|Young, female... and a minister?|
|Monday, 23 July 2012 15:46|
While I enjoy the attention for being unusual, I should not be a surprise to society’s impression of the church, writes Beth Allison. What this experience has highlighted for me is that the church, somehow, has given itself a 'look' Jesus never intended it to have.
'So we shouldn't be so surprised that we've got Beth' our Bible study on the anointing of David concluded, 'she just doesn't look like a minister'.
This is not the first comment I've received about how my appearance seems to dictate my ability - or lack thereof - to do my job. Like the time in the pub one of the local Anglicans joked that he was going to switch denominational allegiance, because the Baptist minister looked better in a skirt. His wife didn't agree...
Or, there was the time an old lady told me I wasn't dressed appropriately for a mixed congregation, when wearing a shirt and a knee length skirt. Even 'off duty', it's a theme, there was the time I went to a ball and someone turned around and remarked, face aghast, 'do you know? She's a minister!'
Sometimes it is definitely meant as a compliment, like the time my next door neighbour exclaimed, 'But you don't look like a minister; you look like you should be on the front cover of Vogue!' He's in his late seventies and a little visually impaired these days, but I've decided to take that accolade to heart regardless.
So it has occasionally been mentioned that I don't, apparently, look like a minister. Try as we like, the way others define us matters and I've noticed that my controversial, non-ministerial look is fast becoming my own ministerial self-identity. Fortunately, I rather enjoy causing a reaction and defying the social expectation of what a minister looks like is my main evangelistic opportunity - so much so I wonder what will happen when I age!
For people who meet me outside of church life, "not looking like a minister" is something that is greeted with approval, even in a traditional picture-postcard village which only got sewers in living memory and still has a yearly hunt.
Subtly challenging people's expectations about what the church is provokes many deep conversations about what Christianity stands for and who God might be. The local magazine interviewed me, taking great relish in the existence of my tattoo whilst including my thoughts on Christ's offer of life in all its fullness and the regulars in the pub across the road seem to enjoy taking the opportunity to ply me with questions on everything from my love life (no, I don't have to have an arranged marriage, nor do I have to be like a nun) to why there is suffering and evil (errrm...?).
But in church life the surprise at my ministry bothers me more. I've started responding, asking people what they think a minister does look like, because as Baptists we believe that God calls and gifts everyone to serve, don't we? Yet, even at young worship leaders workshops it's assumed I must sing instead of preach and it's no secret that the ministers who find it easiest to be placed in churches are older men.
And the answer is not as simplistic as needing more young women in ministry, great though that would be; this is a problem that goes deeper and broader than my favourite hobby horse. What this experience has highlighted for me is that the church, somehow, has given itself a 'look' Jesus never intended it to have.
This is a problem not limited to Baptists, I know of Anglican churches who've been informed by their diocese you can't legally advertise for "a man in their forties with a business background and a young family", but I wonder what church identity we are trying to perpetuate with this particular brand of minister?
While I enjoy the attention for being unusual, I should not be a surprise to society's impression of the church. Jesus never limited his call to men with young families; instead he spoke to people who 'looked' unclean with skin disease, he was in the company of scandalous women, tax collectors with short man syndrome and the old and infirm.
Consciously or unconsciously we've made ourselves an image of church which restricts our understanding of holiness. We try to attract people to be like ourselves: conversion implies you'll stop clubbing, wear appropriate length clothing and give up your Sunday morning hobbies. We Christianize people.
We wonder why there's a missing generation, but miss that there's a subtle pressure on young couples to settle down and get married, to become, in effect, middle aged. And worse, we employ male ministers with families because we prize these as the ultimate Christians. Churches with young families are more "successful" then a group of old ladies, but why? Our best evangelist is 92 and lives in sheltered accommodation.
As the denomination which is meant to sit most lightly on our institutionalism, we need to reflect that we are often predictable. As we face witnessing to a society with little knowledge of our faith we are called to expand our ideas of what the church looks like, how it meets, what it stands for and even what we do when we gather together. Somehow, we need to move beyond our image, stop replicating ourselves and embrace a church life that will be different and surprising.
Beth Allison is the Minister in Training of the Free Church in Market Bosworth, a lively village in rural Leicestershire. She is training for Baptist ministry through Regent's Park College, Oxford, where she is also studying for an MTh in Applied Theology.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 16:12|
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