A Thin Line

At worship recently the anthem was a duet titled “Why is There Such a Thin Line?” and included such questions as “Why did God make such a thin line between darkness and light, peace and war?” etc. It was a haunting piece of music with strange harmony and dissonance to complement the words—a piece of music that required some effort and some thought on the part of the listener as well as the singer.

This duet reminded me of a conversation I’d had a few days earlier, in which I was trying to convince a friend that there is something that feels qualitatively different about church members commenting on the hair/clothes/weight of a female pastor than that of a male pastor. Yes, I believe men get those comments as well, though I doubt they come as often as they do to clergy women, particularly young women. And yes, I believe that these comments are generally made when a congregant can’t think of anything else to say—the sermon has already left their brain by the time they get to the door and they need something to say while they shake the preacher’s hand. But still…as a woman, I’ll just say that it feels different when people choose to comment on my appearance rather than any aspect of a worship service or education opportunity or whatever else might be going on. It feels like a devaluation of our ministry—a way to reduce the minister to something to look at and dismiss anything substantive that she might say or do.

Yet in other contexts, if people say “you look great!” or “I love your haircut” or “you’ve been losing weight and your hard work shows” or “that’s a great skirt,” then it sounds like a compliment. So why, in the pastoral context, is it pretty much the opposite? Why is there such a thin line between a compliment and a demeaning word? I don’t think church members mean to belittle the work that we do, I don’t think they mean to put us in our place, I don’t think they mean to objectify our bodies rather than think about our work and the ministry we try to empower them to do.

Or maybe they do mean that, and I simply don’t want to believe that’s what is happening.

It’s such a fine line between compliment and sexual harassment, such a small step from praising the hard work I’ve done to have a healthier body to objectifying that body, such a little leap from making a polite comment to using that comment to devalue the rest of my life and work. Sometimes that line is as obvious as the gender or age or tone or body language of the person saying it, sometimes it’s as clear as a comment that is blatantly inappropriate, and sometimes—like any system—it’s more complicated than that.

Maybe I’m too sensitive and I just need to smile and accept that people are admiring my hair (it is fabulous, after all) or wondering if that’s the same outfit I wore last week (probably, I don’t have money for new clothes and only a few pieces in my wardrobe work with our clip-on microphone system) or thinking about the fact that my robe seems to hang differently as I stop stress-eating and start stress-exercising instead. I know that comes with the territory—but why does it need to? Why is that the status quo, rather than comments about the sermon, the liturgy, the atmosphere of worship?

Don’t get me wrong—I get those comments too. But sometimes it’s the seemingly innocent “compliments” that add up in my psyche, and they don’t add up to feeling good about my clothing choices, my hair products, or even my exercise regimen. Instead they add up to feeling that how I look is more important than what I say or do. And they add up to a culture that permits objectification—it starts small and “friendly” and soon balloons into something much less hospitable, something that slides easily toward sexual harassment without the hard edge, a culture in which ministry is hard, if not impossible.

Our whole society seems to be in on this game—the one in which we can focus on anything other than what the person is saying – using race or weight or the style of our eyeglasses to distract from the message. Politicians have been playing the game for decades (Remember the tie-color controversy during the 2004 election, or the comments about Hillary’s hairstyle and makeup choices in 2008?), homing in on inconsequentials in order to diminish the words coming out of the other person’s mouth. Our TV shows and movies make workplace sexual harassment humorous, something to imitate in order to get a laugh. Our celebrity culture is all about measuring up to standards of beauty, not standards of talent or integrity.

I should not be surprised that the church is a place playing the same game…and yet I am. I want the church to be a place where all are welcome, all are valued for who they are as beloved children of God, all are encouraged to do ministry, all are seen through God’s eyes. I’m reminded of the story of Samuel going to anoint David, and how Samuel first saw how handsome David’s brothers were—he was certain the man who looked the part must be the one. But God reminded Samuel that God sees inside, not the outside. Sure, David also turned out to look the part, but that wasn’t what mattered. I long for a church where the inside matters, where the things we reward are love, compassion, service, integrity, hope—things grounded in who God is and who God calls us to be, which is the only thin line I want to cross.



8 replies
  1. Alex
    Alex says:

    Really great reflection. After I preached this past Sunday, I had a cadre of PW ladies come to tell me I looked better when I had short hair… even though MANY other parishioners had commented positively and constructively about my sermon, the hair comments are what stick out in my mind four days later. I’ve taken to naming what’s going on while it is going on: “You can’t think of anything else to say that to tell me you don’t like my hair?!” – delivered with a smile, seemed to cow them a little bit.

  2. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    There is a whole can of worms in here! I’ve often struggled with how to set certain appropriate boundaries as a female minister. Many in my congregation are “huggers,” and while I am comfortable hugging some members, I am really *not* comfortable hugging others, who come up for a regular hug each time they see me. There are the uncomfortable “compliments” that I look like I am losing weight, that my clothes fit better, etc…
    And then an issue that is definitely particular to young female clergy – pregnancy. A colleague of mine recently had a baby, and while she was pregnant, one of her members (an older male) asked if she was planning on breast-feeding! I have had a few members repeatedly ask if I am pregnant yet, and there is really no good way to ask that. If I am pregnant and haven’t disclosed that yet, that is my choice. If I’m not, I am either not pregnant by choice (in which case my choice feels disrespected), or I would like to be and I am not (in which case it is a very emotionally-laden question).
    Some comments are certainly more innocent than others, but it is hard to navigate the fine line…

  3. Sarah - from the UK
    Sarah - from the UK says:

    Thanks for such an honest and open reflection.
    A significant moment happened for me while I was training for ministry and went to lead worship at my home church. One of the older men commented while shaking hands at the door, that he’d never noticed what nice legs I have! I went home and ordered the catalogues for robes!
    A tip an older clergy woman gave me years ago was to always wear the same thing to worship, week in, week out, rain or shine. People would be less likely to get caught up on the dress choice of the day.
    All this does feel uncomfortable for me having got to the point that I now understand femininity something to be celebrated and nurtured … but I’m with you on the thin line issue.

  4. Natasha Darke
    Natasha Darke says:

    It reminds me of the time I was asked if my role in the service was “purely decorative”.
    And yes, that time it was definitely intended as an insult.

  5. Lee
    Lee says:

    Thanks for this reflection. I do think it’s worth noting that sometimes comments such as “I like your haircut (dress, shoes, etc.)” are really a clumsy way of saying, “I’m really glad you’re our pastor.”

  6. teri
    teri says:

    @Natasha–O.M.G. that’s all I’ve got on that one. I sometimes joke with my friends that occasionally my job is to show up on Sunday, do the children’s sermon, and “look cute.” Underneath that joke is usually a feeling that I’m unnecessary or unimportant or being silenced or judged for something I must have said the previous week. oy.
    @Lee–I know…I hesitated to write this actually because I do think sometimes people are well-meaning but inarticulate. but sometimes it’s much more, at least for me.
    @Alex–I’ll have to try that out! 🙂

  7. Tricia
    Tricia says:

    Thanks for your reflection, Teri. I am a single seminary student and recently I lightened my hair, changed my eye makeup (at my daughter’s prodding), plus lost 15 pounds. The male attention I am now getting has started to make me think that perhaps I gain weight so I do not have to deal with that sort of attention. I am a bit scared about what will happen when I start my internship in August. Part of me wants to darken my hair again and put the weight back on.


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