Posts

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

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

A pastor. In a swimsuit.

watercolor drawing of three women's swimsuits - one flowered 1-piece and two striped 2-pieces

swimsuits

Sometimes I forget that my sunglasses don’t actually make me invisible.

It is a Sunday afternoon. I am at the pool. I dig through my big, floppy, flowered bag that is stuffed with towels, water toys, extra swim diapers, the pool pass, and a meager amount of cash for buying popcorn and hot pretzels with cheese as our post-swimming snack. I spray thick layers of sunscreen over my kids’ arms and legs. I sunscreen my own face, rubbing furiously so that I don’t leave big white goopy streaks across my nose and cheeks. I pull on bucket hat that I purchased years ago on clearance. (It was probably so cheap because it is a strange neon color somewhere between yellow and green, a color that is flattering on absolutely no one.)

And then, before we march across the pool deck to the graduated edge of the shallow end, I put on my sunglasses.

Sunglasses are good for keeping your eyes safe. They are good for seeing lost toys at the bottom of the pool. They are great for staying inconspicuous while people-watching.

But they do not make you invisible.

I live in a town of 8000 people. Summer in Iowa gets hot. We all go to the pool.

I can deal with seeing congregation members at the grocery store and at the park. I make small talk when we bump into each other at daycare pickup, at the library, or at the Sugar Bowl, ordering our ice cream cones.

But the pool is different.

Because I am their pastor.

And I am wearing a bathing suit.

Which is of no particular concern to them, I must be clear. They have no problem with it. It’s a non-issue. I’m the one with the problem. Read more

Vulnerable

A word
about vulnerability:
This morning, I revisited my first love–
ballet class.
I haven’t danced in years.
I have lacked the courage to step
into dance studio space
for a while now,
because
I’m overweight,
and society says:
Shame on you.
I’m out of shape,
and the dance world says:
Shame on you.
I am carrying many burdens right now
emotionally and physically.
Society says:
Keep that to yourself.
So I did what I used to tell my students to do.
I took it to the studio
and

danced

it

out.

I lacked strength,
endurance,
balance.
I struggled to learn and remember combinations.
I lagged behind everyone else in the class
and made a lot of mistakes.
I was dancing alongside Juilliard graduates.
People could say
I made a fool of myself.

But I held my own.

Alongside some of the best dancers in the world.
And when I thanked the teacher afterward,
she said,
“You looked really beautiful.
You really must have danced pretty seriously before.”
I don’t know
what made the nourishment of dance
finally outweigh the starvation
of fear,
shame,
and insecurity.
But it was helpful to be reminded
that vulnerability
is a risk
worth taking.

Moments of Silence

At the time, my husband and I were each new pastors serving little rural congregations 13 miles apart. I was vehement about keeping this news from our congregations. I already felt like I was living on display. To be that vulnerable with our parishioners (and, subsequently, two small towns) was unthinkable for me. I didn’t want our painful situation to be some entertaining news for the early morning coffee group at the local café. I protected myself fiercely, and soon found myself feeling increasingly isolated and alone (at a time when I was already feeling isolated and alone).

The next Sunday morning I presided over a baptism. It was for a beautiful, plump, pink little baby girl. Her parents hadn’t gotten around to scheduling the baptism until she was a few months old, so she felt heavier and more solid than the infants I had previously baptized. In my arms, she felt so alive and real.  I felt the physical symptoms of the miscarriage while I baptized her in front of the congregation.  I knew life was leaving my body at the same time I blessed this new life given to another family. Read more

"Thou shalt not" spelled out three times

Stolen Goods*

I admit that I love the feeling I get when I consider that the results of my prayer and study might help other preachers bear gospel fruit in the pulpit. I know how grateful I am for the insights and wisdom I discover through my weekly visits to Textweek. Reading commentaries, reflections, and sermons is an invaluable part of my preparation. I find my own voice in part by listening to the voices of others. During my first year of ministry, I didn’t always trust my voice – so young and so female—so adding it to the chorus challenged me to a new level of confidence.

Then things got interesting.

The December 2006 quotations column in Christianity Today included an excerpt from one of the linked sermons – my first Christmas Eve homily. It was completely surreal to see my words on that page; all the other quotes were from theologically orthodox men, and there I was. Well, there “Katherine Perchey” was—my name was misspelled, but whatever. The typo helped me keep my humility when I saw my words alongside such luminaries as Augustine of Hippo and John Piper.

A few months later, I read Thomas Long’s article about sermon plagiarism in the Christian Century. In “Stolen Goods,” Long addresses the rampant plagiarism among contemporary clergy. The advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to “borrow” the sermons of other preachers – and it has also made it easier to discover such indiscretions. The article piqued my interest in how the quote from my Christmas Eve homily was credited by the preachers who used it in their own work. Though I had ego-googled “Perchey” when Christianity Today came out, I hadn’t googled the actual quote.

I typed in a few words from the quote. A handful of church websites and sermon blogs came up. A few preachers had used it in conjunction with variations of that honest trick, “As another preacher has said.” I’ve used that trick; sometimes it’s just unwieldy and overly academic to attach a name to a quote, and anonymous attributions are better than none at all.

And then, after clicking on one of the search results, I froze. There was the quote, surrounded not by quotation marks, but by the entire text of my sermon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was not merely heavily inspired by my manuscript; this was my manuscript. I scrolled down to find the footnote indicating that this was not the original work of the preacher whose name was proudly listed on the sidebar; the footnote wasn’t there. As I scanned the words, I noted with more than a little bitterness that the only altered sentence was the one in which I had mentioned how much I love my friend Rosamond’s sweet potato casserole. The Reverend Plagiarist at least had the decency to insert his own favorite Christmas treat. Read more

There’s No Crying in Baseball

I always have been, and it seems as though I always will be. When I am hit by public or personal tragedy, when I am besieged by anxiety or drowning in hormones, my tear ducts kick into action and flood my
cheeks with saltwater. Though I haven’t let loose and sobbed in church (thank you, baby Jesus), in the privacy of the parsonage I have wept and sniffed and hiccuped until I’m all cried out. The blissful, empty
feeling after a good cry makes the reddened eyes all worth it,  and my blood pressure thanks me for not repressing my emotions. Crying really is a blessed release.

Except, of course, when it happens at church. Read more