I think every pastor sometimes has to deal with terribly inappropriate comments. Sometimes people will blame the pastor for something stupid that a high profile Christian has said or done. God only knows how many times I’ve had to take the brunt of a joke because of Pat Robertson’s antics. Other times people will use the reception line after worship to take a jab about the sermon for the day when he or she knows that the pastor won’t be able to respond between shaking hands and kissing babies.
When the pastor is a woman, the intensity of these comments goes through the roof. Lots of pastors report being called “sweetie” and “honey.” I know one pastor that was inappropriately grabbed by an older man that had lost his filter. Others have been enjoined by their boss or their board to not put their work above their family, something that they would never say to a male pastor. Others still have talked about the way that the pastor’s kids (behavior, formation, etc.) reflect on her ministry.
I think that most pastors learn to have some prepared responses to the more common comments. Most people aren’t all that original, so you learn to be ready.
We learn to prepare responses that will turn someone back to the way of formation, while also graciously letting them know that what they’ve done is inappropriate.
If we don’t prepare these responses, and sometimes even when we do, we can just be stunned by what we’ve heard. Check out this post by a woman that was complimented on her legs after she had just preached the Word of God. She just laughed. She didn’t think it was funny. She just got blind-sided and the laugh was what came out. It happens more than we’d like. So I took some time last month to ask women pastors and leaders to talk about some of the responses that they have prepared when people make those inappropriate comments. I think several of these strike the important balance of naming the impropriety of the comment and also paying attention to the spiritual formation of the person that they are talking to.
Women leaders, far more than male leaders, are criticized professionally for the job that they do as parents. Amy, from Waxahachie, Texas, made sure to show that she was in control of the situation even if her kid wasn’t under control.
My toddler was behaving badly. A woman from our congregation said, “Are you going to let him get away with that?”
I paused to hang onto my emotions and said confidently (and perhaps with a bit of a “back off, lady!” tone), “You know, I choose my battles. And this is one I’m not choosing to fight.” She was surprised and even apologized. The moment helped her realize she was crossing a line.
Next time, I would try harder to take the “back off, lady!” tone out!!
Young women clergy probably deal with more instances of “man-splaining” than their older colleagues. This 20-something pastor wasn’t prepared at the time, but next time will make sure to keep roles clear even when the parishioner thinks of himself as trying to be helpful:
A man in his forties was scolding me for a mistake I made.
Him: “I am going to talk to you like you are my daughter…”
What I should have said: “Again, I am sorry for my mistake, but I am not your daughter. I am your pastor. Please talk to me in that way.
Sometimes folks that are experiencing a female clergyperson for the first time just need help thinking in new ways. They may not want to be inappropriate, but they are learning to negotiate new norms:
I was getting ready to teach a lesson during Bible time for the preschool age daycare kids. A teacher addresses me…
Her: “Pastor (name), wait I should call you Miss Pastor (name). Pastor just sounds so masculine.”
Me: “Pastor (name) is correct. This is just like how you call your doctor, male or female, Doctor (name).”
Her: Well, I am old, so I am not sure I can do it. You know you can’t teach old dogs new tricks!
Me: “Isn’t it wonderful that we have the opportunity to teach these kids at such a young age how to address us, so they don’t have that struggle later!”
Single clergy of both genders have to deal with parishioners trying to play matchmaker. Unfortunately, that can cross the line in so many ways. Professionalism throughout the situation is the only “high road.”
I’m a single female ordained minister and people are constantly trying to match me up with someone. I even had a church member create an online dating profile for me! At the time I chugged it, thanked the person and out of courtesy went to see the profile. One time, however, I drew the line. I began to receive accusations that the reason why I was single was because I was a lesbian. I called in a meeting with the perpetrators and the board of elders to confront the rumors. This (helped everyone make) the appropriate changes but people ultimately will believe what they want to believe. Sometimes being just a female will attract all sorts of ideas and I have learned to move forward and find comfort that our Lord also called me.
When comments are particularly over the top, humor may be the way to show how inappropriate the comment is without being confrontational or showing malice toward someone you are called to shepherd. A smile may allow you to say something just as ridiculous back to them without causing a confrontation.
One person asked me, “So, how does that work, being a woman pastor and all?” I just replied, “It works just like being a man pastor.” (Yes I said Man Pastor!) – Lisa Petty, Rifle, CO
As the first woman pastor at the church I currently serve, many people initially said to me, “well, the pastor’s wife used to …” My response was “I am the pastor and I don’t have a wife. Some people in this denomination might have a problem if I had a wife.” Then I’d laugh and move on. It usually shut them up. – anonymous United Methodist pastor
Maybe one of the hardest responses to learn is to not respond. When someone is genuinely trying to be respectful and appreciative and just bungles it up, it may not be the time for gender sensitivity class!
I’m a postulant for the priesthood, and I’m called upon occasionally to “supply” and at other times I’m assigned to a parish to preach or do other liturgical or pastoral duty. One time, at a medium sized rural parish, a male deacon, very Old School, approached me and quietly, very sincerely said, “Of all the lady priests I’ve ever seen, you’re the only good one.”
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit elbowed me at that moment and I realized, he meant no harm. He was genuinely seeing something he had never seen before, and was moved. So I just thanked him sweetly. – Pamela H. Long, Montgomery AL
Other times people (read men!) will make wildly inappropriate sexual comments. I have no idea if these are attempts to establish power, ignorance, or just simple sexual harassment. These cases may be the time to be straight to the point and confront the person immediately. Lisa Petty, from Rifle, CO, cut the inappropriate comment off without a chance to redeem something clearly
“Are you wearing lingerie today?” I just replied, “Excuse me, what?!”
This final one was posted in the comments to one of my blog posts a while back and I’ve already put it in my arsenal for those particularly snarky comments:
“What an odd thing for one person to say to another.”
What are some ways that you have responded when people make inappropriate comments? Were you able to make that a “teachable moment?”
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