I'm back from Evangelium! I skimmed this letter on Thursday around midnight, and my hair stood on end. This is the first chance I've had to reply to it, and I hope my answer is right. I know some older women in offices love catty gossip about sweet young things, but sometimes older women feel a motherly urge to keep sweet young things from deep-sixing their careers. Two or three older women have certainly given me good advice about dealing with priests and other men in religious life.
Dear Auntie Seraphic:
I recently accepted a position where my co-workers include two flirts. One of these flirts is a mature priest, around my uncle's age. The other is a bachelor my older brothers' age.
Both these flirts are congenial, charming, and hard working. The days are entertaining, with work periods peppered with good humor. I am not singled out for any quantifiable different attention than my married female colleagues. However, banter with me has a qualitatively different flavor than banter with my married female colleagues. I think this is the case because 1) I enjoy banter and they do not. 2) I'm younger and eligible, and different banter is possible with me, i.e. banter about me being eligible, young, and feminine.
Banter, however, is too easily conflated to flirting. For example, I find myself desiring to engage in some friendly activities, like puttering in the Bachelor's garden. However, if one of our married colleagues putters with the Bachelor over lunch hour, this is seen as just a Collegial Activity. If I go out too, especially if I go out without a Married Colleague in tow, I'll get an occasional lifted eyebrow from a passer by.
Similarly: heaven forfend that I go to a meeting that involves the Priest giving me a ride in his stylish car. I will hear no end of this from worried acquaintances, who have concluded that having a stylish car and letting me ride in it are two strikes against him, and it's only a matter of time before this man loses his priesthood and becomes a Nepali Mountain Guide.
There are few women at this institution. Even fewer are young and eligible. I DON'T want to cast aspersions on the reputations of Priest or Bachelor. Or my own either. But I also think it's possible to enjoy each other's company, fine things, and good ideas without necessarily being romantically entangled.
I don't want to give anyone scandal by flirting. I can't help what people think when they see me doing things in 1:1 partnerships which my job requires. But I can differentiate in my words, I can moderate the banter.
Do I have to?
Dear Banter Girl,
In a word: YES. And to add three words: SO CAN THEY.
Two issues: priests and professionalism.
I can't think why you shouldn't putter with a single male colleague or get rides to meetings in the priest's stylish car although, perhaps like your acquaintances, I wonder at a priest having a stylish car. Even after I tell myself secular priests have no vow of poverty, I still wonder at a priest having a stylish car. Stylish cars are babe magnets, so why does a priest own a babe magnet? Why not a Toyota Corolla? Why not a boring old Ford?
What are we talking about when we say "stylish car"? You see that I am stuck on "stylish car". It leapt out at me from the screen. And--yikes! Now "fine things" has leapt out, too. What kind of "fine things"?! Not expensive dinners out, I hope.
Do you know what young, feminine and eligible makes you? No, not enviable. It makes you vulnerable. If people raise eyebrows, it's not necessarily because they are over-imaginative fusspots. It could be because they know something you don't--either about your new colleagues or about life. Older women tend to feel motherly about younger women, unless the younger women totally annoy them in some way--through unprofessionalism or wearing short-shorts or whatever.
Now I definitely sound like an over-imaginative fusspot. Listen, if you were married, engaged, or had a steady boyfriend--and if you didn't really give two hoots for this job--I wouldn't care less about Father Flashy Car and the Puttering Bachelor. "Flirt away," I'd say. "Well, maybe not so much with the priest."
But you are a Searching Single and that makes you vulnerable--not of necessity to raised eyebrows, though if you jest a little too daringly with the priest and laugh a little too loudly with the priest, you will certainly make your co-workers wonder about you--just as co-workers would if you jested and laughed too much with any manager or married man at work. Would you banter so much with a married man? My guess is No.
When I was studying for my M.Div., my profs talked a lot about professionalism and keeping healthy boundaries in ministry. In addition to finding a book on that, I recommend reading guides to manners for women in the workplace, for they could probably advise you in detail. The last thing you want, if you really want to pursue a career, is being seen not as a serious professional but as a cute young thing. Cute and young do not last forever, and things are not made spokesperson for the diocese.
Why don't the other women at work enjoy banter? Do they think it is unprofessional? Are they all sour-pusses? Why did my red alert siren go off so loudly? Why must priests banter? I've never had a male supervisor who ever dared. It bothers me, I must confess, that you get jokes about being "eligible, young and feminine" in the workplace. They highlight your sexuality and therefore are not appropriate to the workplace. They might make the women who have to listen to them uncomfortable, and if you didn't enjoy them, you would have grounds for a sexual harrassment suit.
I don't know this priest at all. But I do know that Searching Singles are vulnerable and that priests are very often lonely. It's a recipe for psychodrama. If I were you, I'd go out of my way to make friends with the other women at work, if you haven't already. And make sure Father Flashy Car is not the No. 1 man in your life.
Sorry if this answer is too dire and Father (despite his car) is next to the Cure d'Ars in holiness. It's just that so many women kneecap their careers by being obviously more interested in (or well-known for) their social lives, and that I've met too many women who have had psychodramas--and affairs--with priests.
As for Puttering Bachelor, if you want to keep your reputation for professionalism, you might want to cool it. But if you're just marking time until marriage and babies, what the heck.
I hope this is helpful!
Grace and peace,