“You don’t look like a pastor”

Rev. Karie Charlton shares how she claims space as a female pastor.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

As a woman in ministry, I use my collar to claim my pastoral identity because “you don’t look like a pastor” is something people say to me. When I read Angie Andriot’s “Gender and leadership in the PC(USA): Looking at the data” in the Outlook, this quote by a survey participant rings true: “…being a woman in this man’s/male church has been painful in more ways that you have provided space to write.”

It is not surprising to me that there was not enough space to write the stories because there are so many. I would add that there aren’t enough safe spaces and people to share those stories with and not enough anonymity to tell those stories without fear of repercussions. If you know a woman in ministry, you have heard a story (or dozens) about the unique challenges women face, and the weird and/or terrible things that happen. I am lucky that I have a supportive church, a group of clergy women that meet regularly, and that I’ve been able to connect to others through Young Clergy Women International and their alumni groups. Other pastors have not been so lucky.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) put out a video the Synod of North Carolina made in October of 2018 of male clergy reading aloud comments their women colleagues have endured. They had not seen the comments prior to reading them. In 2019, the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church put out a similar video. These videos reinforce something I already knew: Many women are told in many ways that “you don’t look like a pastor.”

Looking like a pastor

The church I serve does not have air conditioning, so pastors are not required to wear formal robes. I love my robe. Being without it feels funny and visitors have mistaken me for the pastor’s daughter. This has happened in every church I’ve worked or volunteered. I tried to wear my most professional clothes, but I agonized over what to wear each week. I tried buying dresses from Treasure House, a non-profit women’s resale store to highlight a place our church could support, but this meant a public fixation on my clothing that ultimately made me uncomfortable. I tried wearing a clerical shirt that was designed for men, but I worried about the strength of the buttons hugging my curves. Nothing felt right. I was introduced to Clergy Image, which makes clergy apparel that can be customized. I have a couple of dresses, shirts, and my favorite clergy crop top which can make any outfit clergy apparel on the go, or I can wear a t-shirt to an event to fit in with my group and still be wearing a collar. I love looking like a pastor.

Pastor Molly. Photo by Karie Charlton.

The power of representation

Just for fun, my mom made a clergy outfit for my American Girl Doll Molly. We know that representation matters, so I brought Pastor Molly to children’s time. I told them how much I loved the doll when I got her because she looked like me. Of course, we have a few little girls with varying shades of brown hair that are sure that Molly looks just like them too.

The kids loved her and took her with them to children’s church. After church, I got to hear about her adventures (apparently, she shepherded the little lamb stuffed animals). I didn’t realize the full impact of Pastor Molly and Pastor Karie until I got an email months later. The parents had accidentally referred to me as Ms. Karie when talking about church and their daughter corrected them: Pastor Karie. At the end of the very cute story, they thanked me for being a woman with a title in their daughter’s life. I printed the email and put it in my “read it when you need it folder.” I hope there are lots of children who grow up thinking, “that pastor looks just like me.”

I want to thank all the holy women (and people) in my life who have raised me, supported me, and thought the world could use a pastor like me.