Ministry in Stitches
At every Oklahoma Annual Conference, newly ordained clergy receive red stoles during the ordination ceremony. This year, those stoles were made by a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM).
Rooted in prayer
Sheri Lashley, who spent up to 10 hours making each of the 10 ordination stoles, started making stoles because they were too expensive to buy. Over time, she made stoles as personal gifts for clergy friends and conference leaders, including Bishops Robert Hayes and James Nunn, but this year was the first time she was asked to make stoles for ordinands.
“I was very grateful to be able to do that,” Lashley said. “It was fun for me to be part of such a precious moment.”
When Emily Robnett’s stole was placed on her shoulders, she felt like her call to ministry was fully recognized and confirmed by the community.
“For people outside of the process, it’s just a piece of cloth, but for me, it’s a symbol of finally arriving at the goal that I’d had for so long,” Robnett said. “It really does feel like taking up the mantle.”
Trey Witzel said his stole is a reminder of the long faith tradition that extends beyond Methodism. He likened receiving his stole to the story of Elisha taking up Elijah’s cloak upon his master’s ascent to heaven.
“This was kind of the red ribbon that tied up the process,” Witzel said. “It says, ‘we’re with you, and we’re staying with you, and we support you and uphold you.’ It’s a symbolic and literal laying on of hands through the laying on of a stole.”
Both Robnett and Witzel wore their ordination stoles on the third day of Annual Conference. Witzel said he carried himself differently while he wore the stole.
“It’s just one of those kind of touchstone memories and objects that kind of mark a transition,” he said. “It’s similar going from adolescence to adulthood, from dating to married. It’s that final step. I’m not the Padawan; I’m a part of it now.”
Robnett said having a stole made by a board member is significant because they’ve witnessed each pastor’s growth during the ordination process.
“It’s important that someone who examined my call added that personal touch,” Robnett said. “That someone who had the responsibility of reading 55 pages of paperwork and do the things that go on in the examination room would take the time to make something for you—blessing you with a gift but also affirming your call in such a significant way—it’s really meaningful.”
Sewing as an expression of Christian ministry is a practice as old as Christian faith. The Book of Acts records the sewing ministry of Tabitha, known in Greek as Dorcas, a woman explicitly described as a disciple “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36b, NRSV). Tabitha died from an illness, and her community called for Peter to come without delay. Upon his arrival, he was surrounded by widows “weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made” (Acts 9:39b, NRSV). In the moments before Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, her legacy was tangible in the items she had made for those in need.
Lashley, who was recently appointed to First UMC in Okmulgee, recognizes this sense of community that can be created through sewing, and she looks for some way to use crafts or sewing in ministry in every church she serves.
“It’s a lost art because we can get clothing and stoles so readily available,” Lashley said. “I try to make it something people can do.”
Women in the sewing group at Village UMC in Oklahoma City agree sewing is not as common as it once was, a fact they attribute in part to higher costs of fabric and thread.
“Fabrics have become so expensive that people can buy clothes cheaper than they can make them,” said Tish Bishop, a member of Village UMC’s sewing group.
“And I think people want instant gratification,” added Regina Wolfinger. “A quilt takes a long time to do, and I think people would rather go buy one already made at Walmart.”
Nancy Kendrick, who founded the sewing group in 2015 with donated machines, said her youngest daughter recently found a king-sized blue and white quilt in a thrift store for nine dollars.
“You couldn’t even buy the binding for that,” Kendrick lamented.
“You couldn’t even buy one yard of fabric for it,” Wolfinger responded.
Though they describe their sewing group as a fellowship ministry, they’ve helped sew and give away hundreds of items, including quilts, fleece blankets, receiving blankets, scarves, pajamas, needlepoint, pillows, bibs, calendars, children’s costumes, bears and a church flag. One of their quilts was given to Circle of Care for the Vera Mae Home in Alva.
“We’re just sort of a jack of all trades,” Kendrick said.
The women admitted it can be hard to get others to come help sew on a regular basis, even though all the materials and machines are provided, but they’re glad when people join them for even a brief time. Bishop recognizes that people often have several commitments, and it can be hard to add something new to a full schedule. No matter who’s there, Bishop said that they support and help each other when needed. She thinks that support keeps projects from becoming too frustrating.
“You learn by doing,” Kendrick said.
“If you never try, you don’t fail, but you don’t succeed, either,” Wolfinger said.
Even with the costs and time consumption, Bishop thinks sewing and crafting by hand is coming back into style. She thinks people like to make things with their hands, whether or not they think they’re skilled at the work.
“A lot of people knit now; it’s kind of surprising,” Bishop said. “I think people are getting to where they want to make things for themselves. They’re beginning to see that they can create.”
“It’s soothing,” Kendrick said. “Better than tranquilizers.”
There isn’t a sewing group at Centenary UMC in Lawton, but that didn’t stop Linda Ashton from organizing a quilt project to benefit Family Promise, a non-profit whose mission is to “help homeless and low-income families achieve sustainable independence.”
Ashton “got a bee in (her) bonnet” to make quilts after seeing the handmade quilts in Hardt Lodge at Canyon Camp. She knew the church would be hosting Family Promise families in a few months, so she brought the idea to the Administrative Council, who approved. A church member donated 1,600 yards of fabric for quilts after her sewing shop closed. Ashton signed people up in September, thinking the project would be good to complete by Lent.
“Folks were interested in making the quilts, but preferred to work independently,” Ashton said. “We had quilts by December; there were enough to cover the beds of the number of guests we had.”
In total, 18 quilts were made for Family Promise. Though it was completed in the past, Ashton still remembers the ministry with fondness.
“Although it was short lived, there was a sense of community among the quilters,” Ashton said. “The best thing ever is seeing the beds with the quilts on them, ready for the families who are at Centenary for the week.”
Sewing as ministry
Lashley believes that sewing is ministry, so long as it is rooted in relationship and prayer. Like most ministry work, the stoles were covered in prayer from the first stitches to the final seams. She asked a friend to embroider and pray over cross and flames emblems in December – two for each stole – and she started measuring and cutting fabric in January. She sewed 12 stoles in all, choosing the best 10 for the ordiands, and prayed over the fabric throughout the process.
“The hardest part is not the sewing; it’s the measuring, the cutting, and the ironing. It’s the preparation and the finishing that are the hardest parts,” Lashley said. “But it’s the praying that’s most important when you’re talking about fabrics in ministry.”
After the final details were complete, she hung the stoles and prayed over them one more time before adding the final touch: each person’s name and date of ordination.
“I’m on the Board and I’ve interviewed these people, and that made it more special to me; I hope it made it more special for them, too,” Lashley said. “I hope they felt the heavy mantle placed on their shoulders for ministry. I hope it was placed heavily, but heartily and invitingly.”
Robnett believes sewing has been a ministry to her and to others. She said she sees it in folks who receive a prayer shawl while in the hospital and cling to it like a tether, and she feels it when she wears her stole as a member of the clergy community.
“Anything that’s handmade is, I think, more special in some way,” Robnett said. “Anything that you make with your own two hands, that you create as the Creator would, is reflective of real love and real empathy. The fact that it’s been made by somebody for me, with me in mind, is not something I can really describe.”
Witzel agrees, saying stoles often represent a part of a clergy person’s faith journey.
“Buying them online is like a piece of attire you wear to work,” Witzel said. “When they’re made for you, it just feels different.”
In the end, Lashley hopes the stoles help new elders remember the gratefulness and humility that comes with being a pastor and an elder. She also hopes to get more people involved in the ministry of sewing.
“I’m hoping churches find a way to use sewing as a ministry or crafts as a ministry in any way possible,” Lashley said. “That’s what I try to do, and hopefully, thinking about that in another way, churches will, too.”