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Women in clerical collars

Teri McDowell Ott's editorial for Outlook's "Stained glass ceilings: Gender discrimination in the church" issue.

“Is your daddy a pastor?” the carpet salesman asked after I’d inquired about his clergy discount.

I was 26, newly ordained after graduating with my Master of Divinity, and carpet shopping for my first house. None of my credentials changed my appearance, though. To this salesman, I didn’t look like a minister.

This became a professional problem when I began regularly dealing with funeral directors as a solo pastor. When deciding on closed or open caskets or where to display Great-Grandma Eloise’s portrait, the male funeral directors deferred to the elders. When they did speak to me, they called me “precious,” “dearie” or “honey,” with a little pat on my back.

I needed to make a change. I considered dying my hair darker and shopped for serious-looking glasses. Then I remembered my first time wearing a clerical collar with Geneva tabs. On that first try, I never did figure out how to fasten the two-fingered, white cloth onto the collar. On that Reformation Sunday, I secured it with scotch tape, hoping no one would notice.

Wearing the collar stayed with me, the attention and authority it brought. Having had enough of men calling me “precious,” I started shopping for a clerical collar that I decided would accompany me to every funeral.

20 years ago, there weren’t many styles or colors — tab or round collar, black or grey shirt in a cotton-poly blend. I measured my neck and ordered over the phone. When I received the shirt and tried it on, it was sized for a man’s body. It fit me like a big, black garbage bag cinched at the neck.

Today, I can order a clerical shirt made by women for women. Short sleeve, cap sleeve, sleeveless; tunic or A-line, maternity shirts in cotton, bamboo or tencel. I celebrate the progress the church has made — even as the world around us slips backward. But as statistics shared in this Outlook issue reflect, and as women ministers know through personal experience, there’s still room for our church to grow.

A few years ago, a video of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s North Carolina Synod circulated. In it, male pastors read comments female pastors have received, bearing witness to gender discrimination and unsupportive church cultures. These are a few of the comments received by our ELCA Lutheran sisters:

“I’ve never met a female pastor before. What do I call you? Pastorette?”

“You are the first female minister I’ve ever met. Are they all as good-looking as you?”

 “You don’t look like a senior pastor.”

“We really like you and we think you’re a great pastor. But you can’t be senior pastor because you’re a female.”

“We called you because we knew we could afford you. Women pastors are cheaper.”

Friends, these comments aren’t unique to the ELCA. On page 20 of this issue, Angie Androit highlights the PC(USA)’s most recent research on gender and leadership, revealing pervasive gender discrimination in our Presbyterian churches — and that almost half of our members are unaware of this.

Like Anghaarad Teague Dees, who writes of all the women whose shoulders she stands on as the first female pastor of Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church in Virginia, I, too, am grateful. I am grateful to Jill Duffield, called in 2014 as the first female editor of the Presbyterian Outlook. Grateful for pioneers like Margaret Towner, Katie Geneva Cannon and Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos. Grateful for stained-glass-ceiling-breakers like Joanna Adams, Barbara Wheeler, Magdalena Garcia, Susan Andrews, Pat Jones, Amantha Barbee and Shannon Kershner.

I am also grateful for opportunities to help the church welcome and include the women who follow me. I’ll never forget the 8-year-old girl I met after being first installed as an associate pastor in 1996. “She wanted to meet you,” the mom said, giving her daughter an encouraging little push. “She’s never met a woman minister before. She asked me during worship if she could be a minister someday.”

The little girl looked up at me in my black robe and long red stole.

I knelt, pulled the stole from around my neck and wrapped it around her. “Looks good on you.”

Too shy to speak, she smiled wide, fingering the silky red stole. For her, the promise of her, and the progress I trust our church will make in welcoming her gifts, I am grateful, too.