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Saul’s Armor

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. Read more