I have always had a love-hate relationship with liturgical vestments for worship. Over the years, I have preached and led worship wearing a black robe along with a stole. I have preached in a simple tan alb again with an appropriate colored stole befitting the season of the church year. I have also preached in a suit and in my shirt sleeves. Through all of these different contexts, I've always felt that the presence of God, however known, was palpable. God, I believe, is not concerned so much in terms of what we look like or where we are located as much as there is the concern for what resides inside of us. Yet, I must confess that I am always impressed when I see someone wear a multi-colored robe and/ or stole. Lots of color sets off the drabness of wearing a black robe; you don't resemble Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.
A number of years ago, a Clinical Psychologist observed to me " you tend to hide behind your pulpit". I thought that was a perceptive observation. Ministers tend to want to be stand-offish at times. You don't know what a congregation, or for that matter, what other people will want from you and there is the perennial tendency to want to be well-liked and well-loved by others. There is the whole business as well regarding wanting to be fair with everyone and not showing partiality towards some people versus others.
Recently, a good friend of mine noted that it was difficult to get in touch with their minister. My friend wanted the minister to visit another member of the congregation who was ill. After several attempts to contact the clergy person, an affirmative response finally came and the church member who required a needed visitation finally received it.
Now, you may ask why is there all of this need to remind clergy that people need to be seen ? What I have observed over the past several years is that some ministers have become more like chief executive officers ( CEOS) for their congregations. They are concerned about the property, the budget, items like historical books , pewter or silverware. They have become custodians of the congregational legacy. Depending upon personalities, maybe they will visit someone in the hospital or maybe not. Some congregations have launched Stephens Ministries program where trained lay leaders will go out and perform the bulk of the congregational visitation, thus allowing the minister to focus his/her energies elsewhere.
I recently heard from a friend that the minister at their church was leaving. My friend communicated with the said minister over Facebook and the response that my friend received was that they were " unfriended. " Needless to say, my friend felt very hurt by the response made by the minister. Later, my friend heard that the minister responded this way because, according to ministerial ethics, there is to be no contact between minister and former parishioner for two years.
I understand the need to support strong professional ethics in ministry. After all, like other professions, including mental health providers, you want to provide safety and you want to safeguard the needs of your congregants. So far, so good; but I am concerned sometimes that we risk losing part of our humanity. Such an abrupt end to an important relationship, without any significant explanation, can result in the minimum of hurt feelings and in the maximum of potential trauma.
What can clergy do in response ? We will have ministers who will continue to preach in beautiful pulpit robes and stoles, those who will wear albs, those who will chose not to wear any vestments at all. Bottom line, the pastoral presence can still be felt and appreciated despite the appearance of the preacher. What some church members or friends may wonder is there any ministry of presence beyond the robe ? Is the minister available to spend time with me sharing a meal, sharing a church social activity, sharing an ordinary experience of God's grace?
There will always be the question of how available clergy will be to their congregations, what boundaries will be established and observed. But maybe there can be some extension of ministerial presence to others, even if it is in the form of a telephone call.
Can we think and have our being beyond the clerical robe ?
I hope so.
May it be so.