Sacred Swag

I’m sure people noticed, but they were mercifully discreet.  It was an unforgettable wardrobe malfunction, at least for me.  I dressed in my best clothes for an important meeting, hoping to impress, only to discover when I arrived that the top button was missing from my suit jacket.  Having just picked up the suit from the drycleaners, I never dreamed they would lose a button and not even tell me.  So much for my attempt at sacred swag.

After thirty years of ministry I’ve made a startling discovery.  I’ve been focusing on the wrong things and going about my ministry in the wrong way.  Oh, I’ve learned the jargon and played the game.  Healthy, vital churches; adaptive change; spiritual leadership; making disciples for the transformation of the world; rethink church; radical hospitality; missional church; open hearts, open minds, open doors: I’ve tried it all with varying degrees of effectiveness.

I have chosen to remember the fruit that my ministry has produced rather than the disasters, heartbreak, stupidity, foolishness, dumb mistakes, and messes I’ve made along the way… and had to clean up.  Somehow, though, I missed the key to unlock my pastoral success.  The secret is fashion.  Sacred Swag – and I don’t have it.

I finally got the hint when a friend gave me a precious gift, a What Would Jesus Wear Magnetic Dress-up KitThe kit includes a large magnet in the likeness of Jesus and a tasteful selection of magnetic mix ‘n match clothing and accessories.  As I began dressing Jesus in surfer shorts and tie-dyed shirt as well as a white robe and cross, with accessories such as loaves, fishes, chalices, hats, and tools from his carpenter years, I made the connection.  In a non-threatening way my friend was encouraging me to upgrade my wardrobe.

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I think I need a new clergy robe, so I browse the web.  I had already looked at clergy apparel at General Conference last year, but the choices were so overwhelming that I shut down. carries a wide variety of “anointed custom ministry attire for women.”  Probably not my style. is a little more conservative but not me. has some nice robes like “Quick Ship Martha,” “Ruth without Lace,” and “Esther with Full Sleeves.”  C.M. Almy, “Outfitters to the church and clergy since 1892,” has a classic line of robes and stoles.  They even sell a clergy cloak to wear over your robe for outdoor ceremonies in the snow: only $443.  Nothing strikes my fancy, which isn’t surprising since I’m really not into clothes in general.  My lack of swag extends beyond the sacred.

My present clergy robe is a hand-me-down from a dear clergy sister who died of cancer.  It’s simple as simple can be, which I know because at the ordination service at annual conference, I check out the robes of my clergy colleagues.  Unlike their robes mine has no lace, no trim, no collar, no full sleeves, and no swag.  I’m out of their league.

What really sets clergy apart, however, is their stoles.  Everyone breaks out their most swaggerous stoles at the ordination service: gorgeous, handmade, custom-designed, colorful, can-you-top-mine stoles.  By contrast, most of mine are rather plain, like my Mennonite upbringing among the “Plain People.”  I did splurge once and bought a stole with two tiny bells dangling from one side, but I save it only for very special occasions.

One reason clergy wear robes is to cover their street clothes so that parishioners pay more attention to their words than their apparel.  Yet a dark secret of the clergy and church world is the hidden desire to exhibit sacred swag.  I wonder what would happen if I walked into the pulpit on Sunday wearing Justin Welby’s get-up as the new Archbishop of Canterbury?

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My professional clothes are as undistinguished as my robe.  Even I find them so boring that within minutes of arriving home for the day, I’m wearing the same sweatpants and sweatshirt I’ve had for 20 years.  Comfort clothes, that’s what they are.  But did Jesus ever preach about being comfortable?  Well…

The solution has got to be swag, which is the current generation’s version of “cool.”  Swag is the online personification of “swagger,” which refers to a style of walking or presence that conveys an overbearing confidence or arrogance.  Clothes, of course, play a big role in a person’s swag.  You either have it or you don’t.  I don’t … yet.

How should I clothe myself?  Or how does God want to clothe me?  Colossians 3:12-14 says, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

I get this.  Jesus doesn’t really care about our clothes.  And he doesn’t want us to swagger around the chancel like Jimmy SWAGgart when we preach, dispensing pearls of great price to the faithless masses in our spectacular duds.  No, Jesus would prefer us to display the qualities of graciousness, generosity, humility, reconciliation, and shalom, which are all wrapped up in one word: love.

My fashion/theological worldview says that clergy should not draw attention to themselves with their attire.  In that sense I’m like President Obama, who has been mildly criticized for his lack of swag.  Whereas First Lady Michelle Obama generates much attention for her fashion choices, (including new bangs!), President Obama almost always wears a traditional-cut suit, a red or blue tie, and black shoes.  Obama told Vanity Fair that he almost always wears gray or blue suits because that is one less decision he has to make in the day.

The President wears his cell phone on his belt, which is not really a fashion faux pas but does not evidence swag.  Esquire’s senior editor Richard Dorment said a few months ago on National Public Radio, “The best advice I can offer the President is to make sure that nobody’s talking about what he’s wearing, because the last thing we need in the current political rhetoric are armchair fashionistas commenting on what he’s wearing on any given day.”

What we wear when leading worship, whether a robe, suit, jeans, or t-shirt, makes a statement about who we are and the values we hold dear.  Clothes can express our individuality, and some clergy have a great fashion sense.  Of course, what we wear needs to be contextual.  Tweaking our fashion to fit with our particular ministry setting is important.  The bottom line, however, is that Christian worship is not about us, and when our clothing draws attention to us rather than God we need to rethink.

I’m convinced that clothing wasn’t a big deal for Jesus because he told us not to worry about what we wear (Matthew 6:25-34).  Instead, God will clothe us with righteousness.  Jesus’ wardrobe evidently didn’t stick out because the gospel writers make no mention of his clothing except the outer robe he took off before washing the disciples’ feet, the purple fake-royalty robe in which the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus after flogging him, and the seamless tunic Jesus was wearing when he was crucified.  It did not escape notice that the first thing Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires wore last week when he greeted the crowd as Pope Francis was a simple white cassock rather than the traditional red ermine-lined cape.

What does it mean to give our best to God as far as dress goes?  If you’re in need of fashion tips and feel called to be a model example of sacred swag, why not check out  Created by Ed Young, founding pastor of Fellowship Church with four campuses in Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, and Columbia, South Carolina, this website offers frank and hip advice on how to show sacred swag.

According to the website, “ is designed to have some fun with fashion and put it in its proper perspective – it’s a relevant tool in reaching the world with the hope and love of Jesus.  This is a place where pastors (and anyone who shares that perspective) can get some tips on what to wear, how to wear it, and when to wear it.  But the ultimate question isn’t ‘what,’ ‘how’ or ‘when’? It’s ‘who?’

“Our fascination with fashion is really just a microcosm of our desire to be clothed in the ultimate designer – Jesus Christ.  Until we put on the grace and mercy of Jesus we’re all stitched in sin and cut up with compromise.  But in Jesus, God has provided us a seamless garment; a perfect wardrobe so that we can discover what true fashion is really all about.”

I sewed a new button on my suit as I “put on Christ.”  Do I qualify for sacred swag now?