Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church, by Jason Micheli

Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church, by Jason Micheli June 27, 2014

Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church

When I was a student at Princeton, I got the chance to hear a lecture delivered by Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian whose work I knew only from the snarky comments I heard whispered by certain professors as I waited on their tables during faculty lunches.

Hauerwas was a like a breath of fresh air: robustly Barthian, absolutely not a Calvinist, and he had a mouth dirtier than my own.

During the lecture, which was on discipleship, Hauerwas shot from the hip and offered what has continued to be a guiding maxim of the pastorate for me:

“Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.

It’s just a nibble here and a nibble there but before you know it you’re missing a leg.”

I’m grateful for those auspicious words and have never forgotten them. I once again recalled them when this morning this little gem found its way to my desk:


In December I preached a sermon in which I used folding chairs to illustrate my point. In the first service, the cincture of my robe kept getting caught in the chairs so I took it off for the following services.

I wasn’t making a statement.

I wasn’t trying to ‘go contemporary.’

I wasn’t trying offend traditional sensibilities.

I wasn’t trying to do anything but avoid breaking my leg on the altar steps.

Not wearing my robe that Sunday elicited such bad behavior, in the form of anonymous notes left in my box, under my door, in the pew pads, and on the pulpit, as well as gossip being brought to me fourth-hand (‘so and so is concerned..’), that I decided not to encourage such behavior by putting it back on.

To date, in over four months, only 1 actual living, breathing human has approached me face-to-face to tell me how they feel about the robe. The ratio of anonymous complaint to face-to-face encounter is about 1/300.

Before proceeding, I probably don’t need to, but I will do so anyway and point out that 98% of my congregation are wonderfully sincere Christians who are supportive, encouraging and want nothing but to partner in furthering God’s mission in the world. I love working with those 98% and I think (fingers crossed) they appreciate me, warts and all.
Back to this week’s latest note.
I could point out that leaving an anonymous complaint in the offering plate– the plate that gets prayed over and dedicated to the Lord’s reconciling work in the world- suggests something far more disturbing than my lack of vestments.

I mean- would you ever stick a cranky post-it note on the communion bread?

That’s bible bad.

I could point out how anonymous notes by their very nature are antithetical to Christian practice for they represent a refusal to be in relationship with another. They make the other an object and thus deny our mutual in-Christ-ness. This is exactly what Jesus was commanding us away from in Matthew 18 when he insists we confront those we’re upset with face-to-face.

And yet time and again we blithely dismiss congregants’ disrespect and gossip as ‘that’s how churches are.’

Meanwhile, most people my age want nothing to do with church exactly because ‘that’s how churches are.’

I could point to what’s missing in this note. Like appreciation. For example, I spent roughly 20 hours- outside the normal work day- writing the sermon I then had to deliver 4 times after also writing a funeral sermon for a tragic death. It wasn’t the best sermon in the world but it was faithfully prepared and preached. And that was just my contribution to the service. This doesn’t even include the hours the other music staff and volunteers put in to making it a meaningful service. To notice only clothing is trivial to the extreme.

I could point out that Methodists only started wearing robes in the 1940’s and 50’s when we ceased being a frontier church and aspired to be a downtown church like the Episcopalians and Presbyterians. *Interestingly, the advent of the robe in Methodist worship coincides with our inability to make new Christians.

And don’t even get me started about tattling to get the other pastor to make me do something that anonymous complaints have heretofore not solved.

The observation I do want to make, however, is about the irony within this note, suggesting that a clerical robe is a sign of myrespect for said anonymous complainer rather than the robe being a sign of the respect due me by virtue of my ordination.

The note is correct. It is about respect. Towards me. My office.

And on this point I lay blame not on the anonymous individual but on the United Methodist Church.

I spent countless summers working as a lifeguard at a country club. I know what it feels like to work at a country club, sporting the emblazoned, obligatory uniform. Sure, the uniform served a helpful function. I was the guy who could help save people.

The uniform did something else too.

It identified me as ‘labor’ and everyone else as ‘ownership.’

I would argue that same dynamic, dichotomy, marks many a Methodist church.

The downside of the United Methodist Church having never fully claimed the Reformation mandate of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ is that in most congregations the ministry is owned by the pastors and staff.

We do ministry for the members not with them; consequently, the constituency becomes the congregation rather than the community.

A delineation between clergy and laity grows until it becomes ingrained.

What was once anathema to the early church becomes ‘how we do church.’

The clergy robe marks us in many minds not as a vicar of Christ, not as someone who might help people get saved, but as ‘labor.’

And as I know from working at a country club, owners can treat labor however they please.

The difference between a church and a country club is that I don’t care who pays the bills (though I’m grateful they do) it doesn’t change the fact that the church belongs to Jesus Christ. And I report to him not the authors of anonymous notes.

When it comes to churches, unlike country clubs, membership has no benefits.

Other than taking up a cross.

 But as I said I blame this on the UMC not on the individual. 

The United Methodist Church gives a lot of lip service to laity sharing in the ministry of Christ but the denomination places such requirements upon the local church (mandatory committees and admin positions) that ‘sharing in the ministry of Christ’ most often gets realized in the form of serving on committees.

Having raised their hand to vote, most lay people don’t have the time to do anything else in their church.

And then we wonder why lay people can’t even pray out loud without blushing and deferring to the pastor.

It gets worse on the flip- side.

The polity of the UMC tacitly encourages this division of ‘labor’ and ‘owners.’

The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church lays all the responsibility of the local church upon the pastor- you should Google the Discipline’s summary of the expectations of a pastor, it’s endless.

At the same time, the Book of Discipline gives those same held-responsible-pastors virtually no official leadership authority. As a pastor, I’ve no real role (nor do any staff) at a church council meeting, for example.

To make us even more impotent, itinerancy moves preachers at such a frequency that most pastors are kept from serving in one place long enough to ever cultivate organic leadership authority.

The only solace I derive from this is that our bishops are similarly neutered into irrelevance at General Conference.

Since this note was anonymous I can’t (in biblically mandated Jesus fashion) confront the person face-to-face. Instead I I thought I could pass the note on to my true source of frustration, the denomination. I could forward the note to my bishop with my thoughts on the real problem behind it all:

‘the priesthood of pastors and the ownership of members.’

But then, that would be a waste of time.

The bishop too is powerless to do anything about it.

Jason Micheli
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