Book review: ‘The Pastor Wears a Skirt’

Nov 5, 2018 by

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Contemporary memoir, unlike autobiography, is selective in its sharing of life experiences for a defined purpose: to represent a voice, often that of a woman, not heard before — from Maya Angelou’s groundbreaking I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 to the 2018 story of an Idaho woman who survives the warped ideologies of her isolated survivalist family to study at Cambridge and Harvard in Educated.

"The Pastor Wears a Skirt"

“The Pastor Wears a Skirt”

The 51 sketches in this short memoir detail the lessons, encounters, surprises and disappointments of Dorothy Nickel Friesen, a Mennonite pastor in a pioneering role who seeks to answer two questions: “What do pastors really do?” and “What’s it like to be a woman pastor?”

She is not so much interested in her own psyche as fascinated by her role. The sketches — “Orlando’s Feet,” “Liturgical Clothing Commandments,” “Stillborn Dreams,” “Hot Bean Juice Communion,” “Some Will Con You” — read like a scrapbook of memories, snippets and jokes, fragments of documents, official letters, bathroom plots to include women on boards, even a man-ual for liturgical clothing: “conservative dress; liberal compassion.”

I had expected that, as is often the case with women of Nickel Friesen’s generation, she might devote space to the difficulty of “hearing the call.” For women during this era in the Mennonite church, it was unlikely that someone would suggest they pursue pastoral ministry. Thus, these women often searched for a calling.

Nickel Friesen documents her circuitous journey into pastoral ministry but worries less about how she got there, seeing herself early on as a leader. She exults that she “found herself” in this groundbreaking role, though she does not shy away from sharing the “complications” as she refers to the disappointments she experienced.

An extrovert, she learned early that a leader experiences “moments of outstanding opportunity and extreme loneliness at the same time.”

Nickel Friesen finds herself gently led by early mentors in church music. Hymnody and choral traditions in her Mountain Lake, Minn., childhood are important formative influences, as is her pastor Albert Gaeddert’s model of social activism when he goes to register voters in Mississippi. Her formation chapter ends with the end of her seminary studies, having no clear route forward in the church at that point.

Chapter 2, “Decision” begins with a snippet from a 2006 forum address by the author delivered at Bluffton (Ohio) University years later that references the lonely struggle of any woman ordained during the 20th century, even in a sympathetic denomination: “No wonder that young girls may still never see a woman in the pulpit in their home congregations. When the pastor wears a skirt, there is bound to be controversy.”

I was reminded of the article in the July 30 MWR, “What Girls Learn from Women in the Pulpit” by Benjamin Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin from their book She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America. The authors examine the influence of gender roles and argue that women who had female congregational leaders in their youth enjoyed higher self-esteem as adults.

Nickel Friesen presents with delight “Matthew’s Confession,” her interaction with a 10-year-old who had visited his grandmother’s church and returned to tell Pastor Dorothy his odd discovery: The pastor was a man!

And so the book goes, wandering through fragments of experiences and anecdotal truths, not necessarily weighting the pastoral scars — the sexual transgressions this woman pastor endured; nor the snubs: the couple she saw through the very difficult birth of a child who later left her church because they could not raise their young son in a congregation where a woman was pastor — more heavily than the joys. She does admit that rejection is “an integral part of my pastoral identity.”

The largest gatherings of pastoral experiences, not surprisingly, are in the chapters titled “Love and Death,” “Rituals and Rhythms” and “Sacred Encounters.” She much preferred premarital counseling to the often overhyped and consumer-oriented weddings she conducted (described as not quite religious events) where she found herself as pastor irrelevant. Her relationship-centered value is evident in her grief over broken engagements and marriages that did not last.

When death happens, however, the senior pastor is necessary, and the community’s traditions are treasured. Nickel Frie­sen prizes authenticity and genuineness in all religious rituals, and so she especially came to love funerals: “Stillborn losses, old age, accidents and disease merged into a congregational ritual of compassion, care and mercy. No one was spared a dose of communal grace.”

She details her pastoral encounters with military funerals, death by murder, the sudden death of a beloved doctor, secrets revealed in death, the rhythms of frequent deaths in an aging congregation, the death of a beloved fellow pastor, the grief of being the retired pastor who cannot attend to a death.

The strength of this book is in its loving details. All good writers know that in the details are the truths of memory. The pastor’s heart for her beloved communities is revealed through her keenly observant eye, watching over her flock through the rituals of faith formation (the youth group practices communion with banana bread), baptism and preaching as a community event.

Especially thoughtfully written are the stories of the rhythms and transitions of pastoral life — moving into and out of sabbaticals, disconnecting from the beloved community and reconnecting — offering a fresh perspective for readers who are not pastors.

Raylene Hinz-Penner is a writer and lecturer emerita at Washburn University and a member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kan.


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