On a blustery but sunny October afternoon, I officiated the wedding of one of my dearest friends…and also served as a bridesmaid. When the bride first conceived of the dual-role minister/bridesmaid, she envisioned me processing down the aisle along with the other two bridesmaids (all three of us in matching dresses), and branching off as we reached the front and turning right as the others turned left, to position myself front and center for the ceremony. As much as I desired to be the accommodating bridesmaid and helpful pastor, the thought of officiating in a bridesmaid's dress caused me physical distress. I asked politely if the bride didn't think it would be more aesthetically pleasing to have me in my neutral black robe, a simple canvas upon which the bride and groom could paint the colors of their new union. In my dress, I continued, I would be a distraction, a disruption to the romantic scene of her childhood imaginings. No, she insisted, that didn't matter at all. What mattered was that she loved me, wanted me to be her bridesmaid, and wanted me to be no different than the other bridesmaids.
“But I am different from you; I'm a minister!” I croaked, trying hard to articulate my perspective. “ I am marrying you by virtue of my vocation,” I continued, clearly aware that I sounded both obnoxious and pleading, “… and that vocation imparts a certain kind of authority.” And, in desperation, I added, “It will make your fiancé’s religious parents happy to see a real minister performing your ceremony, not someone who received their officiant credentials online.” Ugh. It was embarrassing, and my friend was utterly gracious. A few days later, she sent me an email, “Matt and I finally agree on something about this wedding: we want you to wear whatever will make you feel most comfortable.” I was ashamed of my behavior, but more than that, I was just relieved.
When the big day arrived, I spent the afternoon as a full-fledged bridesmaid, outfitted in a long and low-cut dress of eggplant crepe. I kept the bride distracted from her anxieties at the hair salon, helped to get her gown zipped up and her make-up retouched, and smiled for pictures on the wide, green lawn of the country club before the guests arrived. Half an hour before the ceremony, I snuck upstairs, threw my robe on over the dress and placed around my neck the embroidered white stole that I favor for weddings. (Did I mention that I had tried to sway the bride of my position by pointing out that my wedding stole is covered with bunches of grapes in the same purple as the bridesmaids' dresses?)
When the bride and groom and the rest of the bridal party joined me upstairs in anticipation of the final word from the wedding coordinator, I calmed them down while we waited for the last bus of guests to arrive; I walked them through the next twenty minutes, helping them visualize how we would get from our upstairs room to the gathered crowd on the lawn in an orderly fashion. I officiated a ceremony that reflected the couple well: neither purely religious nor purely secular, solemn yet also playful. And when the ceremony was over, and the bride and groom happily wed, I shed my robe and hustled my way to the reception for a long evening of dancing and celebrating.
I have become adept at packing my bags, dressing and re-dressing, storing my costume changes in my gym bag, hanging dresses and skirts on the same hooks that hold my liturgical robe and stoles. But I continue to feel a dis-ease about the identity shifts that come with each outfit change. I am slipping in and out of different roles, different selves that feel like strangers to one another. Three and a half years into my ministry, I crave the feeling of 'integration' that I witness in other colleagues (assuming, as I do, that everyone else has it figured out but me – a troublingly bad habit of mine). Yet I am pulled between the 'me' that existed before my call, before my ordination, and the 'me' that exists now – officiating weddings, baptizing babies, counseling the grief-stricken, praying at the bedside of the dying. I realize that it is a false dichotomy; I am not split, yet the dis-ease remains.
For now, I am willing to be content with the dis-ease; to be open to the working of the Spirit as I come to know myself more fully as minister, wife, mother, and bridesmaid; to listen to my discomfort for what it might teach me about how we all struggle with identity and self-expression; to be as gentle and nonjudgmental with myself as I try to be with others; and to never underestimate the benefit of a well-packed bag. I still enjoy a cold beer, a long night of dancing, and my favorite Birkenstocks, just as I did before my ordination. I am no less a minister in jeans and t-shirt than in full liturgical garb; and I am no less a bridesmaid and friend in a minister's robe than in a purple dress.