I expected to be challenged in my candidacy interview.
I expected that my committee would press me on my theology, my growing edges as a leader, and maybe even probe into the messy parts of my personal life.
I expected to be pushed and stretched.
I did not expect to be sexually harassed.
A few days earlier I had decided what I wanted to wear. I stood in front of my closet, pawing through my options, taking things off the hanger, throwing them on my bed to try on in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I wanted to be comfortable and professional and, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to look like myself. I had been working in public ministry full-time for a few years now, and so I had a pretty fair collection of professional attire: pencil skirts from Express, blouses from New York and Co, blazers from Macy’s.
I finally decided on a dress from the Limited. It was red.
Reformation Red, I smiled and thought to myself, as I hung it up in a garment bag. Red is the color worn by clergy at ordination, and besides, it looks good on me.
I paired it with the tan heels I wear most days, a delicate gold bracelet, and a gold starburst necklace. I felt confident about my choice. It was bold but professional. It was vibrant and well put together. It was a nice knit fabric and it was lined and comfortable. It was versatile enough to work for many occasions before, and so surely it would work perfectly when it was time to meet with my candidacy committee. And besides, its high neckline (at my collar bone), three-quarter length sleeve, and just-above-the-knee hem assured me that I wouldn’t be worried about things like my ample cleavage busting out if I had to reach or bend for any reason.
And then there I was, sitting at the table in my synod’s office, facing my committee. I had a sinking feeling that things were not going well, but had committed that I would do my best to be myself.
At one point, the only man on my committee excused himself to go to the bathroom and one of the women turned to me and said, “I need to ask you a really inappropriate question.”
I was a little taken aback, “Ok?”
“I want to know if you know what men think when they look at you.”
I felt my face get hot, “That IS a really inappropriate question,” I stated, looking her in the eye, giving her a chance to retract it, to back down.
I glanced at the other woman in the room. She was silent. She said nothing.
“It IS an inappropriate question,” the woman repeated again, “But you are just such a beautiful girl. Do you know the things that men think about when they look at you? I mean look at you.” She went on and on, continuing to sexualize my body.
I took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure how much to say because this woman had a lot of power of my life and my future. I finally settled on saying, “I am going to have to push back on that question, because I can’t help the way that I look.”
“I just want to make sure that you’re AWARE,” she repeated, raising her eyebrows pointedly, “Of what you are causing men to think of you.”
At that moment, the man in my committee came back in the room from his bathroom break. The woman asked him again to leave and wait outside. She wasn’t going to let this go.
I scanned my brain to try to think of a way to address these explicit and demeaning comments about my body without putting my entire career in jeopardy. “If you are asking me how I have dealt with sexual harassment in ministry, I can tell you about that,” I said, trying to show my capabilities as a leader, address what I was praying were her concerns, and gain some control over this mortifying conversation, “When I worked [in my last context], I had a man say some inappropriate things to me after I preached one Sunday. So I excused myself from the situation. I talked to the pastor to make him aware and I informed my supervisor so that he could lend support to the pastor and congregation as they figure out how to deal with the situation. My supervisor told me that I handled the situation perfectly, and checked in with me to make sure that I was ok.”
I paused for a second, trying to stand up for myself in the most diplomatic way I could muster, “If you wanted to ask me that in a way I could hear it, you could have said something like, ‘Unfortunately there is still a lot of sexism in the church. Have you experienced that? How did you deal with it?’ And then maybe offered me some resources or informed me of ways that this office could support me in such situations.”
“Oh I know,” she said dismissively, waving her hand, “But I was trying to push your buttons.”
I ended up getting approved for entrance into candidacy. But this milestone was bitter sweet. I had to wonder if I even wanted to be a part of an institution that, as a literal part of the fabric of leadership creation, engaged in sexualizing my body in an interview.
I wanted to be challenged as a leader. Yet challenge requires trust. These are people who had every intimate detail of my life in their files: history of my sexual abuse, history of my eating disorder…and yet despite having knowledge of my vulnerabilities, they chose to weaponize my own body and sexuality against me. I was put into a situation where I had very little recourse and had to endure the abuse lobbied at me out of fear that my entire future and career was at stake. The people in that room were either oblivious to the power dynamics of the situation, or worse, were using their power to shame me by trying to shame by body.
I felt sick to my stomach for days. I couldn’t sleep or stop crying. It was all I could talk about. I was mentally preparing myself to find another denomination or maybe to leave the church altogether; not because I didn’t feel called to word and sacrament, but because I knew I didn’t deserve blatant and sexist institutional abuse.
I called other female clergy to ask what they thought. They assured me that I was not crazy, I was not overreacting, and that this was completely inappropriate. I called my own pastor, a woman, who urged me to talk to the Bishop. The Bishop was affirming in our conversation and agreed that he was concerned and that it was inappropriate.
I asked not to have further contact with the woman and he agreed that was reasonable. He promised to follow up with me. Yet, despite my emails in the coming weeks and texts and a voicemail, he never got back to me again.
I fear, even now, sharing this story. Even anonymously. Because I am terrified that my story will be recognizable to someone in the synod office and it will end my career. That’s what harassment does. It exerts power and control over people via intimidation and fear.
But just as I have a right to my body and the right not to be harassed by those with power over me, I have the right to my own story. I will not be coerced further, into silence.
Because As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”