Clothed in the spirit – Clergy stoles taking expressive forms

On Sunday mornings, the Rev. Kenny Dickson dons his robes for the early service, a traditional Methodist worship. For the mid-morning gospel service, he wears a suit and tie. And for the late service, a contemporary worship, he preaches in shirt sleeves and slacks.

But at all three services, Mr. Dickson wears a stole: a long band of cloth that signifies he is an ordained member of the United Methodist clergy.

“Any time I’m preaching or leading the sacraments, I wear the stole,” said Mr. Dickson, senior pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Farmers Branch, Texas. “It’s a reminder that, even if we’re doing it in a less formal way, the worship service is a sacred occasion.”

United Methodist clergy are opting for stoles that are more colorful and elaborate, like this one worn by Bishop James King, leader of the South Georgia Area, as he preached at General Conference in Tampa, Fla. UNITED METHODIST NEWS SERVICE PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

His stole is a special one. A church member made it by hand, crafting pieces of fabric in the pattern of a jigsaw, the symbol for autism awareness. Mr. Dickson’s daughter, Madeleine, has autism, and can’t attend worship.

Wearable art

Like Mr. Dickson, many United Methodist clergy these days are sporting stoles that are varied, colorful, elaborate and often, symbolically or personally significant.

Survey the clergy at any United Methodist gathering, and you’re likely to see stoles in a rainbow of colors, designs and fabrics. The trend has spawned a cottage industry and provided a new avenue of gifting for parishioners eager to offer something handmade and unique to pastors.

Stoles also played a starring role this spring at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, Fla.

Todd Pick, visual designer for General Conference worship, invited artists from the United Methodist connection around the U.S. to make special, handmade stoles for each service. Each artist was given the scripture, theme, liturgy and color palette for a particular worship service. “Then we just said, ‘Let your creativity go,’” said Mr. Pick.

The Rev. Karin Tunnéll was one of those artists. The pastor of St. Paul’s UMC in Odessa, Del., she made the stoles worn by Bishops Deborah Lieder Kiesey and Marcus Matthews on May 3. Reflecting the day’s Scripture passage—John 21, the story of Jesus preparing fish for breakfast on the beach with followers—Ms. Tunnéll attached pieces of fishnet and bark collected from trees in Tampa (symbolizing kindling for the cooking fire) to each stole.

The Rev. Gloria G. Hughes, a United Methodist deacon and founder of viaCREATIVA, a liturgical arts ministry, crafted a stole for Bishop James King at General Conference. Reeds were the motif for the day’s worship, so she fashioned the stole out of batik fabric, pieced together to look like woven reeds.

As she worked, she prayed.

“I prayed for Bishop King, for his leading the worship, for General Conference,” she said. “This journey of creating the stole was a spiritual discipline for me.”

Bishops Deborah Lieder Kiesey of the Dakotas Area and Marcus Matthews of Upper New York gave the benediction during an evening worship service at General Conference in Tampa, Fla. UMNS PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

In the days leading up to General Conference, Mr. Pick unpacked the stoles as they arrived, one by one, in the mail.

“Each one was like this precious Christmas gift,” he said. “I had the privilege of giving each bishop his or her stole. They seemed very humbled to receive them.”

While artists worked with the color palette for each worship service, “It wasn’t like matching the paint to your drapes,” Mr. Pick said. “There was intentionality in the liturgy, the artwork, and everything was ground in the gospel and in the word.”

The stoles sparked comments on Twitter feeds during General Conference, as well as a Facebook page devoted to “Behind the Scenes at General Conference worship.”

“I think the stoles were my favorite part of the services,” said the Rev. Peter K. Perry of Anchorage, Alaska, in a Facebook comment. “But they made me fall into the sin of covetousness repeatedly!”

Nothing new

Stoles aren’t new—clergy have worn them as far back as the fourth century, and the garments’ symbolic roots are in the Bible.

So why has the range of options exploded of late?

For one thing, Americans have embraced a wide range of wearable symbols—think yellow bracelets for cancer research, pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness or rainbows for acceptance of lesbians and gays.

The Karin Tunnéll attached fishnet to the stoles she made for Bishop Kiesey and Bishop Matthews at General Conference. COURTESY PHOTO

Also, the growing presence of women in the clergy may have helped, too. At the Western North Carolina Annual Conference, the Rev. Gloria Hughes noticed that very few of the female clergy in attendance wore stoles with the traditional Methodist cross and flame.

“The women seem to be stepping out with stoles that are more creative,” she said. “They seem to be leading the way.”

The growing variety of clergy stoles has opened up an avenue of spiritual expression for the people who create them, as well as the wearers.

Jan Laurie of Fabric Art Clergy Stoles in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, started making handcrafted stoles for clergy about 20 years ago. Today she sells about 100 stoles a year to customers in almost two dozen denominations, including many United Methodists.

“No two are exactly the same,” she said. “It’s become a ministry for me.” She sees her stoles as a means for inviting worshippers “to take a closer look, or a closer listen, to how the word is reaching out to them. Each stole is saying, ‘Wake up a little bit.’”

While many stoles are riotously colorful and elaborate, some make statements with their plainness and simplicity. Mark James, a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn., experimented with weaving jute by hand. The result was a simple stole which he presented as a gift to a staff priest.

 “The cloth looks ancient, which makes me think of biblical times,” he said.

 Only for the ordained

While the variety of stoles may have blossomed, the meaning of the stole remains unchanged, according to the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources for the General Board of Discipleship.

“Only ordained deacons and elders are to wear stoles,” he said. “That is solid Christian tradition that dates back at least to the fourth century.” The stoles, he added, recall the serving towel that Jesus used to wash the disciples’ feet, as well as the prophetic mantles worn by Elisha and Elijah.

Mr. Burton-Edwards says some district superintendents have allowed—or even encouraged—local pastors who aren’t ordained to wear the stole, but that goes against the denomination’s ordinal.

“The stole is not a sign of being a pastor, it’s a sign of ordination to a particular order, elder or deacon,” he said. Ordained deacons wear the stole over the left shoulder; ordained elders wear them around the neck and straight down from the shoulders.

When non-ordained persons wear the stole, he added, “That is an affront to our commitments to our ecumenical partners to function in ways that are ecumenically recognizable.”

Church member Jane Sublett made this stole for the late Rev. Kathleen Baskin-Ball while she was pastor of Greenland Hills UMC in Dallas. Baskin-Ball often repeated her grandmother’s expression, “Glory Be!” COURTESY PHOTO

Stoles are rooted in ancient history, but their widespread popularity among United Methodist pastors is a relatively recent phenomenon. At St. Paul’s UMC in Houston, where traditional, formal liturgy rules on Sunday mornings, clergy didn’t wear robes and stoles until the late 1960s. Before that, suits and ties were the pastoral norm.

Today, St. Paul’s Altar Guild keeps a detailed manual for coordinating the colors of clergy stoles and paraments (altar linens) during seasons of the church: blue for Advent, purple for Lent and red for Pentecost, for example. Still, St. Paul’s sacristy also devotes space for clergy member’s personal stoles, as well as a set of colorful handmade stoles, made of indigenous fabrics, given by sister churches in Bolivia.

Disappearing mantle?

Ironically, while clergy stoles have grown more varied and expressive, there’s a contingent of United Methodist pastors who almost never wear them. Many are younger pastors whose churches offer only casual worship.

The Rev. Brock Patterson, 42, owns stoles and clerical robes “of every variety,” but he’s only worn them a few times—at weddings, only when the bride requests them.

For one thing, the extra clothing is hot and uncomfortable in the summer in Little Rock, Ark., where Mr. Patterson pastors FaithSpring Church, a United Methodist congregation. More importantly, he doesn’t like the associations that vestments might create.

“The only place an un-churched person sees a robe is in a courtroom,” he said. “Since our focus is on making disciples of the un-churched, I’d prefer that our target audience not be thinking about a courtroom, judgment or trial during their first worship experiences.”

Because he doesn’t wear a stole or a robe, Mr. Patterson says he’s extra intentional about explaining the liturgical seasons and their ecumenical significance to worshippers. Personally, he loves the symbolism of stoles and vestments, but says, “I’m not going to wear them right now. It seems to offend more people than it encourages.”

Mr. Dickson understands the instinct for casualness, but he hopes that stoles—in whatever form they take—won’t fade away with the next generation of clergy.

“It’s a part of our heritage, and it’s a symbol of ordination,” he said. “Wearing the stole is my way of symbolically claiming that position.”

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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[…] Clothed in the spirit – Clergy stoles taking expressive forms […]

Kathleen Fisher
Kathleen Fisher

I think stoles tell a story about the pastor and especially the person who made the stole for the pastor. It shows devotion and love for one's spiritual guide. You should not diminish pastors who wear them. They were probably made by a member of their church who felt a strong affinity for them as their pastor.


These kinds of ornate vestments are not about Jesus, they are about the minister. I think that the increasing use of elaborate stoles and vestments really indicates that they are near the end of the ecclesial usefulness and life. I personally robe only on Communion Sundays or the occasional holy days. I have one stole per seasonal color, except white, and they are all quite simple in design.

Once you have perused the "Bad vestments" web site, I think you're eyes will see these things differently.


Boy, sorry for the typos and misspellings!


I enjoyed this article and agree completely. I remember back a few years ago just after being commissioned when I recieved a call from a pastor who wanted me to come and be a communion steward at the churches 150th anniversary. The conversation went like this, P: "Make sure you wear your red stole"… M:"I don't have a red stole, I'm not ordained"… P "That's ok, I'll loan you one of mine"… M:"Isn't the Bishop leading the communion liturgy?"… P "Yes"… M "Then out of respect for the Bishop and the office, I really can't wear a stole"… P "I… Read more »


While I have no problem with clergy wearing stoles, I wonder if the designs are becoming a form of art rather than an expression of Christianity.
I prefer the simple cross or other Christian symbols on stoles with the appropriate colors for the season. None of this fancy artwork I see more and more as it serves no purpose except to be a distraction to the worshiper.

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