Did You Really Just Say That?

Post Author: Stacey Midge

We walk a fine line between appropriate and inappropriate attention as female pastors.

Despite having encountered a variety of bizarre advances while performing my ministerial duties, I still have no idea of the best way to respond to them (I occasionally offer people the opportunity to rewind and begin again, but not everyone finds that as amusing as I do). The most frustrating thing about it for me is my sense of helplessness in those situations – the feeling that I can’t defend myself without compromising something else about my ministerial identity.

When I was a bartender, there was no question in my mind about whether or how I could let people know when they’d overstepped the boundary. Likewise, when I’m just a woman out in the world, I don’t hesitate to be direct in fending off unwanted advances. Get me in my preaching suit and put me in front of a congregation, however, and suddenly I feel like I have to just suck it up and take it. As a result, I deeply resent comments that would just make me roll my eyes and toss off a snappy comeback in any other context.

Now, I realize that married clergywomen also deal with unwanted advances, but it’s different when you’re single. “I’m married” draws a firmer line and sounds less snippy than, “Thanks, but that was an inappropriate remark.” Most of the people who say these sorts of things don’t actually intend to be lecherous. They think they’re being nice. They think we ought to be flattered. They think that because we’re single, we have no reason not to be flattered. Singleness makes us likelier targets and reduces our defenses. Lucky us.

In groups of female clergy, we often talk about embodiment in ministry. Because women were kept out of ordained ministry for so long, simply being female can bring the physicality to the forefront of our pastoral presence. The sacred and the physical mingle more explicitly in us. I would call that a positive thing, except that the church is not always adept at dealing with matters of the body, especially the female body.

We seem to forget that God’s physical incarnation is at the center of Christian faith. We can barely bring ourselves to talk about sex or sexuality, except to make lists of what is not acceptable. Our society as a whole, on the other hand, can hardly stop talking about sex, and seems obsessed with crossing every sexual boundary. Secular culture expects women to be sexual objects, while church culture is most comfortable when we are as asexual as possible. Is it any wonder that people get confused about how to deal appropriately with their attraction?

In the wider picture, I wonder if the question of how to react to inappropriate advances isn’t really about the individual advances in themselves, but rather about the dysfunctional way the world and the church deal with sexuality. The question is bigger than, “What do I say when my parishioners hit on me?”  It delves into the deeper issue of how we construct and live into a sexual ethic that is honors the holiness in our God-imaged bodies, and is integrated into the whole of our lives. It involves the ability to receive an inappropriate comment with compassion for the humanity and intent of the person giving it, and also to balance that with respect for ourselves and awareness of others who may have to deal with the person’s inappropriateness later. We are called to be loving and gracious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re called to just let it pass.

This is not simple ground to tread. There is no owner’s manual or list of dos and don’ts, which is all the more reason we need to be proactive about developing a sexual ethic and passing it on to those in our care. Female clergy often get thrust into this territory against our will, but maybe that just means we get to be the ones to do the landscaping.

The Rev. Stacey Midge serves as the Minister for Mission, Outreach, and Youth at First Reformed Church of Schenectady, New York.

Image by: Anika Huizinga
Used with permission
8 replies
  1. Sara says:

    I often try to understand the root of people’s brokenness, or why it is that something might occur, even if it doesn’t prevent it from happening again in the future. I have 3 reasons for why this happens. 1. I think for some of our congregants we “belong” to them just as the building and it’s contents do. As a consequence of the powerlessness that our society often makes people feel, feeling like one “owns” the church and it’s contents helps to give one a greater sense of power and therefore unwanted comments about our physicality is one way to demonstrate this ownership. 2. We represent the body of Christ and unwanted advances are a misguided way of getting closer to that “body”. And 3. a friend of mine once told me that she believes one of the things that crazy people seek from sane people is a sane way to respond. Therefore, when a “crazy” person responds in a “crazy” way then he or she is trying to see how you might respond in order to learn from you.
    I know that the last example may be a little hard to understand, but as I’ve thought about that and pondered it while working with unstable people have seen the truth in it. Therefore, I believe that all three reasons get to the brokeness in our world and how it manifests itself is people. That said, compassion should not be confused with enabling and in some cases we teach and guide by coming down stricter but in all cases we deserve to defend our boundaries.

  2. Ellie says:

    Thanks for the article. My sailing buddies love to introduce me as the Chaplain of their boats. It’s great that my friends respect ministry and can demystify it a bit to realize preachers are people too. However, one day when introduced as the chaplain of the good ship Moonrise, a man, my father’s age, told me “[he]could never listen to me preach because it would make [him] horny.” Two seconds later he told me he had a son he’d like me to meet. My response was inadequate. I was frustrated for not doing a better job at standing up for my self or for ministry. Is there a healthy and productive way to turn such occasions into teaching moments? Thanks for putting the issue out there. Talking about these things helps us to think about how we deal with them next time a whopper comes at us. Thanks.

  3. Amy says:

    I have said things like “you’re not allowed to say that to me” and “I’m offended.” I’ve ignored when I haven’t had the energy. I’ve laughed uncomfortably. I’ve brought up in council meetings how I sometimes receive inappropriate comments and describe them.
    It is about teaching people how to be in relationship – which I do think teaches about God’s desire to be in relationship. But, sometimes, it’s so tiring.

  4. Laura says:

    Amen to that! I can’t even count, (especially since being a solo pastor in a small rural congregation) how many times people have commented on my “Sexy” new hair cut, or asked if I’ve lost weight, or said (when in public and explaining me as their pastor to their friends) “You know that cute, bubbly, young thing is our pastor!” Like its a badge of honor to be cute and bubbly when “This is our pastor” would be just fine.

  5. Abby says:

    I once called out a man for taunting a 14-year-old boy with, “You hit like a girl!” during our church volleyball league. I couldn’t believe how much guts it took for me to say, “That better not have been an insult!” (Very witty, I know.) But the entire gym heard both, and there were too many women and girls there to let it pass. I’ll have to keep that “you just said that?!” line in my back pocket.

  6. Heather Culuris says:

    I’m often struck by the “You just said that?” amazement….
    I have tried to work on standing up not only for myself but especially for other folks who might be the recipients of unneeded comments.
    When people tell me that they like my liturgical stole, that’s wonderful.
    When people tell me that it looks like I’ve lost a lot of weight…. HMMMM.
    But in a small town of 500 people, we are local, known, obvious, visible leaders and some of the comments come from that role.
    But sometimes, “Did you really just say what I thought you said?”

  7. Stacey says:

    Yes – part of what I was wondering about is not just how I react to advances while in “clergy mode,” but how I respond to them in other contexts as well. There has to be some alternative to both nastiness (of which I’ve expressed my share) and passiveness that models a better way.

  8. Elsa says:

    I wonder if our hospitality as the pastor isn’t the same as it would be without our robe and stole. If we allow young girls to play in the pulpit, doesn’t that mean that we also teach them how to stand up for themselves?
    I don’t think that always means being nasty (as I would be in the bar). But I do think it means that we embody confidence and strength in our person. Admittedly, I don’t know how to do this. I fear I’ve been nasty up until this point. It is indeed something to think about.


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