Sunday, July 25, 2010


This photo was a spoof of male ministers that was staged by the women of University Unitarian Universalist church in Seattle, I think about 1986. By that time there were this many female UU ministers in the vicinity. The cigars were bubble gum but the brandy was real. I’m not sure I could name everyone, so I’ll leave them anonymous to avoid hurting the feelings of those I can’t recall. By now some of them are retired, since they embarked on ministry as a second career. If you need to be told, I’m seated -- second from the right. Directly behind me is Annie Foerster. Prompted by this photo, I went looking for Annie last night and found her on Facebook. She’s still in the ministry.

Annie and I were at Meadville/Lombard at the same time and then both in the Pacific Northwest District when it extended into Canada. We’re about the same age and about the same speed. At ministers’ meetings the youngsters tried not to room next to us because we woke up at dawn and laid in bed telling jokes and laughing -- they claimed it kept them from sleeping in.

This was the era when feminism was still on its “anything you can do, I can do better” platform, so it was natural to mock male-based ministry. We thought. Actually the laywomen of the church had the assumptions and we went along with them. Ministry has never been what the lay people thought it was because no two ministers are the same. Come to that, no two congregations, no two denominations, no two religions -- well, by the time you get to that level people realize that there are differences. It’s just that they see the differences through the lens of their own religion. To a Christian, every hero looks like Jesus -- even the women.

We came in just as the old WWII-era men were beginning to retire -- or die. Their doctors put an end to the uproarious events in the old days when ministers on retreat had gotten drunk to blow off steam. For quite a while there were only one or two female ministers, who tended to be attached somehow to a male minister, often romantically. They were treated like princesses, although some were more like Simone de Beauvoir than like Lady Di. The demand of the religious education ministers (who were mostly women) to be included as equals was only beginning. But none of the women in this photo -- at least to my faulty memory -- were the warm fuzzy therapeutic kind of minister that both genders seem to be nowadays. Neither did we spare ourselves any rigor or goal. We were a hardcore bunch. But not tough -- just sharp thinkers and self-disciplined. Mostly.

There were a few women who found their new attractiveness to men hard to handle. Certain kinds of parishioners (both genders) look for strong personalities in powerful positions and attach to them with flattery and emotional support. God [sic] knows ministers often need emotional support. When there’s a pile-up of church fights, denominational politics, national controversy, deaths or serious illness in the congregation or the same in one’s own family, ministers are dead center. The ideal is ministers who step in to help each other and every district has a Good Offices minister.

The role of minister was once much more in terms of the scholar, the ivory tower and carrier of the heritage. Ministers were expected to have formidable personal libraries and a thorough knowledge of philosophy and history. With the shift to female ministers came a switch to organizational leadership, counseling, and a sort of wedding-cake liturgical taste. Formidable old patriarchs were out -- Mom was in. I doubt that anyone has reflected much on what that did to those of us who joined the ministry in an attempt to escape from Mom.

I know that was part of my agenda in part because aspiring to and entering the ministry enraged my own mother. She refused to help in any way whatsoever. “Why can’t you marry a nice Presbyterian minister?” she demanded. She wanted me to be all the things she aspired to: a nice, well-dressed lady of status protected by a dependable man, everything her own mother didn’t have. I think somehow I was imprinted by WWII Life magazine photos of combat chaplains. I wanted to walk with danger and console soldiers with an assurance of pardon. The culture interprets that as a lesbian wish, but it was nothing of the kind. I just wanted to be a tough person who mattered. And I don’t like the games women play. Men are dogs; women are cats.

I was thinking along the lines of coyotes. Tricksters. But also, the quote over my computer says, “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Woe to those who confuse the message. All regular and orderly all the time is as deadly as all violent and original all the time. Several of the men were violent and original in their lives but regular and orderly in their work, which forced them into some degree of covert behavior -- always risky when serving a congregation, because congregations go everywhere and secrets are impossible to keep.

In the days of this photo the feminists of the churches would meet after the service to go through the hymnals, crossing out all the male references and writing above them either inclusive or female grammar. Of course it was silly and of course it made no immediate difference except for those who hated the defacing of books. It was a little bonding ceremony for the women, I guess.

The female ministers were always saying, “We should get organized,” though we weren’t quite sure for what purpose. Once we met -- at Annie’s church, actually -- a couple of hours earlier than the all-clergy regular meeting. It was a morning meeting so we had sweet rolls (in those days diabetes never crossed our minds but I think it was already affecting my metabolism) and lots and lots of coffee. In fact, by the time the men trickled in, we were high as kites on coffee and politics. I think the kite reference might better be to the birds than to paper sails on strings.

The men were intimidated. We had all the best seats already and they had to sit away from the table. They had thought of us as allies rather than equals, and had not expected rivals. It was very funny because we were simply a little less cloaked, not different. I wonder whether Annie remembers all this.

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