“Clergy are asked to dress in a way that identifies them as clergy,” read the email. It was a simple instruction that presented a complicated issue for me. Usually, for interfaith events, there was an invitation to dress as you would in your own worship setting. This led some people to show up in robes and stoles, and it led me to show up in a cardigan. One of my peers from another faith jokingly asked whether it was my “liturgical sweater.”
However, this time, the message regarding dress came in the context of planning an interfaith clergy “blessing booth” for our community’s Pridefest. In this setting, the markers of the institution carry a visual power that might serve an important function toward healing for those who have been harmed and marginalized by institutions.
But the question remains: What does a Mennonite pastor look like?
One of the primary convictions that drew me to the Mennonite tradition, after all, was the emphasis on “the priesthood of all believers,” which is expressed in the centering of community and an accompanying suspicion surrounding power. One of the primary roles for leaders is enabling and calling out gifts within the congregation, in order to bless and serve the community. That kind of tension, between authority and servanthood, keeps us honest. But showing up for that kind of work does not necessitate a wardrobe change.
However, as we know, visible markers in appearance are very much a part of Mennonite history, and some of our adjacent Anabaptist traditions are a living reminder of that. For some of us, after shrugging off those legalisms, sometimes, there remains a wishful appreciation or “holy envy” of others.
Years ago, as an earnest and curious young seminary student in Portland, Oregon, I visited a Greek Orthodox Church for an evening lecture. For over an hour, they discussed the materials, construction and purposes of their liturgical vestments. The discussion was led by the woman who meticulously made them all by hand. I wondered, at first, if a couple of attendees were there just for the free wine and snacks, but most of the audience was actively engaged in the presentation. It was fascinating! Nevertheless, 10 years ago, I found my way into a Mennonite congregation for the first time, and no such conversations were happening.
Some Mennonite pastors borrow liturgical imagery from other traditions and not without good reason! Symbolism and aesthetics are sometimes lacking in a tradition forged in simplicity. But many Mennonite pastors, myself included, unselfconsciously adopt the standards of their setting. Personally, on Sunday mornings I dress slightly better than I do the rest of the week but not in a way that feels unnatural or screams “clergy.” Even my nametag, with its nylon, rainbow-colored lanyard, looks identical to most others in the congregation and doesn’t identity me as a pastor. And that is entirely intentional on my part.
In my assembling of faith, one of the main reasons the story of Jesus is “good news” is because it is unadorned. Jesus’ clothing was hardly notable, unless some fringe was the conduit by which power was released to a person in need of healing. Jesus’ companions were working class, and the company he kept always frustrated someone. Appearance was not a primary concern. When it came to ritual, he flouted tradition. And Jesus’ identity, while divine, was somehow “emptied,” as the writer of Philippians reminds us. All of this, for us, opens up the possibility of Jesus being at home in our profound ordinariness. It is proof that, while humanity has its challenges, we don’t need to become something else in order to bear God’s presence, and we certainly don’t need to be clergy in order to facilitate God’s blessing. None of this is news to Mennonites.
Similarly, I chose and I continue to choose to be Mennonite because of the openness I have experienced.
I am grateful for the tradition I was raised in, but my “fitting in” there, in the theological sense, always came with a whole lot of asterisks and footnotes. By contrast, I have experienced the Mennonite tradition as a spacious place, oriented by the gravitational pull of the person and ethics of Jesus. Even within Mennonite Church USA, I have seen a spectrum of expressions of faithfulness. As my understandings have changed and grown, I have never felt the itch to take flight.
In other words, in terms of theology, or clothing, or otherwise, I have never felt the need to “put on” anything in order to enter into worship or leadership. That is wonderful and liberating and hopeful to me! But when it comes to our community clergy “blessing booth,” I still don’t know what to wear.
This article originally appeared on August 15, 2023, in Mennonite Church USA’s Menno Snapshots blog.