Supply preacher: Have robe, will travel.
That is, until the robe doesn’t zip.
Our first child was on the way and we were busy preparing for her arrival — gathering all the necessary baby “gear,” washing new baby clothes and painting the nursery. She was kicking regularly then, reminding me of her presence with a pleasant wiggle and some not-so-pleasant jabs. Despite all the nesting to be done, I had chosen to speed up rather than slow down with my commitments to the church. I served as a campus minister at the time, which left my summers more flexible. Since summer also happens to be a prime time for pastors to take vacations, I had agreed to supply preach six times at six different churches across the presbytery. I did all the necessary exegesis, reading, studying and writing to prepare to preach at the first of those six churches. And then I went to pull my robe out of the closet and discovered a problem: It no longer zipped.
While I preached weekly for the campus ministry, their casual worship setting meant that a robe would’ve been a barrier rather than an enhancement of the worship experience. So here I was, a week before I was to guest preach at a local congregation whose worship was more formal and for which a robe was required, and I didn’t have a robe that would fit over my growing bump. While most of us are grateful that someone in the pastoral vestments industry finally realized that fitted robes for women were a good idea, situations like pregnancy create a challenge. A new robe is too expensive to buy for just a few months. Plus, I didn’t have that kind of time.
I called Taylor, a friend and pastor-mama, in a bind and asked her what she did when she was expecting. And the story unfolded: There was this now-infamous Geneva robe worn by a shorter male pastor for years that was now making the rounds among pregnant pastors in the area. It had been deemed the Sisterhood of the Traveling Robe. And just like that, the problem was solved. She had worn it last, and so I picked it up and stepped into the pulpit on Sunday with a robe that zipped.
What struck me that summer was how this garment, this piece of oversized black fabric sewn in such a way that a school bus would fit inside, bound me together with other pastor-women experiencing the same vocational challenge of being a pastor and becoming a mom. When I put the robe on, the weight of the robe on my shoulders reminded me of the many hands that had blessed me at my ordination. But the hands that were blessing me now through this traveling robe were those of other clergywomen who had stood in pulpits proclaiming God’s promise of a new creation all the while being kicked by the new life they were preparing to bring into the world.
We could have debates about pastoral attire for days. But I have come to believe that wearing a robe has a lot of benefits, particularly as a female pastor. I experience far fewer comments on my attire and body when I wear a robe to lead worship. I don’t have to worry about the length of my skirt when I sit down in front of the congregation. A robe helps me to assume the same authority and respect that is often just given to my male pastor colleagues. But the “traveling robe” was the first time that I felt like a garment connected me to the priesthood of all believers, or at least the sisterhood of all pastor-mamas. This robe did not simply communicate “I am your preacher for today,” but the robe reminded me of the unique role that women have always had in proclaiming God’s good news.
That summer, the robe made an appearance in six different congregations as I preached around the presbytery, symbolically binding us all together as the church through this piece of fancy cloth. And that robe has been worn by other pregnant pastors in multiple other pulpits since. As it travels, it rests on the shoulders of those who have been called, not just to preach the promise of new life in Christ but to be bearers of that promise in their very bodies. And what a blessing that is from God!
KATIE OWEN AUMANN serves as associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. She has a passion for preaching, creative worship, teaching and working with young adults. In her spare time, she enjoys baking cookies, reading novels and being a partner to her husband Wait and mom to her daughter Mollie Grace. She originally hails from Topeka, Kansas, has never met Dorothy, but has seen a tornado.