Engage: Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry

Fall 2017 Issue – Pastor or Predator? Sexual Misconduct in Youth Ministry

Over the past twenty years, the scandal of clergy sexual abuse has played out in the public imagination through award-winning journalism and film. Much of the attention has been focused on the Catholic Church, with a particular eye on priests and child sexual abuse. With limited success, scholars and leaders have attempted to provide an answer to the inevitable questions of cause, blaming everything from mandatory celibacy to mandatory reporting.

Despite this broader attention, the truth is that clergy sexual misconduct is not a “Catholic problem”—it is a human problem and one that is as real and complex in every faith tradition as it is appalling. Transcending race, class, gender, denomination, and geography, clergy sexual misconduct occurs in ministries big and small, old and new, innovative and routine. Further complicating these variables, youth ministry adds an additional layer of nuance, as teenagers themselves are growing and transforming into full sexual maturity. In this issue of Engage, scholars, survivors, and ministers wrestle with these human problems.

Engage_Thiemann

Catherine Thiemann

Engage_Crockett

Linda Crockett

Engage_Davis

Sharon Ellis Davis

Engage_Scarsella

Hilary Scarsella

Engage_Holcomb

Justin Holcomb

Engage_Ellis

Wes Ellis

I Do Declare

As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!


Declaration

What does it mean to declare? The first thing that came to my mind was a huffy southern belle saying, “I do declare!” as she dramatically throws her scarf over her shoulder. I don’t know where that image comes from. I tried to Google it to see if it was a thing, but to no avail.

Yet, somehow this image has permeated my thoughts. When we talk about how things are declared, we often talk about presentation. And even my feminist mind first came up with a caricature of a woman’s presentation. Yet, to declare is one of the most important things a person can do. Making a declaration says, “I’m here! I matter! And you will SEE me!” A declaration says that what one has to say has value.

A declaration from a Christian says even more. It recognizes that the reason we matter is because the imago Dei lives within us. And as bearers of the image of God and followers of Jesus Christ, we have particular responsibilities. We must declare the love of Jesus Christ. We must declare truth to the lies in the world. We must live a life that declares that Jesus is Lord and help bring forth the liberation of all people.

How do Christians empower teen girls to make declarations? After all, there is no age or gender requirement. Teen girls also have the responsibility of Christian declaration. When doing so, it is important not just to focus on how, but to go deeper. Here’s one way to do so, with three statements of encouragement for girls that are struggling to find their declarative voice:

Take Thou Authority

It is a beautiful thing to watch a UMC ordination when the bishop lays hands on the one being ordained and says, “Take thou authority . . . ” In this instance, the notion of authority focuses on leadership, the power to command and determine or adjudicate over disputes. Church leaders have a particular role they need to play that requires them to take their authority.

So, don’t ask, “Who am I to say this?” You are God’s daughter. Make declarations. You matter, your voice is worthy of being heard, and God has given you important things to say. Declare them with authority.

However, I often think about this charge in another way, a way that makes these words a command for all Christians—understanding authority as a person who has been authorized or given a charge. Someone who has been given a task from a greater entity. All Christians have been given a commission to spread the love of Christ and to be God’s hands and feet on this earth. So, don’t ask, “Who am I to say this?” You are God’s daughter. Make declarations. You matter, your voice is worthy of being heard, and God has given you important things to say. Declare them with authority.

Take Thou Passion

We live in a world where there are so many things that need to be declared. So much wrongdoing exists in this world. If one sought to declare truth to every lie told, one would have “declare fatigue.” So, girls should ask themselves, “What is it that God has tasked me with? What are my passions? What resonates or speaks to me in a particular way?” We ought to be teaching girls how to identify these things.

When I taught high school, my favorite assignment was the protest project. This project has taken on many different forms, but usually, I presented tons of topics, encouraged students to read the paper for a week, and ask them to talk to their parents about things that were problematic in the world. They would then pick an issue, research it, explain why it was a problem, tell me why I should care, identify an organization that is working on the problem, and present one small way we (in the room) could contribute to the solution. If we were in a Christian setting, I would ask students to show how fighting against this helps to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Why do Christians need to be concerned about this (other than because we are people that should care about things)?

The passion that arose from some of those projects was palpable. It often derived from shock that something they could not fathom was happening. Being exposed lit some students on fire. Information and knowledge kindled passion, and some declared the important of a particular issue long after the project was due. Some of the ones who were set on fire might move onto something else later. Many of those who did the assignment and went onto the next thing might ultimately find a cause that speaks to them. We aren’t always passionate about the same things for our entire lives! But we all can have something to say about something, and we should encourage girls to be prayerful about what God desires them to declare.

Take Thou Personality

We are not all public speakers. Some of us are organizers. Some of us are solid foot soldiers. We declare with our actions depending on our God given personalities. So we ought to teach girls to trust in the personality that God has given them. What are the gifts they have? What are their strengths? God may call Nia and Rosa to declare similar things, but in very different ways. We should teach girls to lean into that and model the value of both Nia and Rosa by highlighting diverse personalities as valid methods of declaration.

You: Declare!

Teen girls are often given cookie cutter ways of making their declaration or being in general. Let’s throw the cookie cutter away. One’s declaration is as unique as the person making it. What you have to share is important and it is a unique declaration that God has given you for your context in your time. So say it loud. Or say it softly. Either way, declare it! And make space for teen girls to do the same.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

To Whom Does My Body Belong?

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


When embracing embodied theology and embodied pedagogy with teens girls, a key question to ask is, “to whom does your body belong?” I have asked this question to girls and women, and the response I usually receive is, “me…I guess.” Then, I ask a follow up question: “What messages do you get about who your body belongs to?” The conversation tends to provide fertile ground for unpacking the many dangerous messages that girls hear about their bodies and its rightful owner. Girls receive very different answers from both the Church and wider culture about who their body belongs to.

The General Public

Women’s and girls’ bodies are often treated as public property open for critique. People make their careers judging the style of some women (mostly celebrities) going about their day and deciding who wore a particular outfit best. Entire articles are written on the weight, body structure, or new hairstyle of a famous woman without seeking her permission because, after all, why would you need to obtain it since her body belongs to the public? This is seen as a normal part of being in a woman in the public eye, no matter her profession.

In 2014, The Representation Project launched #askhermore preceding the Oscars. On a night supposedly dedicated to celebrating the best craft of actors, the questions to female actors were mostly about their appearance. Men were also asked who they were wearing, but rarely got asked to pose for the shoe cam, the nail cam, or asked how long it took to decide on their outfit for the evening. For the men, the question about their clothing was a segue into deeper discussion and a way to advertise the designer. For the women, it was the entire discussion.

Tired of this, the Representation Project charged interviewers to have a conversation about what a woman was doing or working on—to have a conversation about her craft and not her body or the adornment of it. This is one of the ways that groups have fought against the notion that women’s bodies belong to society in general and are therefore available for others to peruse, admire, discuss, and critique. In the usual way society treats women, even if a woman were to win an award, we would talk only briefly about the performance that got her there, and then spend much more time on the dress she wore as she reached the epitome of career achievement.

Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course.

This happens often in Christian congregations as well. Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course. I think that very few people would actually verbalize that one’s body belongs to the wider society, but their actions say otherwise. The female body as public property is not just about high profile women. Recently, women have been talking more about cat-calling and street harassment, only to be told that they should take these events as compliments. When a woman’s body is seen as public property, then it is perfectly within any man’s right to respond to her body however he feels fit. She, in turn, is expected to be grateful that her body is appreciated by the public because it is, after all, theirs.

The Men in Her Life

The story is told so often that it is cliché. The teen girl or young adult woman has a date, and waiting on the porch is the father (or uncle, older brother, or some other male authority figure) with a shotgun (literally or metaphorically). The male authority figure interrogates the male date until the latter is able to prove himself worthy of the date with the female. It is a negotiation between men, as if the young woman has no say at all in who she chooses to date. This type of negotiation has even been done by the sons of single mothers, thereby giving a level of ownership to a male who is not only much younger than the adult woman, but who, in actuality, she has authority over. This stems from a time when women were the legal property of their fathers or male elders before they were the property of their husbands—a tradition that still lives on in different cultures around the world.

While this tradition doesn’t legally exist in mainstream American culture, many men (and some women) still act as if it does. Worse, they act as if this tradition still should exist because they perceive it as better than a woman making her own choices. In faith traditions that celebrate Purity Balls and the like, the message is clear: Your body, and more specifically, your virginity belongs to your father or another male authority figure. He is responsible for it until you get married, and then it will belong to your husband. Either way, the decision of who a woman shares her body with is up to the men in her life.

It’s Her Body!

On the other hand, there is the mantra: “It’s her body. She can do with it whatever she wants.”  This mantra  seems to appear most when a woman is choosing to flaunt her body in a particular way. When a woman chooses to dress provocatively, there will be those who disagree with her choice of dress. Then, someone will come to her defense and say, “It’s her body. She can wear whatever she wants.” But this is often not a true recognition of her ownership because, in the same spirit, it will be said, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.” This goes back to a woman’s body belonging to society. Because you have beautiful legs, you should flaunt it because the public has the right to see it.

If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue.

The same cries of “It’s her body” that apply to a woman in a barely-there outfit does not always seem to apply to a woman who chooses to dress conservatively. She, in contrast, is told to be a little less “frumpy,” to “show a little skin.” Why? Because it really isn’t her body as much as it is for the aesthetic pleasure for everyone around her. If people really meant the phrase, “It’s her body,” then much of the conversation would not be engaged at all. There would be no need to embark on the conversation of whether a woman should flaunt it, cover it up, or paint it blue. Instead, we would focus on empowering women and girls to decide how they want to show up in the world.

The Body as a Gift from God

What would I propose as the right answer to my question? The desire of many Christians is to say that the body belongs to God. While I see this as a step in the right direction, it is missing the mark because it does not give personal ownership. Instead, I choose to say that my body is a gift from God, but it is very much mine. As an analogy, I use my engagement and wedding rings. Of all the material things I possess, they are my prized possessions. I love and care for them because they are gifts from my husband and represent our love. But they are also very much mine. I can choose to hold them dear and treat them as precious, or I can choose to hock them at the local pawn shop even though I am not in financial turmoil. One is a better decision for me than the other, but the decision is mine because the rings are mine. However, it would be heartbreaking for me to hock them because I value them, and the main reason I value them is because I value the person who gave them to me. I value the relationship they represent, and how I care for them is a symbol about how I care for the relationship.

We all have different items we consider our prized possessions. Whether it’s the piece of jewelry that was passed down through generations and that you will pass down to a following generation or a gift given by a loved one before they passed away, we recognize its importance and may take extra special care of it because of our relationship with the giver. Even so, we recognize this prized possession as ours, and so it is with our bodies. My body is important. It houses the image of God. It houses my hopes, dreams, intellect, and it allows me to show up in the world. I care for my body and treat it as special because of all those things and because of the relationship I have with the God who gave it to me. When people see this body, I want them to see a representative of Jesus in the world. I want people to see this body as one that is supportive, one that stands up for justice and against oppression. This may mean that sometimes I place my body in harm’s way to protect another—a decision that may really frighten those who love me, but a decision I get to make because this body is mine. So, I do with it what I believe I am called to do.

Teaching Girls to Own Their Gift

We can empower girls to own their bodies from a very early age by not forcing children to hug people they do not want to. Whether at church or family functions, children should not be forced to hug people with whom they are not comfortable. And when we force a child to hug Aunt Becky, Minister Dave, or Santa Claus, we are teaching that child that they do not have control over their body, that they cannot stay within their comfort zone, and that what they do with their body is not completely up to them. This is a bad precedent to set. In more severe cases, children have been forced to embrace their abusers because they happen to be a member of their biological or church family. But even if the person we want our child to hug is completely safe, the child should still be able to make that decision on their own. At the very least, we should not teach a child not to trust her own instinct.

Opportunities for lessons on body ownership also come in elementary and middle school. When a girl complains about a boy hitting her or snapping her bra, the common societal reaction is to explain it away by telling the girl that the boy probably likes her and just can’t express it another way or by saying that “boys will be boys.” These responses send yet another lesson that a girl’s body is accessible for any boy to touch because he deems her worthy, and what’s more, she should feel flattered for being invaded in this way. In fact, she should not feel invaded, because her body is public property.

Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well.

Instead of making decisions for a girl’s body, let’s make age-appropriate decisions with the girl. These decisions can be about dressing, activities, how she carries herself, her medical treatment, and so many other topics that range from benign to serious. Let’s teach each girl to grill her own dates so she can be in discussion with the elder men and women in her life after they have met the person. Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their bodies well. Remind her that God gifted the body to her, and walk with her as she prayerfully discerns how God is calling her to show up in the world.


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her Ph.D. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

“Appropriate” Embodiment

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


What’s Appropriate?

In my last blog post, I wrote about undressing the dress code. I ended that post by exploring the coded word, “appropriate.” What do we really mean when we say something is inappropriate? How do we define it? Theologize it? And how do we speak to our youth without theologizing what are simply cultural norms?

I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body.

Shortly after writing that post, pictures of Patrice Brown, an elementary school teacher, went viral. In these pictures, Ms. Brown is seen in her classroom wearing different outfits such as a sheath dress, an A-line dress, and t-shirt and jeans. Someone narrowed in on particular pictures taken in the classroom and #teacherbae was born. Comments roared in about her unprofessionalism and inappropriate work outfits.

Because of her dress, some questioned her ability to do her job well. You might wonder, how is an A-line or sheath dress inappropriate? What I failed to mention is that Ms. Brown has a curvy figure. So, while the outfits may be in the career section of any woman’s clothing store, they take on new life when seen not on a size 2 mannequin, but a real human body.

Clothes and Bodies

While the initial reaction discussed her inappropriateness, I think the real issue is something deeper. The problem people have is not with her outfits; it’s with her body. I must admit that I write this with hesitation. I don’t want to be yet another voice discussing this woman’s body. But this post is not about Ms. Brown per se as much as it is about the many women and girls who constantly hear the message that their body is inappropriate.

I am concerned about the psyche of the middle school girl who is growing into this new body that she does not recognize. I am concerned about the teen girl that still doesn’t understand the body she is in. I am concerned about the only Black girl in her youth group who wants to wear what her friends wear but doesn’t understand why this popular outfit seems to be problematic only on her body. My goal is to create nurturing and liberative spaces for these girls who live in a world that is constantly telling them that their bodies—which they did not choose and cannot change—are inappropriate.

Burgeoning Inappropriateness

When I was a teenager, I was told by an older gentleman that I should stop wearing one of my favorite outfits because my breasts were too big. He had seen me wear the outfit a few times and finally thought that he had to tell me to stop. He meant no harm, but helped cause quite a bit.

In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time.

I really began to hate those blasted things on my chest. It was bad enough that these large breasts had seemed to develop overnight and change the way I had to do different physical activities, or that I didn’t know why all of a sudden I was popular with the boys who would never again look me in the eyes. Now I couldn’t even wear clothes I liked? I had already given up anything that showed even a small amount of cleavage, but now even being fully covered was not enough.

I began to find ways to minimize my breasts in ways that were not healthy. Had I been aware of duct tape, I might well have taped them down. In short, I’d heard the message loud and clear: My body was problematic. So I had to find ways to fix it—and by extension, fix me. I internalized that for a very long time. I realize that I still internalize it in the present tense, such as when, after trying on three outfits for a work event, I ask my husband “Does this make me look too much like a hussy?” (despite being an arguably conservative dresser). I ask this jokingly but also in part seriously, because it is hard to silence the voices that that have taken up residence in my head. I want to help girls evict these unhealthy voices before they get a chance to unpack themselves and stay a while.

Is This Really a Problem?

Some may read this and think: “Is it really that serious? Just dress for your body type!” The issue is actually more complicated than that. Curvy women are often taken less seriously in professional or formal settings, simply for being curvy. This is even more the case for Black women, who live with the legacy of having their bodies exploited and considered “exotic” or seen as a vixen merely because these bodies differ from what is considered to be the norm. Simply relying on the “what not to wear” discussion misses the mark.

We, as a society, like to pretend that it is about agency—why does she choose to dress like that? But it is actually about denying agency—it’s her body, not her clothes, that is the issue. She has little control over her body. There are embodiments for whom society holds there to be no appropriate clothing. I lived decades of my life in oversized baggy blouses which made me look sloppy and supposedly unprofessional, and still did not hide the size of my chest. It is also, perhaps, not a coincidence, that we are also talking about women who are under-valued by society in other ways as well.

I believe that an embodied pedagogy is imperative if a ministry with girls is to be liberating. Important in this pedagogy is that we appreciate our bodies. We do not shame them, but honor them for the God-given gifts that they are. There is a line to walk here. I realize that people make quick decisions about a female due to her body type, which is a reality over which she has little control. Therefore, it is beneficial to discuss this reality with girls in order that they know how they are being perceived in any role. But then each girl has a choice to make: She can go along with the status quo, cover up, and hide her God-given body. Or she can disrupt the space, realize that God chose to house the imago Dei in her curves, and live into that reality.

Am I saying she should wear whatever she wants? No. I am saying that we need to stop pretending that the conversation is simple.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Body, Soul, Soil, and Sacrament

“How can we farm and talk about food with college girls without thinking about body image?”

Of course.

How could I possibly have missed this? Any serious consideration of food with young people had to include consideration of bodies. The two necessarily go together.

It was January. I was seven months into my role as Director of the Farminary, and I found myself at a table with a handful of stellar seminary students, a colleague who specializes in Christian Education and Formation, and a tremendous opportunity.

A group of eleven high school graduates—who all happened to be young women—were coming to the Farminary for a week in June, and the task of designing and implementing a formational service and learning experience fell to us.

We dreamed big dreams. The entire 21-acre Farminary was our classroom. We talked about food justice and food deserts. We reviewed the complexities of contemporary agriculture and food production. We brainstormed documentaries that could be screened and plants that could be grown. We considered countless possible Scripture passages and theological doctrines that could guide our time. Like seeds spilled on fertile soil, ideas and possibilities sprung up haphazardly in our midst.

The recognition of the links among farming, food, and bodies shot a clarifying light through our planning. Whatever we did, we would have to honor those connections, and we would have to ground those connections in the God we encounter in Jesus Christ.

The interconnectedness compelled us.

Identity and Integration

The land, food, and the adolescent body have all been reduced to commodities which may be exploited for profit, and harmonious relationships between self and body, and between self and food, become nearly impossible to imagine.

Our impulse to help the young people make these connections finds an echo in the literature of both youth ministry and human development which has suggested for decades that the goal of adolescence is an integrated self. In Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church, Kenda Creasy Dean draws on the work of Erik Erikson, David Elkind, and Robin Maas to argue the importance of integration on the journey of identity formation. Dean notes that the postmodern context and consumer culture too frequently contribute not to an integrated identity, but rather to an identity that is fragmented or atomized1—“deprive[d] of meaningful ties to others”2—what Elkind referred to as “the patchwork self.”3

Dean writes:

The adolescent ego, by definition, is a work in progress. With the onset of formal operational thought—the ability to think about thinking—the young person recognizes for the first time a “proliferation of me’s”: the “me” at home is different from the “me” at school, and the “me” who is in love with Shannon is different from the “me” who plays in a band with friends. Integrating all the “me’s” is a daunting task under any circumstance, but for young people new to the quick-change artistry required by multiple demands on the self, integrating the “me’s” represents a full-time, and often overwhelming job.4

The struggle for integrity certainly antedates postmodernity. However, what is new in the contemporary context is the normalization of fragmentation. “[T]he growing assumption [for postmodern youth is] that this fluctuating self is normative; maturity is no longer necessarily a goal of adolescence. … Increasingly, adults function with serial selves instead of integrated ones. Adolescence itself has become a lifestyle.”5 Fragmentation, dis-integration, and division have become normal. The adolescent identity—whether housed in a fourteen- or forty-year old—is divided from itself and its community.

Body and Soul; Body and Soil

As we planned for the arrival of the young women, we recognized a dis-integration analogous to the fragmentation which Dean describes, but which she does not explicitly name. The division that the adolescent identity experiences from its own psyche and its community extends without interruption to the adolescent body, food, and the land. The adolescent body is divided against itself, it is divided against food, and it is divided against the land—and these divisions typically go unquestioned in the contemporary context. The land, food, and the adolescent body have all been reduced to commodities which may be exploited for profit, and harmonious relationships between self and body, and between self and food, become nearly impossible to imagine.6

We are still trying to overcome the destructive bifurcation of body and soul. We struggle to recognize that the division of body and soul follows quite logically from the division of body and soil. For without a meaningful connection to the land, a meaningful connection to the fruit of the land becomes tenuous and we struggle to perceive the reality that we, too, are fruit of the land. Human health depends on healthy food which depends on healthy soil.

Now, it seems, we may stand on theologically tricky ground. Is a renewed relationship with the soil really the answer to a fragmented identity? No. Not by itself. What the soil does, however, is point us to the possibility of an integration that lies at the depths of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition.

…the One professed to be fully God and fully human invites his closest followers to remember him not by reading the book he wrote or memorizing the creed he composed, but rather by consuming grain and grapes transformed into bread and wine.

The creation stories in both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 paint the picture of an interrelatedness of God, humanity, food, and the whole creation that is marked by grace and overflowing with vitality. In Genesis 1:29–30 God highlights the provision of food within the created order, “‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.” This takes place in the context of the whole creation which God pronounces “very good.” In Genesis 2, God places the first human in the Garden of Delight and again highlights the provision of food (2:16). In both creation accounts, food and bodies exist as gifts from God.

Furthermore, the Genesis 2 account describes the formation of the first human with direct reference to “the fertile soil of the ground.”7 In farmer-like fashion, God scoops up the fertile soil, breathes into it, and brings to life the first person—human from humus (Genesis 2:7). In the terms of human identity, Genesis 2 inextricably links human identity with the soil. The food God provides for humankind comes from the plant life which God has also formed from the fertile soil (2:9). The identity of humankind simply cannot be separated from either the life of God or the material world.

The import of the material world extends into the new covenant when God takes on flesh via the Incarnation. The Word takes on flesh. And then the One professed to be fully God and fully human invites his closest followers to remember him not by reading the book he wrote or memorizing the creed he composed, but rather by consuming grain and grapes transformed into bread and wine.

There it is again. The life of God, humanity, food, and by extension the whole created order dynamically interconnected, integrated. In the Eucharist, that paradigmatic marker of the identity of the people of God, food and body are inextricably linked. “Take. Eat. This is my body.” Yet this invitation to consume does not divide Christ from his followers, but rather unites them with each other, with Christ, and with the whole creation which groans alongside humanity for redemption. Is not the Lord’s Supper a picture of an integrated whole which necessarily brings together the life of God, the life of humanity, and the life of all creation?

Our Last Supper

When the young women came to the Farminary in June, I have serious doubts that we covered all this ground. But we did spend significant time on the ground, planting seeds, tending soil, and turning compost. During our last evening together, we partook of our own Last Supper. We harvested parsnip, radish, spinach, lettuce, potato, onion, garlic, and peas from the Farminary garden; we procured other groceries and spices from local farms and vendors; and then we gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast of a lifetime. We were graced by the presence of a phenomenal chef who guided us as we transformed the bounty of the land into a meal that stretched on for hours.

We served each other and that service could not be divided from our service to the soil and the bounty which the soil returned to us. We did not celebrate communion in the typical sense, but we most certainly communed. And we remembered. We remembered Christ’s presence among us, and I have no doubt that Christ was as much present in the parsnips as in the people.

No one left that meal with the work of identity formation finished. That work is more a journey than a destination. Yet there’s no doubt we were slightly more integrated when the meal was finished than when the day began, and I think it is safe to say that we knew more clearly who we were and whose we were as we crawled into bed that night, recalling the sense of wholeness that filled the evening air.

I’m not ready to proclaim that an integrated self is impossible apart from direct contact with the soil. I believe we observed, however, that our contact with the soil—when suffused with theological reflection on (i.e. attentiveness to) the interconnectedness of the life of God, the life of humanity, and the life of the whole created order—integrates us. It unveils our interdependence; it unveils our dependence on death and the interconnectedness of life and death. It opens space for humanizing conversation. It unites us through common and shared labor. It connects us with the depths of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition. It grounds us, and it points us to the One who holds all things together in perfect integrity, the only source of our true identity.

Want to learn more about the Farminary and how to think theologically about food? Check out the JUST FOOD Conference (September 22–24), where you’ll get the opportunity to have conversations about food justice, agriculture, and how they intersect with our faith. Your body and soul will leave nourished.

—–

Footnotes:

1. Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 60–1.

2. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atomize

3. David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1984).

4. Dean, 60–1.

5. Ibid., 61.

6. No contemporary figure has done more to unveil the tragic consequences of our alienation from land and bodies than Wendell Berry. My work here is informed significantly by Berry’s essay, “The Body and the Earth,” in Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002). For Berry’s brief discussion of identity formation, see p. 106–8.

7. Ellen F. Davis’ translation of the Hebrew adamah. See Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

 


stucky_36

The Rev. Nathan T. Stucky, Ph.D., hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he serves as Director of the Farminary Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA), Nate’s work with the Farminary integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture at Princeton Seminary’s 21-acre farm. He and his wife, Janel, are the happy parents of Joshua, Jenna, and Isaac.

Undressing the Dress Code

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


On a recent work trip, I sat in a room full of girls and said, “I write a blog series on ministry to girls—what topics do you think I should write about?” At first, they offered confused looks accompanied by shrugging shoulders and murmurings of, “I don’t know.” Then one asked, “What have you written about so far?” I talked about some of my posts and then said, “I’m thinking about writing one on dress code.” The responses were immediate. Girls perked up on their sleeping bags and put their phones down. “That’s a good one!” They peppered me with so many thoughts and stories, that I had to ask them to slow down so that I could get it all. This post is inspired by their thoughts and stories. While this is not a qualitative study, the girls’ voices serve as the source for my theological reflection. As I listened to the girls, I mostly affirmed and laughed (a lot). This led to a great conversation as I challenged them and they challenged me. As I listened to their stories, three categories seemed to dominate the conversation. This post focuses on those categories.

The Double Standard

If it’s really hot, guys get to run around without a shirt, but we are not allowed to be just in our sports bra during practice—even when it is really hot.

The conversation on dress code began by talking about the different allowances for boys and girls. They accepted the societal premise that girls and boys should dress differently and were not arguing for a unisex dress code, but were curious about what they saw as a strict standard for girls and a more relaxed standard for boys. And while they agreed that they could not equally expose their chest, they wondered why they could not equally expose their stomachs. Their reasoning? It was hot and they wanted their clothing options to be functional.

You are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of all the men in the universe. That is way too much power to attribute to a piece of fabric. This line of thinking also contributes to overall rape culture and sets the stage for victim blaming by placing the responsibility for males’ thoughts and actions on the females.

Addressing gender disparity in dress code is tricky. There is no denying that boys and girls are biologically different, but the concern of disparity seemed to stem from the difference of societal appropriateness more than covering private parts. It seemed to them that boys dressed for functionality and girls dressed for appropriateness. In written dress codes, the girls’ section tends to be a longer than the boys section; all of this is not based on biological differences, but in societal appropriateness. Talking about why different things are seen as appropriate for girls and boys led to another theme. It seems that you can’t talk about appropriate girl dress without talking about boys. 

Should I Really Dress for Boys?

The discussion about dressing for boys can unfold in two ways. First, there is the conversation about whether attracting boys should be the purpose of a girl’s dress. Some thought yes and some thought no. There is a desire to be attractive to those you want to attract (the vocal section of this group sought to attract boys). But the argument that one should be comfortable in one’s dress and dress for themselves seemed to the overwhelming voice. And certainly that was the voice I was more willing to affirm. My desire for girls to claim their own voice includes claiming all of one’s identity and how one projects herself to the world. A girl should feel comfortable in her own skin and the clothes she chooses to cover that skin with. It should be her informed choice.

The question about dressing for boys has another side, and it is one of the deciding factors of what is appropriate. “We are told that we need to dress a certain way because of the way boys will feel. Why can’t they just control themselves!?” Asking this question is a room full of girls from different theological backgrounds is certainly likely to create a conversational tangent. There are the defensive statements like, “Boys are visual and they can get tempted by revealing clothing.” And the retort, “But no one cares that the boy that is running past me in a muscle shirt might be tempting me.” Some believed that girls and boys are different that way. Some argued that girls and boys are equally tempted by what they see, but girls are expected to control themselves and boys are not. So, the bigger question remains: Should girls dress for boys? In this case, are girls responsible to dress a certain way with the minds and hearts of the boys around them as part of their decision making process?

In this part of the conversation, I felt compelled to participate and contribute a resounding “No!” You are not responsible for the thoughts and actions of all the men in the universe. That is way too much power to attribute to a piece of fabric. This line of thinking also contributes to overall rape culture and sets the stage for victim blaming by placing the responsibility for males’ thoughts and actions on the females. This may sound a little over the top, but it is a sliding scale. That is, if a boy has disrespectful thoughts, it is the girl’s fault. And if the boy’s thoughts move to disrespectful actions, then that is the girl’s fault as well. Again, a blouse is not that powerful. Boys are thinking beings; they are in control of their own thoughts and actions and are as capable as girls in this regard.

We should talk about societal appropriateness and we should talk about how our theology influences our dress (as it should influence everything we do), but we ought not confuse the two.

Most disconcerting is that this subtopic, more than any, is filled with theological rationale. There is talk about helping our brothers in Christ from lusting. There is talk about how one’s dress could affect another’s faith and be a stumbling block. There is talk about very specific and cookie-cutter ways that of the temple of God (at least the female manifestation of it) must be adorned. This language is used to theologize an oppressive viewpoint that limits girls and makes them responsible for other people actions, which leads to a theological rationale for rape culture.

Who Decides What Is Appropriate?

This question, more than most, presented the messiness involved in talking about how one dresses. One particular young lady wanted no boundaries, and wanted to wear whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. This led to debate that went something like this:

My mom tells me that something isn’t appropriate for church and I am like, “That’s so fake. Why can’t I wear whatever I want?”
—But some things are inappropriate. You wouldn’t wear a cut off shirt to church.
Why not?
—Would you wear a ball gown to the movies?
If I wanted to.
—But that’s silly. Some things are appropriate in some places and not in others.
According to who?

And that is the ultimate question. Appropriate dress is societally based. Yet, there has to be a balance. On one hand, one ought not feel compelled to dress for others. Yet on the other hand, we all live in a society and there must be a modicum of respect for others.

Personally, jeans in church make me uncomfortable; don’t even get me started on shorts or t-shirts! That is the way that I was raised, and although I have been grown and on my own for a couple of decades, I am convinced that my mother would feel a disturbance in the Force if I were not dressed appropriately when I left the house, even though my version of appropriateness is more casual than her version. Propriety was important in my home growing up. I was taught that dress is how you present yourself to the world, and we were taught to present a Victorian influenced propriety. I rebelled by not wearing pantyhose to church. That was seen as scandalous. A young lady must be dressed with a slip, pantyhose, and girdle when appropriate. It did not matter that I grew up on an island where the temperature was regularly in the 80s. What I was presenting to the world was a majority-determined respectability. If one knows that and chooses that, more power to that person. But if we choose to theologize and moralize and pretend that it is more than that, then we are being constricting and using backwards theology to make God’s desire to fit into our societally influenced preferences.

The theological discussion to be had is an important one, and we should talk with our young girls about how one should dress as a representative of Christ. And as we help girls wrestle with this, we ought to ask them to reflect on what God is calling them to present in this world. We should talk about societal appropriateness and we should talk about how our theology influences our dress (as it should influence everything we do), but we ought not confuse the two.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. is currently the Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Drew Theological School. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Rethinking the “Good Girl” at the Farminary

We were not expecting only young women to sign up for the annual youth mystery trip. But when they did, we knew we had an opportunity. Their church’s leaders had arranged for them to join us at the Farminary, which is a project to integrate theological education with small-scale sustainable agriculture at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was part of a small team of seminarians, which was in charge of designing and teaching the curriculum for the trip. Knowing that context matters, we were excited about what this particular group of young women could learn through this unique setting at the Farminary.

Created Good

Youth ministry does a disservice to youth if it participates, explicitly or implicitly, in messages that young people can earn or buy their goodness instead of receive it as a gift from God… To be a “good girl” theologically is to be created and loved by the God who is good.

Genesis 1 jumped out as the obvious place to start. The opening words of the Bible that may have once been dulled by familiarity came alive in a new way at the Farminary. As the young women and their leaders mulched tomatoes, Genesis 1 was read aloud. The tomato plants with their earthy scent and the dark, fertile soil embodied the biblical imagery of the earth bringing forth vegetation. As the Scripture was read, the group joined in at every refrain of, “And God saw that it was good,” by shouting, “GOOD!” together in unison. Through living at the intersection of thinking theologically and caring for creation, the Farminary highlighted God’s delight in all of creation and God’s proclamation that it is good.

What Is Goodness?

As the group circled up to process their first day at the Farminary, the question emerged: “How do you know what is good?” The buzz of energy around the circle this question created signaled its importance. The young women had encountered God’s delight and God’s declaration of goodness in the garden, but now they needed to do the work of translating why that was important for their particular lives.

Many competing ideas of goodness were acknowledged. Consumerism reared its head early in the conversation. One young woman talked about getting messages about what is good from magazines and by seeing what products were popular among friends. Yet, she shared in a way that showed she was ultimately dissatisfied with the superficial and fleeting goodness consumerism could provide. Others shared about the pressure they felt to be good enough. As young women, they have likely received explicit and implicit messages their whole lives about what it meant to be a “good girl.” These expectations can range from appearance to achievement to affability. Striving to live up to expectations to be good enough is not only exhausting, but also cannot ultimately quench the thirst for goodness.

Goodness As Gift

Luckily, we had two living parables in our midst—an old oak tree and a newborn baby girl. The old oak tree was simply being what it was created to be. The baby girl mostly ate and napped, and the group adored her for it. The challenge to the young women to think of themselves in the same gracious way that they thought about that baby girl resonated deeply with the group. The lesson taught by the parable of the oak tree and the baby girl is that one cannot earn or buy goodness. As Genesis 1 reminds us, goodness comes from being loved and created by the very One who is good. Goodness is a gift of grace that cannot be earned or bought. The Farminary, with its focus on locating humanity theologically and literally within God’s creation, was fertile ground for youth to grasp that truth.

Youth ministry does a disservice to youth if it participates, explicitly or implicitly, in messages that young people can earn or buy their goodness instead of receive it as a gift from God. The embodied experience of these young women also serves as a reminder that the pressure to be good enough can be a gendered experience, which is worth paying attention to and addressing theologically. To be a “good girl” theologically is to be created and loved by the God who is good.

The Price of Goodness

Young people understand that goodness that can be earned or bought can also be lost. The goodness of God does not have a price, but it does have an invitation. The invitation of grace is to respond in gratitude. Out of gratitude, we can invite young people to orient their lives around the goodness of God. Rather than always searching for a way to be good enough, they can be connected to the source of goodness. At the Farminary, the way to orient one’s life around the goodness of God is to grow in love for God, others, self, and creation.

As we accepted the gift of God’s grace and the invitation to respond in gratitude, our week with these young women at the Farminary abounded with God’s goodness from the old oak tree to the newborn baby that rested in its shade. What messages does your community explicitly and implicitly model for young people about what makes them good? What is keeping you from believing that God created you, and saw that you were GOOD? I invite you, as God’s beloved, good creation, both to become and discover your own living parables of God’s goodness.

Want to learn more about the Farminary and how to think theologically about food? Check out the JUST FOOD Conference (September 22–24), where you’ll get the opportunity to have conversations about food justice, agriculture, and how they intersect with our faith. Your body and soul will leave nourished.

 


AmberAmber Slate is a fourth year M. Div./M.A. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Previously, she worked for five years at Sammamish Presbyterian Church where she was director of the middle school ministry. She grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington and wonders if one day she will get to be pastor of a church that would be excited about having goats.

Claim Your Voice, but Change It First

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


After hearing what I thought was a powerful lecture from a very impressive young woman, I sat down with some colleagues and talked about how informative, wonderfully nuanced, and commanding I thought this young woman was. One colleague responded, “I could not stand to listen to her. Her voice was annoying.” Puzzled and wanting to know what was so annoying about this voice that seemed pretty non-distinct to me, I pushed back. Another colleague chimed in, “It’s the upspeak.” I rolled my eyes. He continued. “When you raise your voice at the end of a sentence, you sound unintelligent. If you are unintelligent, why should I listen to you?” I continued to push and go back to her content that proved her intelligence, but I was fighting alone. It may have been because I was the only woman at the table. It might have been because, like many women, I have fought for too many years against people who tried to change the way I speak. For today’s younger women it’s upspeak and vocal fry. For older women, it was being too soft-spoken or too high-pitched. Black women have been critiqued as too loud and those with non-American accents have been told that they are inarticulate. All of these are code words for telling someone that they do not sound like the hegemonic norm.

… we cannot help girls claim their metaphorical voice if we do not appreciate their literal voice… So, when we work with youth for presentations during service or in plain conversation, we need to be careful to discern what feedback helps them claim their voice, and what squelches their voice, forcing them to adopt another voice not their own.

The pieces reported and written about the current trends or upspeak and vocal fry range from “it’s the worst thing ever” to “get over it.” Yet the notion is consistent that these trends hurt young women’s careers because they are not taken seriously unless they speak a certain way. I must admit that I am surprised that so many news stories have been dedicated to the way young women speak. I think these trends will go the way of the valley girl and in twenty years we will be talking about something else. But the fact that so many news stories and think pieces are written about it, and the one common thread is that women that speak this particular way are seen as unintelligent so much so that it is hurting their job prospects—this becomes another way to police voices that sound “other.”

This is certainly not new. For decades, people on TV have had to learn to sound like a generic American with no distinctive geographical accent (completely ignoring the fact that an American accent is a geographical accent in and of itself). As someone from an immigrant community, I watched and listened as many people tried to change their own speech. When I moved to the continent from a US territory, I learned to pronounce things differently if I didn’t want to be demeaned for having a “cute little accent” as people metaphorically patted me on the head. I did this even though I thought that an American accent sounded less articulate with certain words, since it failed to pronounce all of the syllables. I learned quickly that it wasn’t about being more articulate or more intelligent; it was about morphing into something others deemed acceptable. The goal of the TV newscaster, for example, is to sound like a white American male from Middle America. That, after all, is the voice of intellect, success, and acceptance. In the same way, accents have historically been used to discredit “the other.” The fight against vocal fry and upspeak is a fight to discredit young women.

So, then, what is the role of the youth minister trying so hard to help girls and young women find their voice, when they are being told that their voice is problematic? For we cannot help girls claim their metaphorical voice if we do not appreciate their literal voice. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t working with girls mean helping them fix problems they may have?” Absolutely. I am not suggesting that there is no place for voice correction. I have been the recipient of great voice and presentation coaching as I went to a seminary that saw presentation of the preached word almost as important as the content. And as a speech and debate teacher and coach, I have helped develop the public voice of young people. Both of those experiences have taught me the importance of discerning when I am helping someone find their best voice and when I have crossed the line and am giving them a generic voice that is not their own. The speech classes I took were a double-edged sword for many people, but mostly for women and people of color who did not fall into a classic understanding of preaching—you know, the classic school that did not have women and people of color in it. So, when we work with youth for presentations during service or in plain conversation, we need to be careful to discern what feedback helps them claim their voice, and what squelches their voice, forcing them to adopt another voice not their own.

The Bible shows us that God speaks in many ways. God uses nature, animals, and other human beings to bring forth God’s message. But if we are convinced that authority can only sound one particular way, we may miss the voice of the Divine. I am reminded of the Elijah story. While Elijah waited to hear from God, God chose not to speak through a great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart nor the earthquake nor the fire. God chose to speak to in a gentle whisper. The moral of this story is not that God will always speak in a gentle whisper, but that God will speak in ways that may be different for us. If we are open to listening, we may hear the most profound sermon from a young woman with upspeak, vocal fry, or any other way of speaking that may seem different.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Providing Different Images: Why Youth Ministry Needs #BlackGirlMagic

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.


Over the past year, #BlackGirlMagic has populated my social media feeds. Coined by CaShawn Thompson, it is a celebratory hashtag that applauds the achievements of Black girls and women. As a youth minister and scholar whose work focuses on ministering to girls, I am drawn to anything that encourages girls to celebrate who God created them to be. I am especially drawn to avenues of celebrating a group that rarely see positive images of themselves because hurtful images are forced upon them by society and Christian traditions. This is why #BlackGirlMagic is not only good for society, but good for youth ministry.

We need #BlackGirlMagic because Black women and girls are often bombarded with negative images of themselves. In her text, Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hills Collins calls them “controlling images” and contends that these images are socially constructed to maintain Black women’s subordination. She names five main archetypes: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, the Black lady, and the jezebel. All of these images exist to dissect and control African American women’s sexuality and understood femininity. The mammy is the asexual happy woman who cares for the children of the White family she works for more than her own. On the other hand, the matriarch is the bad Black mother who has children out of wedlock and emasculates men. In fact, all but the asexual mammy are seen as emasculating men. All are seen as being part of the reason for the lack of strong Black families. All of these images are juxtaposed to a more feminine image of the White counterparts of these women. These images further tell women that whether they are the wanton jezebel or the educated and hard-working Black lady, they are an abnormal section of their gender.

That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep… These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule.

Many of these images take on similar, but distinct, forms when speaking of Black teenage girls. When manifested in pint-sized forms, the “welfare mother” becomes the “teen mom” or the “baby mama” who is seen as a drain on the larger society. The “matriarch” becomes the “lil’ momma,” the bossy girl who tries to take care of everyone and is often called womanish. The “Black lady” is morphed into the “mini diva” who is always organized and involved in numerous activities and clubs, while maintaining a picture perfect appearance at all times. The image of the “jezebel” becomes the “little hoochie” or “ho” that is talked about and blamed for the rise of oral sex in middle and high schools. Like their adult counterparts, these images point to real concerns, but place all of the onus and blame squarely on the shoulders of those who bear these images.

And before we shake our heads and berate secular culture, it is important to realize that many Christian traditions have theologized several controlling images and presented a few of their own. As one example, let’s use Collin’s analysis to look at another image being taught in churches—“the Proverbs 31 woman.” First, it must be noted that referring to a “Proverbs 31 woman” right away ignores half of the chapter. So, we are already on exegetically shaky ground. This image is not unique to Black women, but the passage can take a particular twist when paired with the other images that have been used to control U.S. Black women. She is often presented as a controlling image that is a combination of the capable and docile mammy that cares for everyone else and the educated upper middle class Black lady that has done everything right. The only difference is she has learned the roles well enough to earn a husband whom she makes proud.

My issue is not so much with the proverb itself, but with the way the proverb is taken out of context (what mother doesn’t want perceived perfection for her son?) and used to create a controlling, cookie-cutter image into which all Christian women are compelled to try and fit. Placing Proverbs 31 (and other poems and stories of women in the Bible) in the context of these controlling images should help us see how easy it is to theologize controlling and unhelpful images.

To help girls discover healthier images we need to analyze what controlling images we are placing on them in our talks, our activities, and our relationships. Even when we think that we are presenting healthy images, we may need to check ourselves. There is nothing wrong with being a lady. But by saying that one has to live into a particular understanding of what that means and what that looks like is how we get the controlling image of a Black lady and how we then force women to say that they are not ladies because they don’t like high heeled shoes. Controlling images come with such a long list of dos or don’ts that there is no freedom to discover the nuanced selves that God has created us to be.

That’s why we need #BlackGirlMagic. Not only does it combat the controlling and limiting images by celebrating the positive examples that exist; it also supplies examples that are wide and deep. We celebrate the scientist, the gymnast, the historian, the community service volunteer, the book collector, etc. They all carry themselves differently and choose different looks, but that is not what is mentioned. It’s not about what they are wearing or what mold they fit. It’s about celebrating what they are doing and who they are―about realizing that there are many more like them. These ladies are not the exception. They are the rule. The controlling images are the exception. In fact, the controlling images are lies; lies we have been convinced to believe.

Let’s move away from the lie into the truth of #BlackGirlMagic. Let’s post and publicly celebrate our own achievement. Celebrating the accomplishments and many different images of girlhood is celebrating the beautiful complexity of the imago Dei and realizing that it cannot be pinned down to look one particular way. God has created each of us differently, so God’s image manifests itself differently within each of us. May each girl know that however they are made, their best self is magical.

 


Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.

Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls: Practices of an Embodied Pedagogy

This post is part of a series called Recovering the Imago Dei for Girls, which focuses on seeing and naming the image of God in girls. For a general introduction to the series, read this post.

Navigating body politics with girls is no small feat. We want girls to love their bodies as an extension of the imago Dei within. So, we want a theological anthropology that is liberating. However, with several million-dollar enterprises built on making girls not accept their body, where to do we even begin? One answer is making sure that your youth ministry embraces an embodied pedagogy—that is, a teaching and ministry philosophy—that helps girls feel comfortable in their bodies. In order to honor our embodied identities, I propose six principles for using an embodied pedagogy. This is not an extensive list, but a beginning list to center the conversation. This list worked within my context, but in each context, those in the group should create their own list to address the need of their community.

1) Self care is how we honor our Divine self worth.

We must care for the body that houses the imago Dei. The answer to a culture that over emphasizes the appearance of the body is not to ignore the body entirely. Instead, we ought to focus on a healthy body and listen to our bodies.

2) We must appreciate our bodies.

We live in a culture that does not teach us to appreciate our body. Women and girls, especially, are constantly being told that more needs to be done to make our bodies closer to “perfect.” Our bodies are treated as shells that need to be painted, renovated, reinvented, but not necessarily appreciated for what they are or what they do. In an embodied pedagogy, there is no body shaming. All analogies that use the body should be positive or neutral, but not negative.

3) We celebrate the great tradition of using our body to praise God.

Christians have a long tradition of embodied worship. Many people position their body differently for prayer, reading of scripture, singing, and other aspects of worship. Within Black Christian traditions especially, there is a longstanding history of embodied worship though dance, whether it be liturgical dance or dance celebrations. This tradition honors the body by realizing that it is a great tool of expression and has great potential for praise. An embodied pedagogy takes cues from an embodied worship and uses the body as an expression of learning. In learning environments, we can do more than sit. We move and demonstrate concepts with our bodies.

4) Know that you control the use of your body.

There are many societal messages that tell women and girls that their bodies exist for the aesthetic and physical pleasure of men. Unfortunately, there are Christian messages that echo these societal messages and tell girls and women that their bodies belong to their fathers until they belong to their husbands. An embodied pedagogy is mindful that girls ought to always be in control of their bodies. No girl or woman should ever feel that the use of her body is under the dominion of someone else.

5) Spaces must welcome all body types.

We must care for the body that houses the imago Dei. The answer to a culture that over emphasizes the appearance of the body is not to ignore the body entirely. Instead, we ought to focus on a healthy body and listen to our bodies.

I echo one of Dori Baker’s embodied pedagogy principles from Doing Girlfriend Theology by saying that bodies must be comfortable. Bodies that are made uncomfortable are made to feel like they should fit a particular mode. In the setting of a learning environment practicing an embodied pedagogy, the physical space should be welcoming to a variety of body types and concerns.

6) We honor the body. We neither shame it nor treat it as a separate entity or something to be tamed.

We ought to be in partnership with our bodies. Our flesh is not something that we need to be afraid of, distance ourselves from, or be in tension with—even when it causes us pain. It is difficult to love a body that causes you pain. But we work with our bodies, not against them. An embodied pedagogy provides room for caring for our body in pain and keeping it out of pain and teaches girls to honor their body.

This embodied pedagogy works best when rooted in community. Whether it be fellowship between women and girls or community-wide conversations where we talk about these issues. Come up with your own list. How do you help girls in your ministry feel comfortable in their own skin?


For more on embodied pedagogy, please read Dori Baker’s Doing Girlfriend Theology, the work this post builds upon. If you’d like to learn more about Dori Baker, look at her website.

 

Annie Lockhart GilroyRev. Annie A. Lockhart Gilroy, Ph.D. has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, and youth minister for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her dissertation focused on the role of imagination in youth ministry, especially with girls from poor and working-class families.