Monday, August 07, 2006

Strictly Entre Nous

Don't get me wrong: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE talking fashion, make-up, products and shoes with all my pals in the ministry. In fact, I think there's nothing more fun than that moment when all the deep theological talk falls away after dessert has been eaten, and we all descend into stories of how sweaty we were that morning in the pulpit, how we used tons of powder and were wearing nothing underneath but Hanes cotton t-shirts and shorts, and that we still schvitzed like crazy, and how badly we wanted to re-do our eye make-up before coffee hour but we didn't have time because someone was telling us something too important. I love discussing my latest facial with my pals, or how I found a terrific product that takes the bags out from under my eyes, or jeans that give good derriere.

However, I think we should keep these chit-chats strictly between us, and not because we need to give our congregations the mistaken impression that we're Above All That, but because there are almost always more important and worthy things to discuss with the people to whom we have been called to minister. Dish about fashion and hair is just that: dish. Among colleagues, it's about image and persona, and thus transcends mere shallowness. But when we talk a whole lot about clothes and make-up and products with our folks, we may very well be (a) reinscribing gender stereotypes, (b) re-emphasizing our culture's sick obsession with appearance, (c) giving them the impression that we're scrutinizing their looks rather than seeing them through the eyes of love and Spirit and (d) avoiding some other, more rich conversation.

This isn't to say that I don't talk about shoes and clothes with my staff or my folks. I do, but it's brief and fun, and I dwell on it only if it's a currently important issue in their lives (such as when they're getting ready to take on a new job or they're preparing for an important family event like a reunion or a wedding). When fashion or cosmetics provide an opportunity to talk about incarnation, to delve into the struggle for health and wholeness, or to explore identity, bring it on. When these subjects are raised just to pass the time, pass the time some other way. Seize the moment. Sure, you may get a reputation for being a serious pastor, but darlings, there are worse things. Just be a serious pastor who dresses well, is all I'm sayin'.

(Celebrity gossip, on the other hand, can present a marvelous opportunity to talk about morals, ethics and how to interpret pop culture as religious people, so consider that the next time you guiltily purchase "In Touch!" and pick up "People" while you're at it!)

What I'm leading up to is this: I do not believe that discussion, or even mention, of fashion, diet or cosmetics is generally appropriate in the pulpit -- and especially not for women preachers. If such topics are employed homiletically, they should be used with utmost care and strategy, mindful of the way they change both the tone of the sermon and the relationship between congregation and preacher.

I think that the moment we include news of our diet, the quest for the perfect hair-cut, or the tortured indecision about what shade of gown to wear to our ex-husband's wedding in our sermon, we give the congregation the unwelcome opportunity to see us as people who are living way too much in the world, and falling prey to its damaging, materialistic dictates. We are oversharing, and assuming a far too familiar tone. This is my opinion after having lost respect for many preachers who swerved from potentially deep waters into the "Ain't I human, too" topics involving body and appearance. I am a conservative in this wise: I do NOT want to hear my preacher mention that he got an idea while taking a shower. I am too imaginative to let such a comment go without creating a whole, unwelcome visual image. Create a visual of yourself naked and soaking wet, and I'm a goner for the rest of the sermon, unless you're pretty brilliant.

Let's be careful out there!! Modesty in word is every bit as important as zipping your fly or sewing the gap in your blouse closed.

Yesterday morning I heard a lovely, very smart preacher who was perfectly slim talk about her diet. Her whole sermon, in fact, used the metaphor of diets to teach about Christian life. While she clearly intended to provide a strong religious message with her sermon, I was still unable to stop thinking, "Colleague, I thnk I get what you're doing here, but you're still a woman preaching about diets."

I do not want to overly belabor my grappling with the explicit and implicit messages of yesterday's sermon so much as I want to highlight for my dear readers the appropriate compartmentalizing of our fun, light-hearted, fashion-conscious selves with our preacherly selves. I'm not saying that never the twain shall meet, I'm saying that we must be very, very careful how they do, and when.

"But PeaceBang!" I hear you say, "You're being so inconsistent! Don't you always say that it's part of our calling to concern ourselves with Beauty!?"

Yes, I do, my dear powder pigeons. And I insist that it is important for us to think about beauty, to strive for it, and to seriously consider our persona, our looks and our fashion savvy. But you see, we are trained, called and ordained religious leaders. We have a theological education. We are grounded in faith and in prayer, and we are armed against the Adversary in whatever form the Adversary takes. Our concern with fashion and beauty is not a matter of our own spiritual development, but a matter of making ourselves more publically appealing so as to bring the gospel to a community who is ravaged by consumerism and hammered by Madison Avenue. It is not to lift up the worth of fashion for its own sake.

Looking put-together and polished and being as gorgeous as we can be is not about our capitulation to our materialistic culture. It's a tool we employ to get through more doors, to catch the eye of more seeking souls, and to earn our place alongside other respected public leaders.



Herein endeth the lesson.

12 Comments:

Blogger BaptizedPagan said...

We so need to start a webgroup for your fans entitled "The Powder Pigeons".

6:35 PM  
Blogger boomer said...

Chere Goddess,

A local colleague and I were discussing an upcoming "training" session for lay-worship-associates in a rather "informal" congregation. Our colleague wants to find a way to say something to those who find t-shirts with pajama bottoms, gym clothes and uncombed hair perfectly fine when they are sharing a reading or lighting a chalice.

How to handle the topic of appropriate Sunday worship-leading attire in this context? The colleague is female, one of the few who is never a Glamour Don't at GA, and who, in a previous workshop suggested to lay leaders that if they must wear those "famous UU t-shirts" they ought to be clean, free of lingering stains and pressed. Of course, the audience found that to be hysterically funny...

Is there a way to train the folks without the dangers you mention in this post?

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do so agree about care with visual imagery in sermons: I remember a preaching seminar in which the preacher's major metaphor was the fact that as a boy he wore pajamas and as a grown man he no longer did so..... I can't remember the rest of the sermon, just the unpleasant visual images.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Caroline Divine said...

Right on, PB. Right on, right on, right on.

Or as we say at the end of the lesson over on the Trinitarian side of Jesus' vast family, thanks be to God.

Great question, Boomer. How about having a lay person train the lay people? Like that it's lay person to lay person and the pastor stays out of it. This assumes you have a trusted lay leader who is concerned about all this and that you have a tradition, or can set one up, of having lay people train the lay folk. It's better practice anyway -- clergy shouldn't do all the leading and training. What do you think? Would that work in your setting? (It works fine in Catholic churches for the training of lay Eucharistic ministers.) I don't particularly think lay people who are not vested (we have some of our lay folk in robes, though not the readers or chalice bearers) and I've seen readers in shorts be perfectly reverent and appropriate in the summer, though it's all contextual, depends on what the congregation's culture is -- but they should be CLEAN and not wrinkled. Bare minimum.

Though is this an impediment to youth involvement in the pulpit? Something to think about. (I suspect, however, that it is not so much the youth who arrive all raggedy as Adults With Issues who are still revolting against the Presbyterianism of their childhood, if they are in a UU or UCC church that is.)

I have an issue I'm about to deal with with a returning student -- not a student of mine but I see him periodically in an extra-curricular group I advise. He's an older commuter student and he *smells* -- I mean badly, as in I am wondering whether he has regular housing or perhaps might be living in a shelter. He stays in the library till very very late, which is why I wonder about his housing. He loves study, he's very dedicated, but soon when he goes out to interview for jobs soon he will be in trouble; and he may alienate his fellow students in the group in which he's an active volunteer. On the one hand, Jesus loved and welcomed the smelly, and I am sure they were plenty smelly back there on the dusty roads of the first century C.E. On the other hand, I think this man is not particularly self-aware about his appearance and odor. I am not sure I'm the right person to intervene since I am not his academic advisor or the dean of students, and I don't want to enlist another student, because I also want to be very respectful and I don't want to risk putting this person down or drawing attention to him -- the conversation should be private if it occurs. So I am pondering this one between now and when school begins. I know what Jesus would do -- he wouldn't give a rip. But I worry that this student will close himself off from social and leadership and professional opportunities because of his lack of bath and clean clothes. Must find out first whether he has a decent place to live though, because there may be an issue there.

But as for those congregants, get them to use the laundry and an iron! I'd say delegate to a lay leader, though.

Air kisses all around,

Another Powder Pigeon

7:43 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Booms, make it religious, make it religious, make it religious. Discuss What to Wear as a part of the vision and mission of the church, a way of visually expressing the church's covenant, anything you can to help them realize that this isn't just about some meanie depriving them of their pit-stained comfy t-shirts.

As in all things, you want to bring the people an enthusiastic vision that makes them sit up in their chairs with excitement, see themselves in new and better way, and invited them to shine. Who doesn't want to shine?

When I'm going to be presenting with someone, I always ask them, "how do I look?" And I have them check my teeth, my hair, my hem, and my stole. After they've checked me, I check them. That gives me a chance to say, "Wait a sec, you've got a piece of crazy hair sticking out. See? Here, use my comb."

We're ALL crazy stickin' out hair heads. It's more fun to be that together, and to fix each other up, than it is to chew your nails with worry about it and say nothing.

7:55 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Caro Divine, oh my. Yes, someone needs to ask him if he's got housing, you know, "I've seen you in the library all the time, and I'm wondering... etc." And with that could be, "And Tom, this is hard for me to say, but your personal hygiene is part of what caused me some concern." I don't know who should do this. But you're right -- Jesus wouldn't care, but everyone else will. Someone's got to tell him, and someone's got to reach out.

7:59 PM  
Blogger St. Casserole said...

What about the metaphor I used several years ago? I suggested that faith was like expensive eye cream. If you don't use it, what's the point?

Just wondering...

8:37 PM  
Blogger Caroline Divine said...

Right you are. I've been thinking about this guy on and off all summer. (A professor who is also a minister, or even a professor who isn't, is in the business of pastoral care.) I think I'll have a confidential chat with the dean of students and find out what I can about personal circumstances. I suspect no one (including whoever the academic advisor is) has had the personal hygiene chat with this fellow. Likely no one wants to deal with it. This actually is where pastoral counseling training comes in handy, because let me tell you, they do NOT teach pastoral care in Ph.D.-land. They barely teach you how to teach. And then you land in a college full of humans who, being human, are not only studying but suffering -- and celebrating and all the rest. (Not that I recommend everyone do an M.Div. and be out there doing chaplaincy or parish work before going into the professor biz -- but if you happen to do one and then the other, you'll find it sure is pertinent.) And yes, there are serious boundary issues in higher education. But not just the ones people talk about (sexual harrassment, how much to socialize or not with students, and that whole area) -- and with undergrads, let me tell you, the boundaries and intervention issue comes up constantly; just as it does in a congregation! (Where, as one wise elder in ministry --a snazzy woman by the way-- reminded me, transference and countertransference operate just as much as in a therapist's office, but in much more tricky and diffuse ways, precisely because you're not inside a 50-minute hours.)

Anyway, thanks PB, for the encouragement, and glad I brought this up. I almost didn't.

Caro. Div.

8:59 PM  
Blogger boyinthebands said...

And by extension, don't fuss with your preacher-ware too much in public. A good bit of advise I got from an older colleague.

One of the reasons I write about clericals and vesture on my blog so much now is that I'm not in a pastorate now.

11:12 PM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Cassie, don't get all wigged out, now! I'm sure your cute remark was just part of a larger, more deep and serious whole conversation or sermon. If you preached a whole sermon on that metaphor, yes, I'd have to say you should be clonked on the head. I'm sure, however, that you didn't do that.

12:16 AM  
Blogger revabi said...

Can I be one of "The Powder Pigeons"?

There is such a fine line of sharing our humanness isn't there? I do understand where you are coming from.

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

I preached a fantastically well-received sermon on embodied theology, which included lots of very real-life stories about body image, sexuality, disability and the sacred. Did I use any stories from my own experience? NO! I just felt I couldn't. I had the sense that, especially as an un-partnered young woman minister, it would compromise my ministry to do so. It would make the message too much about me, in a way that a personal story on most other subjects wouldn't.

And I was grateful for my big black geneva robe and my hair in a bun while I delievered it. I would have felt terribly self-conscious in anything less. It's ironic that I chose a de-sexualized look to preach a sermon on sexuality that day, but I really think the look helped people internalize the message rather than focus on me.

1:25 PM  

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