Women, the sacred and the sartorial

By Courtney Wilder
8 Feb 2010

At first blush, the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers does not seem like a hotbed of feminist theology of the body. Written primarily, though not exclusively, for women, the blog includes posts on a wide range of topics related to clergy and their professional dress, including how to discern between attractive, trendy shoes and those that are too sexy for ministry, the difficulties of achieving professional-looking hair, what constitutes good makeup, and how clergy should dress for weddings. The advice is practical, the commentary is very funny, and the images are consistently good.

As one reads more posts, and reads them more deeply, a distinctive pastoral theology begins to emerge, a theology that embraces the physical presence of women in ministry. The author, whose nomme de blog is PeaceBang, is otherwise known as the Rev Victoria Weinstein, the Harvard-educated pastor of First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, Massachusetts. She addresses her readers with a range of endearments, including “darlings,” “my revered pigeons,” “kittens,” and “my pets.” Blog posts include examples of especially good fashion choices on the part of clergy, images of garments which would be appropriate in clergy wardrobes, critiques of dowdy or inappropriate ministerial outfits, and answers to readers’ questions.

What keeps the blog from being either frivolous or harsh is Weinstein’s consistent recognition that female clergy occupy a professional and theological space that requires them to respond to a long and often critical tradition. In a post titled “Too ‘Hot’ For Ministry?” Weinstein offers advice for young, female members of the clergy who have been instructed to tone down their attire because someone, perhaps the senior pastor, considers them too attractive.

She writes, “Document EVERY word you can remember from that first meeting and before you do a thing about shopping, call in another pair of eyes to assess your wardrobe and appearance. It may, in fact be that you DO need some sprucing up. It may also be that your supervisor is trying to shame you for being a hottie. Don’t fly off the handle; walk carefully and govern your angry thoughts. We serve a monumentally sex-phobic institution, my darlings — this should neither surprise nor enrage you. Be ye wise as a serpent and…you know the rest.” In the remainder of the post, Weinstein offers practical advice on how to navigate this especially thorny situation.

The purpose of the blog becomes clear when Weinstein reflects on the connection between professional appearance and what it means for congregants to have their pastor present in the room. She writes, “I guess what I am trying to say is that in some way, our ministerial bodies are not just personal but are also communal. This may be neither rational nor fair, chickens, but that’s just how it is. When one of our beloveds is dying, it’s not just anybody who shows up who can represent the church. It’s when your particular body shows up that the Church is there at bedside. You know it, I know it and God knows it. When you become a ‘Rev.,’ your body isn’t just your body anymore. Maybe not fair or rational, but I think that’s how it works.” Beauty Tips for Ministers is not only about how the pastor ought to look, but about why it matters.

Thus what separates Weinstein’s approach from secular guides to professional dress are first, her ability to exercise pastoral care in guiding her readers, and second, her clear conviction that having (and dressing) a female body does not interfere with a pastor’s vocation. Indeed, Weinstein argues that for female clergy dressing one’s body ought to reflect both affirmation of one’s gender and acknowledgement of the leadership role of clergy within the community. She identifies the tendency of some female clergy to efface their gender and/or sexuality in their professional attire and argues that this approach does no one any favours; instead, she advocates for a model of religious womanhood that is frankly feminine, and simultaneously highly professional and even sartorially conservative. In so doing, Weinstein presents a deeply feminist view of religious vocation: She holds that not only are women suitable to be clergy, but that women can most powerfully embody their vocational calling when also attending to the care of their own bodies.

You can visit Beauty Tips for Ministers at www.beautytipsforministers.com

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(c) Courtney Wilder teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department of Midland Lutheran College, an institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in Fremont, Nebraska. She is a past Junior Fellow at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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