You might know the latest statistics…that about 32% of Americans have tattoos, the majority of that percentage in people ages 30-45. But a lot of people do not expect their pastors to be part of that percentage (I would love to know the percentage of clergy who have tattoos!) and are surprised to find out that their pastor, their spiritual leader, the person who preaches the word of God on Sunday mornings and prays beside your hospital bed and grieves with your family over the death of a loved one, the person who officiates your wedding…he or she may have a tattoo! Would it matter to you or not? Does it make them more relevant or not? Does it make them more authentic or not? Obviously, this all boils down to your personal view of tattoos, and we all have our opinions. Some opinions are simply generational, some are just a matter of preference or acceptance, some are about the understanding of the human body. Some argue that scripture forbids tattoos, while there are also Judeo-Christian traditions that are thousands of years old where people tattooed religious symbols on their bodies. For more on this topic, check out the article entitled, “Jews and Tattoos” from this online version of the magazine, Reform Judaism. For me, if they are tasteful and respectful, tattoos are a beautiful and authentic means of self-expression and story telling.
Now a confession: I am a pastor with tattoos. 4 to be exact! They are all rather small, simple and religious and nature, and most importantly, they all express something about my personal journey of faith and my call to ministry. I got my first tattoo was when I was a sophomore in college. It is a trinity/celtic knot on my lower back, which to me is important in my story of coming into the Christian faith. I didn’t get my second tattoo until years later when I was in the middle of my time as an associate pastor in Terre Haute. It is a Holy Spirit dove on my side, which to me reminds me of the work of the Spirit in my life every day. My third tattoo is a small United Methodist cross and flame on my upper back as a celebration of my ordination and a reminder of that journey and my calling as a pastor.
And finally, my fourth one is brand new! I got it this past week. My personal rule for tattoos is that I always give myself a full YEAR to think about it- if I want it, what I want, and where, and if a year goes by and I STILL want it, I make plans to get it. My fourth (and probably last) tattoo is the Hebrew word chesed, which means multiple things, but the basic meaning: the steadfast love of God. It is on my inner right ankle. This word and concept is central to my understanding of God’s love for each person. I chose a Hebrew word as a way to honor my Jewish background, but mainly as a way to honor and remember those who perished in the Holocaust. The whole idea for this tattoo came to mind when I came home from touring Auschwitz last summer. I wanted to do something to honor and remember that experience and journey, and I wanted to get a word that would be respectful and meaningful. God’s steadfast love for all of us never changes, even in the midst of human tragedy. God’s character of steadfast love gives hope for a better future where this will be known to all. Chesed plays a vital role in showing loving kindness to others and encouraging all to play their part in healing the world– another Hebrew phrase, which is used by Eva Kor quite often, tikkun olam.
My chesed tattoo is my most visible one. More people will see it than any of my others. I struggled for awhile as to whether or not to have it in such a visible place. It is small, but it is mighty in meaning. I hope that people will ask what it means so that I can tell them my story. I hope that people will ask what it means if they see it so they may know what it means for themselves.
A lot of my clergy colleagues have tattoos, and each has their own meaning. People in churches have diverse reactions to tattoos when it comes to their pastor, but most people find their pastor’s tattoos interesting and want to know more. When I asked the women of the Young Clergy Women Project about their tattoos, I got all kinds of responses about how their ink has sparked conversations about faith and has allowed them to be authentic in who they are as a young clergy woman. I hope that mine will do the same.
I’d invite you to check out Nadia Bolz Weber, pastor of House For All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO, and author of the wonderful book, Pastrix, and the story behind her tattoos, which are quite fascinating.
Does your pastor or religious leader have a tattoo? I dare you to ask!