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Preaching fashion

Minister advises clergy on style

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / February 18, 2007

NORWELL -- There have been nearly four centuries of ministers at the venerable First Parish, but only one has had to worry about what color to paint her toenails.

Her nom de plume is PeaceBang, and in between drafting sermons and visiting the sick she has also become a sensation as a cheeky dispenser of irreverent wisdom about fashion and beauty for women of the cloth.

Some choice guidance: "We know Jesus wore sandals. He probably also bathed once a month, and you wouldn't do that to us, would you?" "When it comes to crosses, bigger is not better." And, "thou shalt not leave the house without thy Altoids."

In less than a year, PeaceBang has attracted the attention of a denominationally diverse group of clergywomen, including several in the United Kingdom and the career services director at Yale Divinity School, who have enlisted in what PeaceBang describes as her cause: "The defrumpification of the American clergy."

PeaceBang's real name is the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, and in town she is known as Vicki. She is the affable, affirming minister of the white clapboard church on River Street, the one with the "dears crossing" sign in the parking lot. PeaceBang is the name under which she blogs, and she agreed to blow her on line cover only reluctantly, consenting to an interview three months after first being approached by the Globe, and only after she disclosed her alter ego to her congregation.

"I am not at all offended by people who think that this blog is frivolous, and if we were sitting around all day thinking about this stuff I would be deeply worried," she said. "But it's meant to just shine a little bit of a light into the corner of a part of our lives that we think about, and we worry about, and we don't have anybody to talk to about. When you stand in the closet on a Sunday morning, and you're looking at your clothing, and you've prepared the sermon and you've prayed over the service and you're ready for your meetings, and then it comes to that moment -- 'What am I going to wear today?' -- well, that's a real part of your morning too, and what you decide is important."

Although her voice is laced with humor and her blog is fueled by fun, she says there is a serious concern at stake: Women clergy are a relatively new historical phenomenon, seminaries generally do not discuss dressing for the pulpit, many clergy women work in denominations in which they rarely wear vestments, and women are often judged on their appearance. She notes that many preach under bright lights, often speak before groups and are frequently photographed, and come in close contact, as pastoral counselors, with large numbers of people.

"There is a lot of scrutiny of women clergy because we are new, and for some people it's really a novelty," she said. "They're really looking at you with the kind of attention that a male clergy person would just never attract."

Weinstein, 41, is a native of New Canaan, Conn., who was raised a Unitarian because that denomination welcomed her parents; her father had been raised Jewish and her mother Russian Orthodox. A graduate of Northwestern University, she worked as a high school English teacher before deciding to pursue the ministry. In 1997, she received a master of divinity from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained by a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Medford; she then worked at congregations in Pennsylvania and Maryland before becoming minister in Norwell in 2002.

She began blogging two years ago about life in ministry; she adopted the name PeaceBang after a friend misheard the phrase "he's paying" at a restaurant, and she thought the resulting phrase was amusing and apt. Then last April, she posted makeup advice for clergywomen; it generated so much feedback that she decided to start the Beauty Tips blog.

The number of women in ministry in North America has been rising rapidly -- currently, 36 percent of seminary students are women, according to the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Weinstein's denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is the first denomination to pass the halfway mark -- 53 percent of active Unitarian Universalist ministers are female, according to spokesman John Hurley.

Her advice to clergywomen is relatively simple: Remember that you are projecting an image with your choice of clothing and hairstyle, it's OK to buy some skin or hair care products or dabble in color, and remember to take a few minutes to look in the mirror before heading out. "I have attended funerals where the clergyperson obviously came skidding through the door and never stopped to adjust their vestments, and came in looking like they'd just run through a car wash, and that interferes with the ceremonial feeling and the high import of the moment, so we really have to pay attention to that," she said.

She is not a fan of open-toed shoes, giant earrings, or sweaters emblazoned with reindeer; she cautions against anything that might be viewed as sexually provocative; and above all, she counsels, clothing and accessories should not be a distraction. Even in conversation, she is full of pithy wisdom; for example, she says, "We live in a period where people are going under the knife to look attractive, so at the very least we can wear lip gloss."

"Anyone who is in a position of leadership has to consider what image they're projecting, and that goes for clergy too," she said. "The problem with frumpiness isn't so much aesthetic as it is a problem of looking as though you are not paying attention to the world and that you are not part of today ' s world . . . They will not be willing to hear us in the same way if we look like we walked out of 1972."

Her audience includes men as well as women, and is drawn from across the country and multiple denominations. Readers post comments to the blog, and there have been debates over issues such as the appropriateness of open-toed shoes in church.

"Many of us clergywomen (and men, too, I guess) have fallen into this mentality that leads us to believe that the way we look shouldn't matter -- 'If we were truly holy women, we'd eschew the worrying about hemlines and heel height that most of our age-peers think about ," said the Rev. Susan Olson, a Presbyterian minister who serves as director of career services at Yale Divinity School. Olson, who was among blog readers who were interviewed by the Globe by e-mail, said she not only reads PeaceBang's Beauty Tips for Ministers (beautytipsforministers.blogspot.com) , but has recommended it to her students and links it to the career office blog.

"Obviously, fashion is not now, nor will it ever be, front and center in my life, or the life of any of my sister clergy," Olson said.

Some readers regularly wear clerical vestments , but they all appear to share an uncertainty about what clothing is appropriate.

"My four male colleagues at the church are all great men, but being the youngest, and being female . . . well, I can't really call them up at midnight on Saturday night and say, 'Do you think fishnets are too much with a collar and long skirt?' " said Erin Smith, a student at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Penn.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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