Post Author: Margaret Fox

It took me a long time to get comfortable being myself in ministry.

When David prepares to face Goliath, Saul recommends some armor. The king, doubtful that the scrawny young shepherd is up for the task, lends David his own protective gear: a bronze helmet for his head, a heavy sword, a coat of mail. David compliantly tries it on. But, finding that he can’t walk in all that stiff, ill-fitting metal, he sets Saul’s armor aside. He heads out into the field with nothing but his tunic, staff, and slingshot, vulnerable but trusting that God will bless and keep him.

Of course, David and Goliath may not be the best metaphor for the pastoral life:  ministry, after all, isn’t about contest — it’s about connection.

But I’ve received, over the years, plenty of offers of armor nonetheless. Never a bronze helmet, or a coat of mail, but the occasional suggestion, from a church member or a colleague in ministry, that I pierce my ears, or grow my hair out, or wear a skirt on Sunday mornings — do something that will help me fit the mold of female pastor, something that will make it easier for me to navigate the complex world of gender dynamics in the church. To be clear, I’m not saying that these marks of femininity — earrings, skirts, long hair — are armor for others, just that they would be for me.

My expression of gender has never been particularly feminine — one time, a stranger at the airport, having mistaken me for Rachel Maddow, asked for my autograph. In my ministry, I dress to fit somewhere in that narrow intersection of the Venn diagram between clothes I feel comfortable in and clothes that are professionally acceptable. And, so far, this has mostly worked.

But I was no David, strutting out onto the battlefield — no, it took me much longer to get comfortable being myself in ministry. At first, I worried that it would be a hindrance, this whole business of resembling a left-leaning masculine-of-center MSNBC news anchor, especially since I’ve spent most of my career in ministry in more conservative parts of the country. I wondered whether, because I didn’t look the part, I’d lack the authority or the access needed to do the work of ministry.

When I did a CPE residency at a hospital, this was often on the forefront of my mind. I knocked on patients’ doors and introduced myself as the chaplain. Would the title on my name-tag be enough? Sometimes it wasn’t — there were times when I was too far outside the norm to be seen in the role of the minister. But often it was my own self-consciousness that got in the way.

Eventually I realized that this whole business of not looking the part could be a help as much as hinder. For people who’d had bad experiences of church, sometimes I was different enough to be the minister they needed. A young hairdresser at my local SuperCuts, her face full of piercings and her wrists wrapped in tattoos, asked me what I did for work. I told her, and she went quiet for a few minutes, and then she said, “I hope it’s OK for me to ask you this. I’m just wondering how you can be a Christian.”

She admired the faith and commitment of her own parents — they ran a food bank and free furniture warehouse out of their garage — but she was troubled by their prohibitive stance on LGBT issues. She genuinely wanted to understand how I could be gay and Christian at the same time. And so I found myself in an odd and unexpected situation of witnessing from the salon chair with a pair of clippers buzzing by my ear, lifting up her parents’ faithful service while suggesting that perhaps there was even more room in the family of faith than they were currently imagining.

But the most grace-filled moment came when someone else extended this expansive vision of faith to me. It came from the family of a patient I visited in the hospital. They were from a small mountain town, and they were very poor — they had six children and a lot of hard luck, and not much else. They were all crowded together in the hospital room, standing around the bed as I came in and introduced myself as the chaplain.

The youngest child was a boy, about ten. He had a buzzcut and a strong set to his jaw, and his eyes blazed with a certain fierce protectiveness — understandable in a place far from home, full of strangers.  The nurses told me he’d learned the name and occupation of each person who came to see his mom, and he grilled them about why they were there and what they were doing. We understood it was his way of protecting her. When I introduced myself, he immediately asked, “What’s a chaplain?”

I explained that I was a minister who worked in the hospital. He furrowed his brow and turned to his father and said, “She’s a minister? But she don’t look like Jesus.” I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I was prepared to excuse myself rather than make them uncomfortable, but the father put his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Son, I think there’s a little bit of Jesus in everybody.” Then he smiled at me and said, “I think that’s kind of the point.”

We have something vulnerable within us — a small and tender self we love deeply and protect fiercely, as fiercely as that boy was protecting his mom. And we have experiences of hurt and pain — when that tenderness is wounded by another’s words and actions; when someone else’s sword has cut us at the very core. But we’re also invited to remember, as that father reminded me, that ministry isn’t a contest; it’s not a battlefield. It’s a chance to see each other, for who we really are, and to catch a glimpse, through the armor, of that little bit of Jesus that’s inside us all.

The Rev. Margaret Fox has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Perrysburg, Ohio, since the first Sunday of Advent, 2016. She previously served as a chaplain resident at Norton Healthcare in Louisville, Kentucky. Margaret holds a joint JD/MDiv from Yale and an MTS from Harvard. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, reading, and being outside.

Image by: Margaret Fox
Used with permission
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