Our whole selves

February 8, 2011

When I was presenting my M.Div. thesis on Christian sex-ed curricula, one professor asked, "Why should the churches be talking to kids about stuff like this? Shouldn't we leave it to their parents and let the churches tackle things like money and justice?"

It was the one question that really threw me for a loop. I'm a pastor's kid now in ministry--it has always seemed completely natural that the community of faith should address every aspect of my life. Yet whether out of fear, uncertainty or an unwillingness to be vulnerable, we clergy often avoid talking with our congregations about sexuality. Then we find ourselves in damage-control mode--we wind up counseling adulterers because we could never figure out how to talk about temptation and infidelity.

In its February issue, Marie Claire includes an article called "Confessions of a Single, Female Pastor," an interview with a pastor in her 20s whose calling impacts her sex life--in her denomination, ordained people vow to uphold the highest ideals of Christian life, including celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage. She's single, so she's celibate.

The pastor speaks openly about her struggles as a healthy sexual person without any sanctioned outlet for sexual relationship. She (or the writer who wrote up her comments) uses words like "masturbation" and "orgasm," words that are frank and explicit but not unknown to graduates of a high school health class (one hopes).

Response to the article has been quick and loud and negative--and much of it has come from other clergy. These are the people who should be supporting this pastor--who should be thanking God for the opportunity to talk about sex with a secular audience, to demonstrate that clergy are not out-of-touch weirdos. Yet some of the pastors engage in accusation and outright shaming. Others are nicer but still suggest that there's something wrong with having these conversations in public--and that prayers for the young lady are in order.

When I showed the article to an unchurched friend, he was decidedly unscandalized. He thought it might be a real boon for the pastor's congregation and conference. I think articles like this could be considered evangelistic: a pastor shares that the road of discipleship is difficult but rewarding, complex and deeply embodied. She's giving a testimony here--it's just not in a forum that we in the church are particularly used to. It's a perhaps unintentionally vivid testimony, but the details make it that much more compelling.

Our culture sexualizes all sorts of the wrong things, but those of us in the church could glean some wisdom from secular culture about how to talk about living as faithful, sexual beings. ELCA pastor Ben Dueholm writes thoughtfully about why pastors should be reading sex advice columnist Dan Savage, laying out a useful framework for thinking through sexual ethics. The Young Clergy Women Project is dedicating its next month's online publication to considering various aspects of love and sex in ministry and how the church is called to speak to and with the broader culture.

Pastors should be talking with people about how God is present in all facets of our lives. If we're not talking frankly and authentically about sex, we're failing those in our care.


I would venture to say that

I would venture to say that had the pastor been a male there would have been less negative response. But women are sexual creatures, too.

I read Dan Savage religiously, which reminds me his newest column should have posted today.


Missed the Point

As have most of those showing up to support this young pastor, you've completely missed the point -- glaringly so. Those of us who excoriated the over-sharing of the young pastor in Marie-Claire magazine weren't shocked that she spoke about sexuality - we were embarrassed for her because she was so sexually neurotic: thus perpetuating stereotypes about repression and female immaturity in the church.

She didn't just "use the words" masturbation. She said she was uncomfortable touching herself - the very antithesis of a free sexuality. She didn't just "use the word" orgasm, she said that she had not had an orgasm in seven years (this at the age of 25!). She could have come right out of the 1950's. Your naive, protective assessment of this article and the reaction to it totally obscures the reason for the criticism -- this woman's confused, immature, Puritanical attitudes about her own sexuality.

There was a way for a woman pastor to represent a healthy, open, self-aware and mature sexuality among the clergy today but this was not it. It was a shocking failure to anyone reading for actual content rather than highlighting exciting words like masturbation and orgasm.

Do you really think it a great statement of clergy maturity when a 25 year old religious leader admits to fantasizing "constantly" about a vampire character in the hugely popular-among-teens series "Twilight?" How about the author's snide insult about the drug addict son one of her parishioners tried to fix her up with? Is that also to be applauded as an expression of the contemporary church's attitudes?

This article did nothing to promote the view of the church or clergy as having mature and comfortable attitudes about sex and sexuality. In fact, quite the opposite.

Apologies, Forgot to Sign In

I did not mean to submit this letter anonymously. It was written by the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, the blogger known as "PeaceBang" and author of BeautyTipsForMinisters.com.


Speaking of Missing the Point...

First, I find it amusing that someone who's blog seems to be saying to pastors that their spiritual worth is based on how Pretty they are is complaining of someone else having opinions that are stuck in the 50's.

Second, I am curious, what exactly is your problem with the Pastor telling of her fantasies, the fact that she revealed them, or the fact that she had the poor taste to fantasize about Edward Cullen? I'll admit, if it is the second, I have to agree with you. Edward? Really? However, if it is the first, I'm not sure there is anything wrong with a young single clergy-person admitting that they are in fact human and do indeed have human thoughts.

It's an embodied view of life...

Beauty Tips for Ministers, as I read and understand the blog is about the joys of living an embodied life. We have bodies, why not dress them up and celebrate them and let them communicate something about ourselves. It's not about being pretty it's about presenting yourself in a way the respects your body and celebrates it whatever shape it might take. And let's face it our clothes communicate something about ourselves, if we're intentional about our words and theology why not be intentional about how we present ourselves, first impressions are a big deal and like it or not people pay more attention to how women dress which means we need to pay attention to how we are presenting ourselves.

Maybe the blog is trying to

Maybe the blog is trying to highlight the joys of embodied life as you suggest, but that is not what I find when I read it. Instead I find a staggering amount of narcissism and smug self-righteousness. I was not aware that young women clergy asked for a "stage mother" to determine the course of their life and ministry. It's ironic to evoke the 1950s reference since this blog is presenting it's own over-bearing and myopic view of proper ways to perform womanhood that leave no room for dissent. Oh, I guess it is okay this time around because it is being done by a woman.

thanks for this comment

The more I reflect upon this topic and the responses from clergy of various ages, I see I real difference between the 2nd wave and 3rd wave feminists. As a young clergy woman, I often feel boxed in by the ways older clergy women define "appropriate boundaries" and the like. Rev. Weinstein's blog is a great resource for avoiding the dreaded clergy woman frump in the fashion arena - now I would challenge her and her readers/commenters to avoid frump in the emotional arena.

To all older or more experienced clergy women -- please don't treat your younger sisters in Christ the way the "boys" once treated you. Hazing is ugly and bullying.

A too long response, but...

I appreciate your willingness to engage in conversation, Rev. Weinstein, but I think you missed my point. In many responses to this article, the tone was decidedly condescending, and criticized the pastor, not for her attitudes, but for "over-sharing." She shares a great deal in giving this interview --but I can only imagine she does so with some intentionality, given that she is an ordained graduate of Yale who serves a 3,000 member congregation -- and her clergy fellows didn't offer critique so much as tore into her for speaking. I saw gleeful schadenfreude as commentators anticipated her being disciplined by her denomination, and faux pity for her and her lonely, immature, repressed life.

This pastor makes herself vulnerable by sharing the particular struggles of being a single clergy woman, especially one growing up and serving in the South. She ended a relationship that she expected would lead to marriage because her beloved did not support her call (and yet folks questioned her call to ministry entirely because she spoke of her work as her career). She articulated the hardship of upholding the vows made in ordination, even when her body was undergoing a chemical change to her sex drive (as opposed to the devil's whispering), and yet, despite the fact that she is clearly aware enough of her own sexual inclinations to notice a change and seek medical attention, she is called repressed and puritanical.

I'll concede -- I wished that she'd pointed out that not all denominations explicitly require celibacy in their single clergy... but the culture's impression is accurate on this point: the majority, at the very least, expect it. I can't quite believe, either, living for seven years without having an orgasm... but the fact is, there are women who don't like masturbating. The thrill lies less in the mechanics of blood flow and more in the intimacy with another body. It's an intimacy her ordination prohibits her from seeking. That's the denomination's bad -- not hers.

As for the big sin of refusing to date a meth dealer: single women in all walks of life are constantly being offered inappropriate suitors by well meaning folk who can't imagine any fate worse than dying an "old maid." I read her tone as more resigned than snide, and considered this such a universal experience that it ought not be considered a breaking of pastoral confidence. For all we know, she was speaking hypothetically. I'll change the details of stuff in public writing in order to protect the innocent and maintain trust -- why, I wondered, did everyone immediately assume the worst?

And then there's Edward Cullen. Have you read Twilight? Millions and millions of American women have -- and not just those in their teens. It's a tame, problematic romance novel, but I'll admit that there were scenes I thought were kind of hot... and I'm not alone. Secular feminists have said as much ("problematic but engrossing") in multiple publications. It's interesting, too, because as embarrassing as it feels sometimes to be someone who read all four books, it's been a topic of conversation with both youth and adults in the congregations I've served. Far from making her sound like a sad sack, this revelation is something Marie Claire readers can surely relate to, even if you don't.

This isn't the interview I would have given -- but I was lucky enough to be straight and married before my ordination, and, however unjustly, won't likely be asked to defend or explain my sex life. The last two generations of feminists have argued about the nature of choice in "the movement." Do we all have to agree on everything? Is there room for differing preferences in self-pleasure or self-disclosure? Must we all come to the same conclusions about upholding our vows and working for change? Is feminism grounded in the conviction that each adult woman is fully capable of seeking out her place in the world and ought to have the authority to make choices for herself? The debate is far from settled, obviously, but my sadness was that the clergy of all people couldn't manage to elevate that debate and, instead, resorted to accusation and shaming.

Another too-long (and this time, immoderate) response

Regardless of one's own perspective on the several different issues noted in this exchange, it strikes me as both sad and a real disservice to the church that you, Reverend Weinstein, would respond to your fellow clergywomen (both Reverend Miller and Reverend McCleneghan) with such contempt and condescension. Setting aside your surprising failure to acknowledge the additional pressure brought to bear on Reverend Miller by the POD symptoms she reports, surely you are not so naive and out-of-touch as to think that Reverend Miller's experience is unusual? or that "mature and comfortable attitudes about sex and sexuality" are consistently communicated (if at all) by the vast majority of Christian denominations to and about their ordained clergy, especially when those clergy are women? Where does a "Puritanical attitude about" sexuality arise, after all? Nor can I believe that you think all (or even most) un-partnered clergywomen have successfully risen above or resolved the conflicts they feel in this arena of embodied experience. And while you may legitimately find courageous and admirable - even faithful - a clergyperson's choice to flaunt her or his denomination's ordination standards, surely you do not presume to suggest that any who do not take that route are deserving of your public castigation?

Perhaps rather than condemning as "a shocking failure" this woman's honesty about her struggle to balance her sexuality with her ordination vows, you might consider how gratefully that candor may be received by some readers. I am thinking in particular of those women who puzzle over how to make sense of their embodied experience within a broader faith community that seems to fluctuate among blaming them for wanting to have orgasms at all, castigating them for not giving sufficiently gratifying orgasms to their husbands, and - as you do here - humiliating them because they do not enjoy a sufficiently free and orgasmic sex life (with the sexual fantasies you deem most "mature," no less), despite the constraints placed upon them by their socio-theological context (and, in this case, their dysfunctional hormone profile). Often I find that it is in communication of our own struggles, rather than in proclaiming our own laudable mastery of those struggles, that clergy most effectively reach and comfort those who are awash in shame or guilt or confusion. Indeed, I would suggest that the view of sexuality within the church that Reverend Miller presents is far more accurate - even if "stereotypical" - than your own. However sad that reality may be, honest expression of it is not deserving of contempt. And it does not help anyone for you to pass judgment on what constitutes a "mature," non-neurotic sexual fantasy.

Finally, your own comment about Reverend Miller's unwillingness to date a drug-dealing, addicted ex-con (horrors!) seems sufficiently snide to me that I find less-than-compelling your judgment of her for taking what you read as that same tone. God knows, we don't need any young women getting the impression that it's somehow un-Christian to find that offer of a fix-up odd and unappealing. And let's be clear with ourselves that the offer itself says a great, great deal about the degree to which an unmarried, young clergywoman is considered an old maid who surely must be open to any - any! - prospects.

I am sad and disheartened - as well as angry, as I'm sure is clear in my own tone - by our not being able as women to deal openly and supportively with the full complexity of nurturing and enjoying our sexuality. I completely reject your closing comment that "This article did nothing to promote the view of the church or clergy as having mature and comfortable attitudes about sex and sexuality. In fact, quite the opposite." Indeed, I think that this article opens up the possibility of a conversation that addresses precisely what is wrong with church and clergy attitudes about sexuality. And I fervently hope that your critique does not shut down that conversation altogether.

Sally Stamper

A totally different way of missing the point

Rev. Weinstein, I don't deny that I had some of the same thoughts you did. But the fact that you find a basis to critique Rev. Miller for her Puritanical attitude, even as others are critiquing her shameless abandon, raises the real issue: it's extremely dangerous for any clergy person to make any truthful statement about their sexual life, and it's especially dangerous for a young, single woman.

Rev. Miller's piece takes 5 minutes to read through. I'm sure that you would never make judgments about a person's sexual maturity based on a 5-minute conversation. And yet you didn't hesitate to characterize "this woman's" sexual maturity based on this very limited information. Even if your rapid condemnation is based on a different perception that the rapid condemnation that most of her other critics are offering, you're only adding to the problem.

Consider these lessons:

* Women can be ministers.
* Ministers--men and women--struggle with sexuality just like everyone else.
* A normal young woman can decide to follow a fulfilling career even if it ruins her sex life, holding out for a man who will actually respect her.
* A Christian minister can be an example of a strong woman who lives a life of leadership and service, even though men (and women too) keep trying to fit her into one or another box.

Rev. Miller put herself on the line in order to bring these lessons to about a million young women. I'm not sure I would do the same thing in her position, but I sure hope I would.

Yes, Bromleigh McCleneghan,

Yes, Bromleigh McCleneghan, yes. This is exactly what I have been trying to articulate in conversations with friends and peers about the MC "article." Thank you and thanks to the young pastor for being brave enough to share her story.

Misquoted and Misunderstood

Thank you for your thoughts on the article. Rev. Miller is a friend and colleague of mine. It is quite unbelievable how misquoted she was in this article. All of the TMI accusations were based on not quotations, but grandiose inferences on Marie Claires part. I think the shame lies on those who cast the first stone.

Marie-Claire for testimonies!?

Come on, women. Has no one suggested that Marie-Claire, perhaps the dumbest of the dumb fashion magazines, might not be the outlet to trust with one's personal life and/or testimony?!!

See some comments on Marie-Claire here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/mar/05/technology-travel-jan-morri...
The blogger scans the magazines because she she loves fashion but admits that most of these magazines are dumb, hypocritical and insulting to women...

Why would anyone choose to be featured amidst this schlock?