Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church

Jason Micheli —  May 14, 2013 — 25 Comments

3.19.PastorsDoAnonymousLetters_855603649When 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.faith4

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 my respect 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


25 responses to Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church

  1. I’m very much enjoying your posts. Despite the complaints, you picked UMC for some reason. Do you care to share why?

    As a point of reference, my church has people put in visitor forms and prayer requests in the offering plates.

  2. Thank you for your nod to the 98%. I am very disappointed that you get anonymous notes like this. But I am always impressed by the large number of good people in this church, young people who are so busy but who find time to do “good works.” And older people who don’t know how to stop. I am grateful for you and Dennis. We are so blessed.

    Thank you.

  3. Sorry, I couldn’t find a comment section on the immigration post.

    That post made me think of Jim Wallis’s God’s Politics. I had read that book eagerly but was disappointed when it seemed like every topic’s solution was “do it the Democrats way.” In short, I was looking for a bigger role for the church than influence voters. Have you read Wallis? Have I misread him?

    Back to your post, how do we break out of focusing on minor verses and instead focus on the the major themes? I’ve been chatting with evangelicals about prioritizing the gospel over culture wars, but I keep getting rebutted with “you’re not preaching the full gospel” or “we need to tell the world to repent of all its sins”.

    • Jason Micheli May 14, 2013 at 9:08 PM

      Oh gosh, that’s a great and good question. It’s funny…we’re in Romans right now and I noticed how we often forget the word translated for ‘righteousness’ is same word as ‘justice.’ The idea that issues within the commandments themselves aren’t part of the gospel just isn’t biblical. I don’t like Wallis, for the record. I think he does the same thing the religious right does, conflating his issues w god. I’m with Hauerwas and Scot McKnight that the Kingdom is to be modeled within local churches before those churches worry about issue advocacy.

  4. I agree with much that you say. Though I offer this thought. This is not simply “how the church is”, but rather, this is how people are (well, some at least.) Church simply offers a platform for those few to make demands and express their sense of entitlement. There are probably not many other places in their lives where they feel free to do so. This realization does not mean that we should cater to the demands and entitlements. If your choice of clothing is the primary concern of this parishoner, it goes without saying that perhaps they should deeply examine their purpose for actually attending worship. Thanks for your faithful service to Christ and the Church. Grace and peace to you…

  5. I’m reading this the same day Carol Merritt published an online Christian Century piece about women who criticize other women for putting the Tupperware out on the table at church dinners, rather than a serving plate. Or something like that. Some other petty behavior.

    The problem as I see it isn’t unique to churches — people can name co-workers who behave like this, people in their families who behave like this, neighbors, etc. Young people have had difficult roommates, difficult teammates, etc. The trouble, it seems to me, is that we expect people to behave differently in church. Why is that? What would a passive aggressive person suddenly drop that schtick just because they entered a Methodist church?

    How do we help those young people who see the church “this way” to understand LIFE is this way. Are clergy going to wait around until only great people join their churches, or are we prepared to accept that we get the people we get, warts and all — and the work has to do with addressing those warts. And as it is in church, so it is in life. Are there ever sudden, miraculous transformations? Maybe once in awhile. But mostly not. Mostly its a hard slog. If you see behavior like this, figure that what goes on at home is more of the same. And its probably been this way for a generation or two.

    I’m concerned that pastors think they’ll have “church” as soon as they have perfect people. But that can’t possibly be right. Never has it been. And our lives as lay people aren’t ducky once we get clear of all the difficult people. They get beautiful as we learn to love.

  6. Just one counterpoint: Dan thought your sermon last Sunday was one of your best. Hope “second hand” feedback is better than 4th.

  7. Mochel Morris May 14, 2013 at 10:59 PM

    Jason, at the church my husband and I served as equal, full-time co-pastors I would get complaints about wearing my hair down when I celebrated Communion. When I pulled it back into a french braid, I got complaints from the same people. Of course, that isn’t the same thing as a robe, but the only thing that would have made it better for them would have been to have my husband do the celebrating and the preaching, ….

  8. I didn’t know the genesis of your robe-lessness, but your response seems to me to be in line with good parenting! I wish the anonymous note writers could know that in my household of wayward twenty-somethings, your casual attire makes you seem much more approachable and “cooler” (probably is cooler, isn’t it?!) They even actually like to listen to your messages.

    I missed your sermon on Sunday and will have to read it, but I did hear on Sunday afternoon (yes, second-hand) from a friend that your message was so good she intentionally stayed to listen to it twice!

  9. Ann stated my thoughts. The silent majority at AUMC are pleased with your sermons, robe or no robe. Sad that we have those who focus on the “speck of sawdust”.

  10. Not to trade war wounds but as the youth minister at my last church I served I had a group of 10 people who met weekly ,secretly, to discuss the state of the youth ministry. The craziest part was none of them worked with the youth ministry and only 2 of them had youth in the ministry. At their last discussion before I left it revolved around teaching to much from the Bible and not playing enough dodgeball. It comes in all forms And you are right this is exactly the reason why young adults and students have 0 desire to be a part of the church that looks like that. They have enough drama in their world they do not need it from the church too over things that do not matter. There are plenty of injustices that exist in our world that we should be angry about robes and dodgeball do not fall in that category. Great post !

  11. Bob Oelschlager May 15, 2013 at 8:28 AM

    Whether a policeman is uniformed, plainclothes, or undercover, he or she is still a policeman. Aldersgate is lucky to have a pastor who works so effectively in plainclothes or undercover – the Starbucks experiences; the adventures attending other churches in running shorts.

    P.S. While I am joyfully a member of Aldersgate, I have it on good authority that God is not a United Methodist; nor exclusively a member of any other particular denomination.

    • Jason Micheli May 15, 2013 at 10:04 AM

      If God were a Methodist creation would’ve taken a whole lot longer and required several layers of tape.

  12. It sounds like the traditional church everywhere, of which I am also a part… Fortunately we got rid of the robes in our church, and can focus much more on healthy relationships. I agree with the 98% good people, but man, that other 2%! Rick Warren calls them the EGR people- Extra Grace Required… which I do not always have…

  13. Well, I do blame the person who wrote the note, for not having the nerve to come talk to the pastor themselves… and PPRC, for encouraging this kind of “input” by the congregation. Whether people wear robes is up to the pastor and perhaps his/her sensitivities to the congregation. I choose to wear a worship garment rather than focus on what I’m going to wear any given Sunday, as a female preacher. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. As for anonymous notes, let the congregation know you will only throw them all out, since there is nothing you can do to talk to the person who wrote it. Sometimes it is a few people seeing how strongly they can pull your strings–are you their puppet, or aren’t you? As for the UMC’s role in all of this, I think a key to our longevity will be the embracing of the Holy Spirit. If a congregation is more concerned about how we do worship then actually worshipping the Lord, then everything is off base, and there’s much hard work to be done. Each pastor can help cultivate the congregation’s role in taking mutual responsibility for the church, but also find together the vision God has for them. I know, it is easier said than done, and certainly some congregations are more willing than others….

  14. Respect is found not in how one dresses but how one acts toward others. Some people associate appearance with behavior — common Washington, DC problem.

  15. “If honor be your clothing, the suit will last a lifetime; but if clothing be your honor, it will soon be worn threadbare.” – William Arnot
    “Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul.” – Mark Twain

    Jason, let not your heart be troubled for your suit will last a lifetime and you obviously do keep a tidy soul.
    We are blessed to have you in our pulpit!

  16. Erin Geoffrion May 16, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I face similar frustrations with the local church and the UMC. I particularly appreciate your point about “the way churches are” is what keeps people my age (under 35) out of church. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the frequency of moves robbing us and our congregations of the opportunity to reach authentic trust and leadership. While it’s unfortunate to know my case is more the rule than the exception, it is nice to know I’m not alone.

    And to add to the existing thread o conversation: I wear a robe as a woman pastor precisely because I don’t want my outfit to speak louder than I do. And I like that I can cycle through the same three outfits and no one has to know.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Pastor Dress Code (Cont.) | Joseph Yoo - September 26, 2013

    […] his blog, Jason Micheli wrote about the Sunday where he didn't wear a robe and a parishioner anonymously left a note in the […]

  2. Now, I Wear a Robe | - January 2, 2014

    […] has expressed some interesting thoughts about an experience he had as a robed pastor in his post, Clergy Robes and Anonymous Notes in Church. I encourage you to go and read his post before […]

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