Mean Girls and Modesty

LAY OFF THE LADIES

Business Woman #425I still cringe a little bit inside, remembering.  I was in my mid-twenties and single again.  I’d dropped a few pounds, having lost my appetite for a while after my husband died.  I went into my office and found a note that had been slipped under the door.  As I opened it and began to understand its contents, I could feel a flush creep up my neck.  It was from one of the young ladies in the church.  She had written to express her disapproval of a pair of pants I’d worn to church recently.  I knew the ones she was talking about.  They were new, and I really liked them.  They were a touch on the small side, but it was the last pair in the store.  They were sort of the pants version of a mermaid dress—black, silky fabric, tight on the top, then flaring out just above the knees down to the floor.  This girl thought these pants were too tight, and apparently, when I sat down, the top of my panties had been visible in the back.  She informed me that as a pastor, I really should set a better example.  I was horrified and deeply embarrassed.  I had never intended to look seductive.  I just liked the pants, but apparently my motives and my qualifications to be a pastor were somehow in question because of my choice.  Needless to say, the pants bit the dust.

Over the years, I’ve chatted with a number of girls serving in church who have been rebuked so harshly over their clothes they almost quit.  I have a beautiful young friend in her early twenties.  She and her husband are youth pastors with an adorable little boy, and she is also her pastor’s daughter.  I was surprised when she told me that for a while she considered not being in ministry at all.  After some probing, I discovered that in her first year of ministry, she had endured three hours of harsh rebuking in a meeting with six of the women of her church.  She is one of the most gentle, sweet and gracious people you will ever meet.  She told me that she essentially was called a slut for wearing leggings on stage and showing the shape of her backside in a youth meeting.  She was so embarrassed and hurt by the attack on her motives and the attack on her credibility that she almost called it quits before she even got started.  I have beautiful friends in ministry who get fierce criticism for the way they look on their social media profiles.  These women get picked on relentlessly, especially if they posted any modeling photos.

No one criticizes men about what they wear.  I’ve never heard any man get seriously rebuked for immodesty, and some of the pants they wear these days are tighter than their wife’s.  Weirdly enough, in every story I’ve heard, a woman did the rebuking.  Men tend to get the blame for all this—we can’t cause our brothers to stumble—but it’s really the ladies that get most bothered by this, not men.  The truth is that men don’t tend to even notice what we are wearing.  They look at and admire a beautiful woman, regardless of what she wears.  My husband doesn’t know the difference between a skirt and a dress any more than he knows the difference between leggings and skinny pants.  It does not register in his brain what I’m wearing at all unless I call his attention to it to ask his opinion.  Then he just gets really confused, stalls, and tries to leave the room as soon as he can safely escape.  He has no idea!

Let’s call this for what it really is—a mean girls attack.  This kind of criticism is rooted in a religious spirit and in jealousy.  Religion starts wars—not helpful.  God hasn’t called anyone to be the official humbler of other people.  If you don’t feel good about yourself, making someone else feel small isn’t going to help anyone feel better.  You just wind up feeling worse because now you feel like a jerk too.  Girls, let’s just decide to be bigger than this kind of meanness.  Chill out, and be kind to our pretty girls.  They are going to be attractive in whatever they wear.  They can’t help it!  If you feel resentful of that, ask yourself why.

If you aren’t feeling confident about yourself, and feeling a little jealous of someone, pause for a moment.  No one else’s beauty or talent diminishes how fabulous you are.  Ask God to help you see yourself the way he sees you—the apple of his eye!  Look at the right mirror, the word of God, for your true value as his prize.  “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me against the nations who plundered you. For he said, ‘Anyone who harms you harms my most precious possession.’”  (Zechariah 2:8 NLT) The value that Christ places on you, just as you are, makes you infinitely valuable.  You are a creation by the ultimate designer, amazing and fabulous at every season of life!  Walk in that and extend grace and love.  We become releasing and empowering chick leaders that way, not intimidated by the influence and beauty of other girls on our team.  Let’s celebrate and find personal satisfaction in the successes of the girls we lead with.  We are not competing!

MODESTY

Victorian dress
thank God this is not the standard

I’m not suggesting that we should wear whatever we please or not have expectations for how our teams dress.  Modesty absolutely matters.  What we look like shapes people’s perception of who we are, so we have to pay close attention to it if we are being good stewards of our leadership influence.  Modesty is certainly part of this equation.

Some of us carry roles where we do have to make sure that what the team is wearing is not offensive to people.  If you do have to have to address a clothing malfunction, try this approach instead of a rebuke.  Don’t make a big deal and pull them off into an office and close the door.  Just make it light, and humor always helps.  “Hey I know that you would want to know—when you bend over to pick up your water bottle on stage, the church is getting an eyeful of the girls.  I’ve got some double-sided tape.  It does wonders!  I can help tape you up a bit.”  This conversation comes from a place of support rather than an attack.  Focus on a quick solution and skip the lecture about setting an example, or the evils of a temptress.  It’s so much easier to receive when your motives and credibility aren’t being called into question.

 Everyone, however, has their own opinions about what is modest.  It’s 100% subjective.

I had a funny conversation with an American missionary friend of mine who recently married an Indian man.  She had to think about modesty in her wedding photos from both the American perspective and the Indian perspective.  In America, showing your arms is pretty much fair game just about universally, and showing your calves is also acceptable to most.  In India, modesty means cover the arms and cover the legs to the ankle, but a bare midriff is totally cool.  In western society, midriff is definitely off-limits for modesty!  The definitions of modesty are cultural, not Biblical.  In Bible times, showing your hair was immodest.

For me the bottom line is this: don’t show the line in your bottom.  (I know, groan.)  I don’t want my appearance to be a distraction to the message I am communicating.  I want people to think about Jesus when they listen to me.  A necklace or earrings that clank against my microphone, a flapping belt, running eye makeup, or exposed body parts all can be a distraction.  The Bible says that God expects us to be modest.  “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT) God doesn’t define what that is.  He left that up to culture.

Not only are there societal expectations for modesty, but every church culture has different standards.  Our ability to dress appropriately and decently is entirely hinged on our ability to read the culture we are in.  I don’t normally wear a long skirt to church, but when I’m visiting some churches, I do.  In those church cultures, to wear pants or a long skirt would be such a distraction that people couldn’t focus on Jesus.  In those environments, I have to let go of my preferences about fashion to be received.  I’m not more Godly by wearing a long skirt in those churches; I’m simply being respectful of culture.

Beautiful shoppersYou will not please everyone so don’t get panicky; just do your best.  If you catch some criticism about an outfit, don’t take it to heart.  Make sure you guard your heart about these things and don’t internalize the criticism.  Roll with the punches and apologize, thanking them for bringing it to your attention.  You didn’t mean to offend them in the first place, so there is no point to offending them further by getting defensive, but end the conversation quickly.  You don’t owe them an explanation.  Then deliberately forget about it.  If you get this conversation frequently, chances are you aren’t reading your culture well enough.

After many awkward conversations and embarrassing moments, I’ve developed some basic modesty guidelines for myself in leadership environments.  I’m not suggesting what works for me will work for everyone, but we do all need to think it through.  Mine are something like this:  If I wear tight bottoms, I wear a loose top.  If I wear a tight top, I go loose on bottom.  If I’m wearing leggings, then I always wear a long shirt.  Keep all the important girl creases covered, especially on stage.  I always wear sleeves on stage.  I put a cami under delicate fabrics because what looks opaque in the bedroom light can suddenly be see-through under powerful stage lights.  It’s safer to wear tights or leggings with an above the knee skirt.  I keep the underwear covered as much as possible.  I support the jiggly bits because great undergarments make us look our best.

FINDING YOUR LOOK IS NOT FINDING YOUR IDENTITY

Stressed business womanAmerican culture has had some had some traditional expectations about what pastors’ wives and female church leaders should wear.  They aren’t especially cute.  They tended to either cover every possible inch of skin in the least flattering way possible, or put us in a suit so we blend in with the dudes.  If you like either of these two looks and feel like yourself wearing them, bravo!  For you, dressing for church is officially easy.  For most girls in leadership, finding our personal style is not so simple, and we usually feel quite a bit of pressure about getting it right.  I like a variety of styles, and I wear all of them because I like the clothes, not because I’m trying to look like anyone in particular.  We don’t have to stick to a fashion stereotype like urban, hipster, bohemian, or sporty because it’s our look.  Personal style comes from knowing what we like and what we don’t.

Our identity is established through far more than what we look like.  Our preferences determine our personal style, but our style is not our identity.  Who we are primarily is the inward person.  We don’t build our identity from the outside in, but from the inside out.  When we build strong, healthy, confident souls, it shows up on our outsides.  That’s why the Bible tells us that makeovers for the inside matter far more than the outside.  “Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.”  (1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT)  This kind of loveliness does not decrease with age, just ripens!  Our value does not come from our appearance, and the way we look does not change God’s love for us.  If we don’t find our identity in our appearance, then it’s easy to change it to adapt to new cultures and new seasons in life.  “I want women…in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it.” (I Timothy 2:10 MSG)

We all have days when we just feel dissatisfied with what’s in the mirror.  Those are the days when we have to lean on our God identity, laugh a little bit, and throw our hands up in the air.  A smile on our face is the most beauty-enhancing accessory we have!

DRESSING FOR LEADERSHIP & THE PLATFORM

Happy employeeGod sees my heart and motives and judges me according to the real, inner me.  People are different though.  They can’t see my insides, so I have to make sure that my outsides reflect what is going on inside my heart.  “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV)  What we look like matters when it comes to leadership.

 We show respect to the people we serve when we put thought into what we look like.  If you don’t feel comfortable putting outfits together, get a girlfriend who is good to help style you.  Don’t be resistant, just do it so you can look your best!  Even if you aren’t an onstage person, you meet people every week, making a first impression.  People make decisions about whether you are followable literally in seconds.  We attract people who look like us because the way we look makes them feel comfortable.

If you don’t have a strong sense of personal style, start by dressing like the people you want to attract.  If your community is full of sharp professionals, then you should probably have a selection of professional and business casual clothes.  If your community has lots of fashion-conscious young adults, then pay attention to the trends.  Classic, tailored clothing is always in style if you aren’t confident wearing the trends or can’t afford to purchase new trends frequently.  As much as our deal-hunting hearts love to buy cheap cute stuff, a few good pieces look better for much longer than a bunch of cheap trendy clothes.  They look better on you too.  Accessories can change up the look if you get bored wearing the same stuff.

When I pick an outfit for the platform I want to feel good about how I look.  A good follow-up question is, will this outfit help me connect with people or cause them to disconnect?  When it comes to the platform, we need to value people’s respect over their admiration.  That’s a tough call for us girls to make, because we love to be admired.  Leadership has a different goal.  When ministry is self-centered, it needs admiration.  We are more than entertainers.  We want people to receive Jesus through what we say or do.  We have to earn people’s respect for them to be willing to receive from us.  Earning respect starts with the visual picture we create.  If adapting your personal style for leadership is a hard ask, think about what Paul said.  “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22 NIV)  Paul was willing to change his style in different environments to make it easier for people to receive his ministry.  He recognized that when people’s eternal salvation is at stake, it’s well worth the personal cost of adjusting.

Dressing to stand on a platform in church is different than dressing for an office or a night out with the girls or hubs.  Being uncomfortable in your clothes on stage is the worst.  You need to be able to move freely if you are talking or singing.  A jacket that constricts your arm movement, or a skirt that restricts your leg movement becomes a nagging distraction.  Heels help us look good, heels that are so high you can’t move without watching where you are putting your feet look awkward.  You want to be thinking about the people you are talking to, not about staying upright or how badly your feet are hurting.  Makeup helps people see the expressions on our face. There are factors on stage that you don’t have to deal with in normal life.

When you are comfortable and confident on stage, you make everyone in the room feel comfortable. That is ultimately the goal. We want people feel comfortable enough to receive us. Then we can connect them to Jesus.

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Nehemiah’s Unconventional Princesses

Shallum's Daughters

Princesses are supposed to behave conventionally.  The classic princess story goes something like this.  A good, sweet girl falls on hard times, and then meets a rich, powerful boy who rescues her.  She lives the rest of her princess life in happily ever after—private luxury, ease, and privilege.  Every now and again, however, princesses don’t follow this story line.  Great Britain’s Princess Diana was one of these.  She started out with a traditional story, but once she got to the happily-ever-after part she wasn’t content.  She defied expectations and started working to change wrongs in the world, like AIDS (unmentionable in polite society) and land mines (no place for a lady).  People still call her “the people’s princess.

The book of Nehemiah spares one small sentence for a couple of unusual princesses.  Their story starts out with the nation of Israel in exile.  The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, flattened to nothing but rubble, and its people scattered across the continent, many enslaved.  After many generations of this, God moved on the heart of the ruling emperor.  He gave two Jewish leaders permission to go rebuild their hometown, Jerusalem.  Ezra was a priest, and Nehemiah, a politician.  They gathered Jewish exiles and resources and moved their families back to this rock pile that used to be Jerusalem.  Right away, they got to work rebuilding this once-beautiful city, starting with the walls.  Many naysayers and enemies of their cause threatened the fragile reconstruction, so the protection of this wall was vital.  For these people, building a wall was the first step in rebuilding their community.  This step reestablished their national identity as a people group and a culture—a kingdom.

Nehemiah was a great leader and a gifted administrator; so much of the book of Nehemiah describes his detailed records of families, resources, and the process of rebuilding.  In good administrator fashion, Nehemiah divvied up the work between the families.  Nehemiah assigned a section of the wall to every family that came with him.  It was their job to make sure their part of the wall was rebuilt completely and solidly.  Nehemiah recorded every family that helped rebuild the wall.  Reading these lists can be brutally boring, but If you don’t mentally check out in the monotony of these records, there are some stories in the cracks.  Most of the families get a simple mention, but a few stick out because they are described a little bit differently.

Not everyone had the same attitude toward building.  One family had members that just wouldn’t build at all.  “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to work under their supervisors.” (Nehemiah 3:5) Nehemiah didn’t explain why they wouldn’t help, but we can read between the lines.  Maybe they had other things to do, things they considered to be more important.  Perhaps they didn’t like the supervisors and felt like it would be degrading to take direction from these guys.  Maybe they were lazy, or wanted to put their efforts into rebuilding their own homes rather than the wall.  Whatever the reason, they come off as selfish.

Nehemiah also described a family that built for their own self-interest.  “Jedaiah son of Harumpah made repairs opposite his house.” (Nehemiah 3:10)  This guy only worked on the wall where it provided a direct benefit to him. This was the place the wall protected his home and family.  Interestingly, Nehemiah offers no judgment about either one of these families, and he didn’t exclude Jedaiah from building because of his selfish motive.  Both families benefitted from what everyone else worked to build.

It was a third family that caught my attention.  “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.” (Nehemiah 3:12)  Apparently, these were the only girls who worked on the wall.  All the other many workers Nehemiah mentioned were men.  Construction work today is still pretty much a dude’s world, and as far as I’m concerned, more power to them.  I have no desire to jump in there.  What’s so interesting to me is that these girls would not have been used to this kind of work, or even expected to do this kind of work.  They weren’t tomboys; they were princesses—daughters of a ruler.  What possessed them to take ownership of rebuilding a section of the wall with their father?  Did he have sons?  If he didn’t, surely he could have afforded to hire builders to help him as a ruler in Jerusalem.

These dainty, well-manicured girls were used to quiet life behind walls with attendants who catered to their every need.  They would have enjoyed fine fabrics, good food, and a cool life in the shade.  They were valuable simply by who they were.  They didn’t need to do anything to earn respect.  They were the daughters of a ruler, and so had high value for strategic alliances through marriage, and for nurturing small children into future leadership.

These pampered ladies heard Nehemiah’s appeal for families to rebuild a portion of the wall and something stirred on the inside of them.  They put aside their comfort and stepped outside of their carefully orchestrated life.  They took their place next to their father, and picked up chisel and hammer.  Small arms, unused to heavy labor, strained to shift heavy stones.  Fine brown dust sifted into every crevice of their beautiful clothing and into their carefully arranged hair.  As the hours passed, blisters began to swell in their sandals and where their delicate hands gripped unfamiliar tools.  Muscles trembled with effort.  The sun must have scorched their gentle faces, burning skin accustomed to shady breezes.  What determination kept them at these exhausting efforts?  How great a cause kept them at the wall?

The Bible doesn’t tell us anything more about these girls, but what it doesn’t tell us says as much as what it does.  These girls must have recognized the significance of that moment.  They wanted to be part of this work, to contribute what they could.  This was no ordinary wall for them.  And they were right—millions of people around the globe, thousands of years later, are still reading about rebuilding this wall.  These princesses had the ability to recognize the significance of what they were building.  This was so valuable that they couldn’t resist jumping in to help, even though it was not expected and well outside their comfort zone.  They worked because they loved the outcome.

Saying yes to building the wall meant saying no to other things.  I wonder what these girls set aside to be part of this work.  Would they have endured the criticism of the other ladies of the community?  Would coarse men have mocked their efforts?  Did they have small children who waited with nannies?  Did they have responsibilities in their own home that had to wait?  Whatever their usual occupation, it was left behind.  They put all their passion into this work, with an undivided heart.  “The people worked with all their hearts.”  (Nehemiah 4:6)

Not only did these girls jump in helping with manual labor, they also had to be prepared to fight to defend themselves when the locals got hostile.  “Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.”  (Nehemiah 4:18)  I can only imagine the anxiety these girls must have felt, awkwardly building while knocking into things with the sword at their side.  Perhaps they were trained to handle a weapon, perhaps not, but they did not even let the threat of violence deter their efforts.

The nobles of Tekoa must have heard about this and felt ashamed.  What was happening at this little section of the wall was so unusual that every other family must have talked it about as they worked.  I can imagine men casually walking past, sneaking a look over their shoulder to check out the princesses with mud all over their arms as they filled in the chinks.  What a story to tell around the dinner table!

People are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago.  We have the same the same attitudes when it comes time to roll up our sleeves and build.  Nehemiah was rebuilding a wall around the city of Jerusalem.  We build churches that provide walls of protection around our communities, our homes, and around the hearts of people—places of refuge.  We can choose what kind of attitude we build with.

For many who enjoy the protection the church provides, to ask them for help building those walls is too much.  They hesitate to contribute their finances, their time or efforts because of the other things on their calendar.  Their own businesses and homes are more important.  Some hesitate because they don’t like the people that they would have to take direction from, or they don’t feel any connection to the team already working.  Others get in and help but only where it benefits them.  Some parents will serve in children’s ministry as long as their children are in the classes.  Some singers will serve as long as they get the opportunities they want.  Their motives are for themselves.

I want to have the spirit of the daughters of Shallum.  They caught a vision for building, and they were so passionate that they would do anything to help!  I want to have a heart that says yes, no matter what the attitudes of everyone else are.  These girls worked hard to build and they were willing to go to battle to defend what they were building.  When we catch a vision for how important our churches are for our families and our communities, being part of the work isn’t just our priority; it’s our privilege.  These are the kind of people our churches need.  This is the kind of person I want to be.

For leaders, it’s so easy for us to pigeonhole people where we meet them.  We tend to view people’s contribution around what we know they are capable of.  It’s a faith stretch for us to keep pushing those limits.  It’s always risky to give someone new responsibilities, but it is our responsibility as leaders.  Good leaders identify potential, and believe that someone is capable before they believe in themselves.  Let’s think bigger, and ask a princess to pick up a sword and a shovel.  You never know—they might be just waiting for someone to ask them.  The right help can come where we least expect it!

For me to be like these girls means I won’t hesitate to work hard when the season requires it.  I don’t have to be afraid to jump into something I don’t feel confident or comfortable doing.  Nehemiah didn’t comment on how good at building these girls were or weren’t.  What matters is not how well I perform, but that I am getting involved, part of something bigger than my own world.  My value doesn’t come from my talents or my work, but from whom I am as a daughter of the king.  We don’t know these girls’ names, but they had significance in this story because of who their father was—the same place we find our value.  Shallum’s daughters were unconventional princesses.