Why Bad Ass?

Recently, I was asked about the name chosen for this project.

Bad Ass Lady Pastor originated as an affectionate title given to me by a group of female seminarians after I came to speak with them about what life in ministry is really like. There is no doubt that this profession is one that is challenging. At our best, ministers are required to be experts in five fields: preaching, teaching, pastoral care, missions/outreach, and administration.

This work is a supreme privilege, and our clerical collars grant us admission to the most vulnerable parts of peoples’ lives – births, deaths, diagnoses, traumas, struggles, joys, acceptances. We are the people who are called when marriages begin and fail. When lives are torn apart, and are slowly put back together.

We are the people who are called to experience the birth of a child and the death of a mother. We are in the rooms when the sacred experience of life begins and ends.

We are the people who represent what it means to believe in a good and loving God when the world gives us all evidence to the contrary that we should do so.

Pastors are asked to have answers for unanswerable questions, and assurances about things which faith alone can provide.

We ask couples when they marry to make promises to one another – for life – without knowing any of the circumstances under which these promises will be carried out. We ask parents of infants to reject the powers of wickedness and evil forces of the world – in all forms that they present themselves – as we dab a little water on their beloved child’s head and assure them that baptism gives them this incredible power.

Pastoring is not for the faint of heart.

But, I will argue as a woman now nearly 15 years into pastoral ministry, serving as a lady pastor provides some specific challenges.

Behind every wedding I do, there is the strange question of my own marital status and, if that status is one of partnered relationship, then what must my spouse think of me in this role?

Behind every child I baptize is the question of my own parental ability as my child subtly digs his sharp elbows into the ribs of his brother as he attempts to draw a reaction from, really, anyone who might notice. (It seems as though the spiritual forces of wickedness might need a little more rejection on his part.)

Behind every sermon I preach is the internal monologue of listeners, “Aren’t women supposed to stay silent in church?” “Who is preparing Sunday lunch for her family if she’s here?” “Joel Osteen is a great preacher, but this lady is a pretty good speaker.” “I like her sassy shoes, but I think it’s distracting my ability to focus on the Holy Spirit.” And, a personal favorite: “What exactly is she wearing under her robe?”

Men, undoubtedly, face their own challenges in this work, because this work is universally challenging. But, I assure you that serving as a woman provides an additional layer of complexity. No man has had to explain to his church’s governing body that his wife’s job won’t be a limitation to his ability to serve them well. No man has had to explain to his church’s children’s ministry that he’s not ready to have children yet. No man has had to tell his finance committee that it’s unreasonable for them to expect him to marry just so his spouse can provide the health insurance and save the church the cost in his compensation package. There is a heavy weight of assumption, sexism, and history that each woman bearing the yoke of Christ endures as she enters into the pulpit.

I am generalizing the work of women in ministry, but the work of re-shaping people’s mentality around their pastor’s identity is even harder if you’re a woman of color, a queer woman, or a woman with disabilities. God help us all if you happen to be all of these beautiful expressions. Life is a little easier if a clergy woman is heterosexually married with beautiful children, but only moderately so.

The idea for the Bad Ass Lady Pastor Project originated after I went to my annual conference in North Georgia, where I had been a member for 12 years. I was transferring conferences, and this served as a farewell trip to the conference I love so dearly. I watched as seminary interns were commissioned and ordained after a lengthy and challenging process. I wept as beloved mentors retired or were memorialized in the service of remembrance. I found myself in the strange place of not being so new at this anymore.

But, most surprisingly, I listened as younger clergy women told me that they believed that there was a place for them in ministry when they witnessed me get ordained with my 13 day old daughter attached to me in a sling. That sweet baby was toted to every celebratory breakfast, parade, and meeting (because, honestly, what else was I going to do with her 13 days post-partum?). I didn’t realize I was doing something radical. I was doing what was necessary to be both a mother and a minister. (Also, I’m very stubborn and I wasn’t going to let my maternity leave stand in the way of my long and hard-fought ordination.) What I wound up doing was showing the annual conference that there can be a way to do both, seamlessly, without confusion or change. The best was that I heard it from older clergy and laity, both men and women, as well. My baby-wearing during the ordination festivities was a signal that things were changing for the church. This was what it meant to ordain and support women in ministry: to allow us to be both Reverends and Mamas without apology or shame.

I took in the parting words from these beloved colleagues like water in the desert. I am not the only person, nor am I the first, to do any of these things. But, what I heard from them was that it made a difference to someone in how she understood her own ministry and call. I am humbled by this, and encouraged by the power of our actions. I started thinking about my own life in ministry, and all of the times I had to be braver, more courageous, more committed, more compassionate than I wanted to be. Story after story flooded back with a new sort of resonance. I remembered the title the seminarians had given me, and realized that it would be a great project for me, and for others, to consider the times in our ministry when we had to be total bad-asses for the sake of the Gospel.

The language is strong, but so is the faith required to do this work. A well-respected mentor posed a question to me about the nature of the language of this project. “Why Bad Ass Lady Pastor?” Isn’t it possible that a reader might be so offended by the title that they wouldn’t read the content? Yes. It is absolutely possible. But, rather than apologize, I will offer that this work is hard. Being a woman makes it harder. The name of the project reflects the need for strong language when pushing back against a culture and custom with strength.Being a bad ass is subversive, but so is being a lady pastor. This project is meant to encourage clergy women to own and affirm their identities as unapologetically gifted ministers of the Gospel.

Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means getting your children to their first day of school on time, and then racing to the hospital to visit with a beloved congregant who is dying of AIDS. Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means ignoring the sexist comment made in the Finance Committee meeting. Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means asking to be in a meeting with people who would normally never invite you. Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means meeting your friends for dinner, and talking about said comment made in the Finance Committee meeting. Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means talking down the protestor out on the front lawn of the church during the Pride Parade. Some days, being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means getting rudely heckled while preaching the best damn sermon anyone has ever heard while wearing some fantastic heels in the liturgical color of the season (bonus points if a sacrament is celebrated!).

Being a Bad Ass Lady Pastor means that we, clergy women, young and old, get to claim who we are as uniquely gifted disciples of Christ. We are the prophets, the anointers, the preachers, the caretakers, the savvy businesswomen, the creative forces, the maternal figures, the Bishops, the grandchildren they never had. We are the people who have a Word to preach, and a song to sing. We are the people who have taken on the mantle – despite all custom and expectation – and said to our Creator, “You formed me in my (bad-ass) mother’s womb; I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

So here we are, Almighty and Mothering God, send us.

We will be the badass women you made us to be, not for our own sake, but for Yours.

____________________________________________

Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow is a native of Knoxville, TN, currently serving Los Angeles First United Methodist Church, which has the best parking lot in all of Christendom. Mandy holds a black belt in Taekwondo, makes music whenever possible, and watches a lot of baseball with her three children. Find more of her work at Reverend Mama.

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