Would It Surprise You in 2016?

I have a friend – a first generation clergywomen – who is in her 80s now and she The-Clergy-Collection-April-2011 (2)is a fascinating resource for learning what it was like for a woman in professional ministry in the 1950s and 60s.  In my denomination, women could be ordained in 1956, but there weren’t many who sought ordination in those days.  My friend is one who did.

She tells me that – after her ordination in her late 20s until about age 45 – there was not a single church meeting, not a single Presbytery Assembly, not a single committee meeting when she was not propositioned in some overt or subtle way by her male colleagues.

As one of her colleagues crassly put it, “If you are here,  we get to  have you.

That was in the 1950s and 1960s.

Flash forward to 2016:  Harvard alumni Charles Storey of the exclusive Porcellian Club stated last week to The Harvard Crimson that “Forcing single gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct.”  If women are here, we are tempted to have them.


I’ve been informally asking young clergywomen if men still make inappropriate comments to them and I hear a resounding yes:

  • “You look beautiful today.”
  • “I like a woman in panty hose.”
  • “You should wear skirts more often.”

I would love to hear from young clergymen if they ever hear women say to them:

  • “You look handsome today.”
  • “I like a man in a robe/suit.”
  • “You should wear jeans more often.”

As a single clergywoman years ago, it was a bit shocking what men said to me. Keep in mind that I am a clergywoman.  And the comments are coming from clergymen or male church members.  Are they just being awkward?  Or are they wielding power as if to say:  “I don’t care how gifted you are in ministry; if you are here, you are an object for my benefit.”

I am going to give church guys the benefit of the doubt and assume for a moment that they just don’t know what to say to their pastor.  Here are some ideas:

  • “That sermon really made me think.”
  • “You led a great class today.”
  • “Thank you for your leadership.”

Many things have changed in the past 60 years.  But many things have not changed.  How about for you?

10 responses to “Would It Surprise You in 2016?

  1. I’m not a young clergy woman but I hear comments about my appearance all the time. I trust that most of them are intended to be compliments.
    I have not had anyone proposition me.
    I’ve decided the best way to battle the inherent sexism of the world is to just do the best job I know how to do.
    A few people left the congregation after it called me because I’m a woman. And a few members have told me they never expected to “find Jesus” by listening to a female pastor, but they are glad God has a sense of humor and proved them wrong.


  2. I’ve had several comments about “a man in a robe”, but nothing like my wife, a young(ish) clergy woman.

    In my case, I think it’s just that they don’t know what to say and they are so enmeshed in the misogyny that they have no idea they are being offensive.


  3. Yes, I have experienced all kinds of crazy sexist comments, both as a businesswoman in my 20s and then as a clergywoman in my 30s and 40s. It’s essential that we call these out, for our own sanity and so that we can create a better environment for the generations coming along behind us.

    At the same time, I want to give a shout out to my male colleagues who are advocates, allies and friends. Years ago, when I was in business, co-workers shared with me that a young man was speculating that the high profile role I had attained was due to the fact that I was “sleeping with the boss.” It was a trusted male colleague who replied, “no — she’s just smarter than you and she works harder!”

    Now, I am fortunate to work with a female head of staff and a team of clergymen. I believe that we model for the congregation collegiality, respect, and humor. While my work with children means that I’m more likely to connect with moms, there have been dads who invite me to walk with their families in some way. I think that these men see the respect that my teammates and I have for each other and so they are respectful as well. The congregation sees my high powered husband taking the lead with our kids on Sunday mornings, and I hope they see how we don’t let gender roles dictate but instead do what works for our family. And when my sons come to church, they benefit from seeing men and women sharing leadership — and they know that I have fun along the way.

    When I imagine what it would be like to work in the world like the one described from the 50s and 60s, I think how much richer work life is now. An environment where part of the population needs to protect itself from the gaze and comments of the rest is poorer for everyone — men included. I hope that we keep asking these questions and lifting up places where healthy male-female relationships thrive.


  4. I’m a clergyman. 45 now. I’ve heard all three of those comments more than once. And others of a similar nature. From both women and men. My first Sunday at this current calling an older woman, with her hand on my shoulder said, “I hope you’re married because we can’t have you single and looking this good.” Not sure what that means. My colleague here, a young clergy woman, get’s comments all the time about appearance. I’ve taken men aside and scolded them for it. I’m not sure that was helpful but the guys need to know they’re out of line.


  5. Even in the most progressive of settings this happens all the time. Like Marci, I also try and trust that most of them are intended as compliments and I think for some, it is their way to try and talk/relate with me. However, I once had a church member tell me I looked “delicious” and I was just baffled that they felt like they could say that to ANYONE, let alone one of their pastors. Seeing this post though, I’m also very thankful that the clergymen I have worked with have never said any of those kind of things to me.


  6. I have heard all these and more…and I have been propositioned, in my office, by an elder. And had colleagues say ridiculous things that all boil down to some variation on “wondering what’s under there.” sigh.

    And yet…I do feel like it’s getting better. Maybe that’s just because I’ve changed presbyteries. 😉 Maybe it’s because I’ve worked hard to cultivate a culture where all people are respected and treated with dignity. Maybe it’s because I’m older and so less tantalizing than I used to be. Maybe the people around me are wising up. I don’t know….I do know that I wouldn’t go back to 1956 for anything, even if it was the year of highest church school attendance.


  7. I too have had many, many comments, some with ill intent and some innocently offensive. My favorite is the oft-repeated, “Are you a priest or a priest-ESS?” with eyebrows wiggling. “That sounds so dirty!” Having said that, I am so, so grateful for the women who shouldered the burden of being among the first, who stood firm through all that nonsense, who went before all of us who minister now. Thank you, sisters! Thank you! Your gift is a blessing, because, as Teri points out, it is getting better.


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