A pastor. In a swimsuit.

Post Author: Melissa Bills

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces


Sometimes I forget that my sunglasses don’t actually make me invisible.

It is a Sunday afternoon. I am at the pool. I dig through my big, floppy, flowered bag that is stuffed with towels, water toys, extra swim diapers, the pool pass, and a meager amount of cash for buying popcorn and hot pretzels with cheese as our post-swimming snack. I spray thick layers of sunscreen over my kids’ arms and legs. I sunscreen my own face, rubbing furiously so that I don’t leave big white goopy streaks across my nose and cheeks. I pull on bucket hat that I purchased years ago on clearance. (It was probably so cheap because it is a strange neon color somewhere between yellow and green, a color that is flattering on absolutely no one.)

And then, before we march across the pool deck to the graduated edge of the shallow end, I put on my sunglasses.

Sunglasses are good for keeping your eyes safe. They are good for seeing lost toys at the bottom of the pool. They are great for staying inconspicuous while people-watching.

But they do not make you invisible.

I live in a town of 8000 people. Summer in Iowa gets hot. We all go to the pool.

I can deal with seeing congregation members at the grocery store and at the park. I make small talk when we bump into each other at daycare pickup, at the library, or at the Sugar Bowl, ordering our ice cream cones.

But the pool is different.

Because I am their pastor.

And I am wearing a bathing suit.

Which is of no particular concern to them, I must be clear. They have no problem with it. It’s a non-issue. I’m the one with the problem.

I am an adult woman who is confident, decently healthy, and body-positive. For swim attire, I possess a meager but meticulously cultivated collection of tankini tops and mid-rise bikini bottoms that fit well and make me feel good about myself.

I am also a pastor who is dedicated to her congregation, has built strong relationships in the church and the community, takes her work seriously, and has grown into a healthy sense of confidence in her own pastoral authority.

But when I have to be a pastor in a swimsuit, all of my confidence jumps the pool fence and runs down the street.

Because I am a pastor. In a swimsuit. These two things don’t always seem to go together very well.

It feels awkward to try answer a question about Sunday’s sermon while I am standing there pants-less, wearing what amounts to socially-acceptable underwear.

It is uncomfortably humorous to stand there, in the middle of a conversation about the church council agenda, willing my fidgety hands not to fuss with my swimsuit bottoms, which have ridden up and wedged themselves in uncomfortable places.

I don’t feel convinced that I possess the necessary gravitas to talk to a woman about her father’s upcoming heart surgery when I am dripping water from the hem of my tankini top into a puddle by my feet.

In every encounter, I am painfully aware that I am a pastor in a swimsuit.

And yet here at the pool, I get to talk, mom-to-mom, with a single mom from my congregation while our kids dive for plastic rainbow rings under the water. Divorce and custody battles have been rough. She gets her kids to Sunday School as often as she can but doesn’t always find for herself a consistent sense of community in the congregation. There we are, in bathing suits and practical hats, chatting in knee-deep water while our kids play.

This is being a pastor. Even in a swimsuit.

I get to see a gaggle of very tan tween boys who don’t really like coming to youth group. But here, they dare each other to jump off of the high dive, and they spread out their towels in the grass to sunbathe, and they lay still for no more than two minutes before getting hot and deciding to jump back into the water, waving at me and greeting me as they pass by.

This is being a pastor. Even in a swimsuit.

Here, I can see the quiet dad who doesn’t chat much at church accompany his kids down the water slide, laughing and loving and splashing, and I can understand his heart better than I ever would through idle chit chat during coffee hour between worship services.

This is being a pastor. Even in a swimsuit.

At the pool, congregation members can see me for who I am as a mom, splashing in the water with my kids. They can see as a real live human being whose ears and feet turn bright red, because I always forget to sunscreen them. They can see the way that sunshine makes me smile. They can see me as somebody, just like them, who leaves a big, wet, lumpy, backside-shaped wet spot on the cement where they sit at the edge of the pool, splashing with kids and friends and family.

This is being a pastor. In a swimsuit.

I don’t get to be invisible, at the pool or elsewhere, even in sunglasses. And I probably shouldn’t want to be.

Because it doesn’t matter how much water drips down my back, or how much my tankini top sticks to my belly when wet, or how many streaks of sunscreen remain on my forehead or how strange my sunburn lines or how chipped my toenail polish: I am a pastor in the community, and I do my ministry in public, and the people that I love and care about in the sanctuary are the people that I love and care about just as much outside the sanctuary. Even at the pool.

Sharing stories over microwaved pretzels and nacho cheese is just as important as sharing a word of grace at communion. Exchanging words of divine love and care across beach towels is a reminder that God’s love is everywhere, not just in a pew. And maybe being vulnerable in a swimsuit makes it even more okay to be vulnerable together in faith.

There’s a sassy piece of advice out there on the internet about getting ready for swimsuit weather:

How do you get a bikini body? Put a bikini on your body.

I’m thinking a little sass might do me some good as I buy this summer’s pool pass and repack the pool bag for another season:

How can you be a pastor wearing a swimsuit? Be a pastor. Put on a swimsuit.

And probably some sunscreen.

And maybe some sunglasses.

But they won’t make you invisible.

And that’s okay.

Melissa Bills is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is currently serving First Lutheran Church in Decorah, Iowa.

Image by: stardust soul
Used with permission
2 replies
  1. Cassie Sexton-Riggs says:

    I’m a pastor in a swim suit in a small town too! I coach the local summer rec swim team as well and so that means the community members of a 6500 people town see me in my workout bikini often as well. Swim team practice ends as the pools opens for water aerobics in the morning. Set up for swim meets happens as the pool closes down for the day. I have come to just say well at least it’s a swim suit! Body confidence and time I think are the only things that make it easier. Own who you are and who your people are. If that means holy moments happen at the community pool that’s ok too! 🙂

  2. Crystal Rook says:

    I love this article. When I was shy or self-conscious about wearing a bathing suit it was due to body politics from society and myself. I also dealt with the “deep saints'” stares and snickering when my church friends and cousins were at the pool during trips. I have thought, “We are at the pool for God’s sake. Do you really expect me to wear clothes and a church hat in the pool or ocean?” I remember two ladies from my church came onto the beach with long skirts on. One of the ladies had wore socks with her sandals. I can not with “deep saints”. I believe in being confident in yourself and living life to the fullest. As pastors and spiritual leaders we are still human beings. So, wear that bathing suit and enjoy conversations with your congregants and community. After all, you are at the pool.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *