To Whom Does a Pastor’s Body Belong?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was many things to many people, but in his own mind, he was first and foremost a pastor. And although he was born 39 years before he was assassinated, his body implied a different story. An autopsy on King revealed that despite his youth, he had the heart of a 60-year-old-man. My understanding is that this was largely due to the stresses and strains he experienced.

King may be an extreme example, but every pastor runs into body issues in one way or another. It’s not necessarily good or bad; it just is. Consider:

  • A church member hugs us without asking.
  • A hospitalized elder reaches out to hold our hand during prayer.
  • A seminarian wonders if they can get a visible tattoo and still find a call.
  • A Pastoral Relations Committee member expresses concern about our weight.

What choices do pastors and laity make in these moments? What do we say, when the ethics around the physicality of pastoral ministry can be so unclear?

In every church I’ve served, I’ve received comments (good, bad, and otherwise) about my body. Yet as often as body issues come up for me — a cisgender white man — it happens way more often to some of my colleagues. Three years ago, Rev. Layton Williams posted an article about the regular body comments she and other female pastors face. Last year, Rev. Ryan Dowell Baum shared a reflection about coming out as genderqueer, only to face opposition from their otherwise liberal church. In historically black churches, pastors and congregants alike have to contend with the legacy of enslavement and how it both shaped and shapes perceptions of black bodies in this country.

Statistical research bears out the heartbreaking news that oppressed and marginalized pastors struggle even more than folks like me. One of the most troubling statistics I’ve recently read shows that while the suicide rate among all clergy is lower than the national average, the suicide rate for black male clergy and white female clergy is actually higher than the national average.

From suicide to obesity to a litany of ailments, there is trouble with clergy bodies. We don’t always know how to address it. But the commodification of bodies may be part of the problem. As scholar Iman Cooper put it:

“When lives revolve around market values and are believed to be valuable only for the potential profitability they may bring, the very fabric that holds communities together shifts.”

Here, Cooper uncovers the problem hiding in the title of this article. The question “to whom does a pastor’s body belong?” could be heard as a question about who owns the pastor’s body. The assumption that a person’s body could be owned both was and is inherent to the systemic oppression of peoples, as seen in American slavery.

All Christians (lay and ordained) are called to share a gospel of liberation from bondage, not of reinforcing enslavement. Think of just how corporeal that good news is. We proclaim that God — the Creator of the Universe — loved this world enough to become embodied in the flesh in Jesus. In doing so, that embodied God lived in an empire that believed its citizens could own bodies like Jesus’s. That same empire condemned God’s body to death, nailing the Creator to a cross.

Through the resurrection of Christ, God proclaimed that no one could truly own Jesus’s body. And yet, although scripture reminds us that humanity was created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-28), we keep trying to own one another as if our mutually-divine image was a lie.

Still, there is hope in asking about a pastor’s physical belonging. As followers of Jesus, we have inherited a faith that proclaims that possession is demonic, but that belonging is holy. We understand “possession” to mean “being ruled by something outside of you,” as with the Gerasene demoniac. Belonging, however, is sacred in our tradition. Everywhere Jesus went, he welcomed strangers, sinners, and more into the beloved community of God. The Roman Centurion, the Samaritan woman, Zaccheus — all of them were outside the beloved community, and Jesus found ways to welcome them in. And while we Christians have known for centuries how important belonging was to both individuals and communities, scientists are now arriving at the same conclusion.

Rather than reinforcing the demonic ways in which people and institutions attempt to “own” our pastors’ bodies, perhaps we could celebrate how pastors’ bodies are finding holy belonging. Consider, for example, the case of Rev. Kelsey Peterson. Kelsey moved from California to Missouri and faced a host of challenges: cultural, vocational, and more. In the midst of those challenges, however, a dance ministry emerged in Kelsey’s life. She has now integrated her love of dance and her call from God into an embodied ministry aimed at creating an experience of God’s love in motion.

How else might pastors embody such good news? How do we celebrate the liberation of the body of Christ in the liberation of our bodies as clergy? What does it mean in this era to celebrate that the Holy Spirit has welcomed diverse bodies into the beloved community since the earliest days of the church (see Acts 8:26-40, Galatians 2:1-10)? And how do we help the congregants in our care (not our ownership) to be released from a culture of unchecked capitalism that has claimed that human bodies may be owned?

We followers of Jesus are called to share the good news that no one can truly own you, and no one ought to try. So to whom does the pastor’s body belong? To God alone, just like the bodies of everyone in God’s beloved community (1 John 4:1-4). We belong to God and are possessed by nobody. Let us rejoice in that good news by forming and reforming the body of Christ, so that everybody may know that they are somebody.

David LindseyRev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.
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