I’ve grown up in the ELCA, but it wasn’t until I decided to attend seminary and begin the candidacy process to become a pastor that I really started to see the way in which my sexuality and gender would play a role in how I was treated.
During my entrance interview, while wearing a form fitting, yet modest dress, I felt what it was like to be a woman in ministry. In discussing the changes since I last saw them in December, we got onto the topic of how I was now recently single after calling off an engagement. Then the conversation took a change for the worse. The room was two women and a man, a room that I assumed would be on my side no matter what. One of the women in the room, who was a pastor, decided to give what I assume was woman to woman advice for ministry—but the first thing she decided to discuss is my appearance and my relationships. She started with commenting on how I am a pretty girl, but I will need to be cautious with the type of clothing that I wear during my ministry. Then she went on to say how my interactions with the men of the congregations I serve at will have to be monitored closely—that as a woman, I should be careful with how I interact with men, as I may give them the wrong idea. I am well aware that as a pastor there will be boundaries that need to be kept, but they seem to be universal boundaries in my mind (such as boundaries to keep between parishioners).
I had about an hour and a half car ride that I took to get home, which was moving into my new Seminary home with people I was unfamiliar with. In making conversation with them, I brought up my experience, and there was a silence that somewhat fell about the room. We were all so confused as to why they would have every commented on my clothing. On one hand, we assumed it could be coming from a place of compassion, acknowledging the gross culture we live in, where many congregation members will be commenting on body shape and outward appearance. But as we discussed more, we couldn’t understand why that would matter, specifically because I was going to be a pastor. My evangelical friends in high school always threw around the phrase “modest is hottest,” but I never felt as if I was immodest in any way; their judgements of what a “good” Christian should be felt as if it had come to full circle in my interview. Why does it matter what I wear as a female? My body should never be sexualized in the first place by strangers, but it really should not be the choice of a call committee to decide what is and isn’t okay to wear each day.
As of October 2016, I came out as gay, and I see things even more clearly now with the challenges I will face. Having to date as a future pastor is hard enough, but add being a gay woman into the mix, and you have something that is near to impossible (or at least that’s how it has felt). People get scared hearing the words pastor, but those who stick around long enough to get to know me are all on board until the words “Vision and Expectations” come out of my mouth. The idea of not being able to date according to the social constructs our society has put in place, such as living with a significant other before marriage, scares people away faster than the title of pastor. I’m only just beginning, and this is only the start to my story, but it has affected me in ways I could not imagine.
Dating is hard. And it probably will always be, regardless if I had or hadn’t decided to become a pastor. But because of this title, there are issues of intimacy at hand that feel as though they just became more difficult as a gay woman. There are things I could do in my relationships behind others backs, but there is this sense of servitude in a way towards those in charge. That if I were to have sex with, or move in with, a loving and committed partner, I could be penalized in my ordination. These are very intimate and private details of my life, that with V&E, are open for questioning. And now with my coming out, it’s as if my dating is under an even greater microscope than before—not because of how I date, but more of myself recognizing that there are many who are still uncomfortable with a woman in ministry dating another woman.
I would love to see the ELCA be bolder in their statements of acceptance and inclusivity. I would love to see them recognize that pastors are people too; that we are doing God’s work, as are many others, but we cannot and should not be held to higher standards than all other people. And by always equating the phrase “people make mistakes” with matters of relationships and sexual intimacy, we are perpetuating the cycle of unhealthy relationships—because people no longer feel they can voice their questions or struggles. The ELCA needs to love all people, all bodies, all relationships, without carrying a stigma of what they feel is the “Christian” way to do it.