“This Is Not A Costume… These Are My Work Clothes!”

Image: The “costume” I wore for our church’s Fall Festival & All Saints Party. The sandwich board reads, “This Is Not A Costume… These Are My Work Clothes!” An amusing joke, but also an important statement about the necessity for more female leaders in the church.

While statistics show that the percentage of female clergy is on the rise in the United States, female senior or solo pastors still remain in the distinct minority. The number of female pastors with a disability or from diverse backgrounds is even smaller.

“You know, it’s very rude to dress up like a priest.”

I was standing in line at the Sheetz near the hospital, quietly minding my own business and waiting to pay for my Pumpkin Spice Latte. I looked up to see the man in line in front of me glaring at me.

“Excuse me?” I asked politely.

“I said,” the man repeated, “It’s very rude to dress up like a priest. It shows a lot of disrespect.”

I was confused. I had just come from visiting a parishioner at the hospital and had no idea why this man was so angry.

“I mean seriously,” he said as he pointed at my neck, “Are you going to a costume party or something? Because that’s in really poor taste.”

My hand flew to my neck where my fingers found my clergy collar. I felt my cheeks flush. Suddenly, I understood. I was wearing my clerics and it was the week of Halloween.

I spluttered as I tried to explain to the man that I was not impersonating a priest and that I had just come from a pastoral visit. I always wore my collar when I visited hospitals and nursing homes so that the medical staff would know why I was there. Otherwise, I was frequently mistaken for the granddaughter.

He regarded me strangely as I swiped my debit card and slipped it back into my wallet.  “Well,” he said at last, “If you say so. I didn’t know women could be priests. I’ve never seen one before.”

“Well, there are a lot of us.” I mumbled as I ducked past him and rushed out into the parking lot, my cheeks still burning.

Although that incident happened years ago, it still sticks with me. It was the first time I was accused of “impersonating a priest,” but sadly, it was not the last.

These Are My Work Clothes

I had this incident in the front of my mind when our church prepared to celebrate our Fall Festival and All Saints Party.

“I want to wear my clergy dress,” I said to my husband a week or two before the party. “Otherwise, I’m afraid visitors won’t know who I am.”

“You should wear your collar,” he replied. “When we had visitors at the church picnic this summer, one of them asked me if I was the pastor.”

I groaned. “I know! That happens all the time. But I’m afraid people will think I’m wearing a costume. There will be lots of people in costumes.”

He thought for a long moment. Then, he grinned. “I have an idea- I’ll make you a sandwich board. It will be hilarious, and you can also help to raise awareness. You’re always chattering on about wanting to raise awareness.”

“A sandwich board?” I asked incredulously. “What would it say?”

He grinned broadly, “These are my work clothes.”

What Percentage of Pastors are Female?

“The short answer to this question is ‘not enough (Hartford Institute for Religious Research).’”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I had to explain or justify my position to someone. I frequently find myself saying things such as, “I have my Master’s in Divinity,” and “I’ve been to both college and graduate school.”

I encourage people to address me as “Pastor,” or “Reverend,” and always list “M.Div.” after my name.

It’s important to me that people know that I am well educated and well equipped to lead the church. Somehow, I suspect that my male colleagues don’t function under the same amount of scrutiny.

It  can feel like a constant struggle for both acknowledgment and validation in a profession that is largely dominated by men. Current estimates show that only %12 of churches in the United States have female senior or solo pastors (ibid).

The numbers are a little better in the United Methodist Church, the denomination in which I serve, but racially diverse clergywomen face an entirely unique set of challenges (M.G. Burton, 2014).

While the status of women has greatly improved in the church over the last twenty years, there is still a great deal of work to do as we work to combat the issues of sexism and racism within the body of Christ.

We need more women who preach.

We need more women who write.

We need more women who lead.

May we stand strong together and support one another. The body of Christ is not complete without all of us working together to spread God’s love.

Peace Be With You,

-Rev. Rebecca

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As a clergywoman who is racially diverse and has a disability, it’s easy to feel very alone at times. That is part of the reason why I started this blog. Are you a female clergywoman or a person with a disability? Maybe you’re a woman working in a profession that has been historically dominated by men. I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below.  Let’s fight the good fight together!

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