morning churches until recently. (I stayed home with the kids when the first two were babies, and then I pastored a church and he worked as a chaplain; now, we’re each pastoring a congregation.) When only one of us was working as a pastor, the other one would get the kids ready and bring them to church. Now that we’re both working Sunday mornings, we’re struggling. From deciding who gets them ready and which church they’re going to, to supervising them during the long stretch of pre- and post-worship activities not to mention dealing with congregants’ expectations that our children be perfect angels all the time, and handling actual misbehavior we are totally overwhelmed. We know that other clergy couples do this, though. How do they do it, Askie? How?

-Frazzled Pastor Mom

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Imperfectly, but with Joy


“But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” -Matthew 5:48

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I am a recovering perfectionist.

I am also a terrible speller. I noticed after a first draft of this article that perfectionism was misspelled several times. Some might call this ironic; I call it growth.

Perfectionism has been a companion of mine for years. I find perfectionism is cunning, often masking itself as a good work ethic, or the ability to fit into most any social situation. In my experience, perfectionists are great leaders, team members, and organizers. With a perfectionist in the mix, things will get done! The downside is that perfectionism can be incredibly isolating, and beneath the surface there lies fear and shame. This leads me to wonder if perfectionism is one of the few publicly accepted addictions, both in our culture and in our churches.

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Abundant Grace

In retrospect, I should have just skipped the meeting. Everyone would have understood, after all, we had just taken custody of our first foster child three days before. She was not doing well. But the stupid part of me, the part that wants to be mother and pastor simultaneously in all its glory with none of its brokenness, that part of me sent me to the meeting, nine month old foster daughter and two year old biological son in tow while my husband was out of town.

She shrieked for the first ten minutes of the meeting before we left, with all the moms in the group smiling comfortingly and knowingly, the teenage girls looking like they might have reconsidered premarital sex for a few more weeks.

It wasn’t really going how we thought it would.

Our firstborn child came hard. He was a great baby, but rounds of church conflict and a rough pregnancy landed me on bed rest for the last month of my pregnancy, and then recovering from a C-section. But after all that he was great. Easy baby, good eater, slept through the night before he was twenty-five. The church loved having a baby around, especially because it had been a while. They were forgiving of sermons that sometimes took detours before getting back to the point, patient with me nursing in my office while they stood outside waiting to speak with me, and charmed by his easy smiles and first steps.

We were not foolish enough to think that all babies were as easy as he was. But we were not really prepared for how challenging our girl would be.

My husband and I are both ministers, so we know what it means to be called. I was called while in college, and went straight to divinity school. Ben spent more time navigating the world before returning to school and being ordained. We had felt the same sort of call to serve as foster parents. My husband’s grandfather had been a foster child, cycling through several families until he finally ended up with the right one who saw him through high school and loved him until their deaths. His foster sister attended his wife’s funeral, sixty years later. We knew what a difference it could make.

And we felt like we could be useful. We had a spare bedroom, all the toys a child could need, extra time given my husband’s halftime work situation and my flexible schedule, and the desire to parent another child. We thought we could be useful.

We knew that there are too many families in the system. We knew that resources are tight in state budgets and children’s’ services are the easiest to chop, after cutting their mothers’ services, of course. We knew that whatever we do to the least of these we do unto our Lord.

When people ask me why we’re foster parents, if I feel like giving the short answer, I say “Somebody has to do it. And Jesus told us to.” That’s how we began. And we continue because of the children. They say that in child welfare there are two kinds of people: child savers and family preservers. Foster parents are asked to play both roles. It’s not easy. It’s not easy for us or for our congregation. Often I get to model forgiveness and grace and hope through the example I set in how I speak about our daughter’s other mother and father. It would be very easy to blame them, scapegoat them, and gossip about them (and it’s some GOOD gossip, let me tell you). But that’s not helpful to our girl, or to the faith lives of my parishioners. They need me to set a better example.

But what has been a blessing has been their example to me. They have been wonderful. We did lots of preparation, both for our family and for the church. After we were licensed, but before she came, I wrote a letter to the church telling them of our dreams and reasons for taking in a foster child and how wonderful they had been to our son. (True of most of the church). They were ecstatic and so excited to partner with us on this crazy journey. “Any news? When is the new child coming? Have you heard anything? What are you going to need from us?” were the questions on people’s lips as we waited.

And when she came, broken, tiny, with a shriek that sounded like a pterodactyl on steroids, they were still ecstatic for us. They caressed her tiny feet, laughed with us as she got bigger and sassier and stopped shrieking. They encouraged our son in his role as big brother, and gave me a lot of grace when I was frazzled or telling the fourth story in a row about how cute my kids were.

One member of the church, a gruff eighty-seven year old great-grandfather, carried her around from place to place as she directed him with points and laughs. Another member who is a lawyer in the local prosecutor’s office answered all my questions about the court process. Parents with adult children reassured me that the sibling rivalry would abate, probably.

And they only laughed a little when we provided respite (short-term) care for a pair of brothers in March for ten days. Their questions weren’t about how we would manage with four kids under the age of six in one house, and taking two cars to get everywhere. They asked when they could meet them, and how they could help. And one of Ben’s church members made us a huge lasagna and tray of brownies. Grace, grace, grace, abundant.

They give me a lot more grace than I would ever think to ask for. And it is so rewarding to have people who haven’t seen her in a while (cough- Christmas and Easter Christians – cough), see her with me and ask incredulously “Is that E?” “Yes”, I say proudly. “That’s our E.”  A tiny little spitfire of a girl who has taught all of us about grace, thriving, hope, and the value of pink shoes.

The Rev. Kerry Waller serves in the suburbs of Chicago as a Disciples of Christ Pastor. She is also a wife and mom of two (usually). She makes cards, cake pops, and coordinates children’s art projects as often as she can. She blogs, mostly about cards, at andthenthereweremore.blogspot.com.

Artwork by Lindsay Waller.