In the comments section of my reader survey, someone asked me to write about this:
“Your evolving style as a preacher AND fashion lover. I’ve always loved clothes but I went through a very conservative ‘modesty’ phase back in the 90’s (think covered up shapeless, long denim dresses) and looked frumpy most of the time. Even my husband didn’t like it. Ugh, what can I say but that I felt convicted at the time. It took many years before I was able to dress myself with freedom. I’m curious about your personal experience :) ”
I love this topic – thanks for asking about something I wouldn’t have thought of writing about on my own!
Let’s start with a story:
One memorable attempt at dressing to preach involved a navy shift dress in something silk-like with half-rolled short sleeves and stripes of color along the bottom – pink, orange, red, green, and white, maybe? – in varying widths. I felt desperately chic in it, especially since it was a thrift score and thus proved one could dress stylishly secondhand. I was so enamored of it that I refused to recognize (despite my mom’s warning) that it was too short and wore it to my home church to guest preach.
This gives you the general feel. Source
My high school French teacher and mentor – Madame, we call her – came to hear me preach, and as folks gathered for worship, I greeted her in the pew before turning around and bending over the next pew to kiss the cheek of one of the elderly church ladies who have loved on me since I was a toddler. A perilous move, turns out.
Madame shrieked my name (at a moderate volume) and when I turned around, the look on her face was one of complete mortification; though this happened several years ago, I can recall exactly how high her eyebrows shot up. “Leah, that dress is REALLY short!” she exclaimed. I still wonder exactly how much she saw, but I have never had the guts to inquire.
By then it was too late to do anything about it – the prelude was starting and I was leading most of the service and in any case I didn’t just happen to have a backup dress hanging up in the narthex. Calling to mind the lesson imparted by another mentor who once chided me for failing to network at an advocacy event because I had felt self-consciously underdressed, wearing flip flops and a billowy summer skirt in a crowd of suits, I took a deep breath and went for it.
But why was this such a problem, you might be thinking, since preaching doesn’t involve turning around and bending over backwards in front of the congregation? (Now THAT’S a visual.) Well, friends, you have not thought through the logistics of giving a children’s sermon while sitting on the chancel floor in the shortest shift known to humanity and trying to angle your sidesaddled knees such that your confirmation sponsor, jr. high social studies teacher, mother, and the parents of the kids you babysat for years don’t see your underwear, all while wrangling preschoolers who don’t really want to sit still while you tell a story. Let’s just say I have a lot of sympathy for Lindsay Lohan and anyone else who’s accidentally flashed the paps.
Although I have a mad amount of respect for people who dress in a way that expresses their faith, dress has never been a way I’ve expressed my own faith. (This directly correlates to my liberal Christian upbringing and current progressive Christian faith.) In grad school, when a classmate took on a nine month modesty project – head covered, shoulders covered, knees covered, no makeup, no pants – to see how it affected her sense of self and her relationship with God, I felt no impulse to experiment with the same.
Me, dressed in shorts to lead worship next to Lauren doing her modesty thing at the time.
Neither has dress ever been a way that spiritual authority figures in my life have tried to moralize or shame me, which does often happen with clothing choices (particularly for girls and women). For that I am profoundly grateful – in my book shame and religion shouldn’t mix.
That being said, I did grow up with parents who had some ideas about what constituted appropriate church clothes – particularly a mom who was not happy with anything too tight, too short, or too midriff baring. I chafed against this (literally?) in junior high and high school, but a few years into adulthood I sort of naturally grew out of spaghetti straps and skintight glitter pants, and the memory of my mom’s chastisement softened into helpful parameters: if something pulls, it’s too tight; if something rides up all the time, it’s too short, etc. etc.
As the story above illustrates, though, I didn’t grow out of more “risqué” (my mom’s word) dressing all at once. As I began to dress less casually in my work life, the too-short-shift experience helped redraw the line for me about clothes for leading worship as well. If it’s cute/trendy/chic but makes me feel distracted from or self-conscious about the task at hand, I’ll save it for the dance floor, not the pulpit. If it passes the get-on-the-floor-and-play-with-kids test (dress/skirt hems) along with the raise-your-hands-high-to-give-the-benediction test (that one’s for midriffs) and the crouch-down-to-rescue-the-fallen-hymnal test (visible crack for pants), we’re good.
As for level of formality? I have seen so many people shunned for what they wore (or failed to wear) to worship that I would rather dress down to help people feel welcome than impose rules on what is respectful enough for a house of faith. I was raised in a wear-your-best-to-church environment, but I’ve also pastored an informal church start and a homeless community, so I learned a long time ago that you can worship God no matter how formal, groomed, or skin-showing you are.
Casual style from my new church plant days:
I figure God doesn’t really care, but on the flip side, I understand that people do. A lot of folks were raised to believe that the way you dress for worship shows respect for God. That’s why, practically speaking, I wear a) what makes me feel comfortable and b) what shows general respect for my parishioners’ sensibilities but c) nothing too fancy so as not to make less formally dressed people feel uncomfortable. (This is also why I breastfed in church but often in the back pew. I assume not everyone is comfortable with nursing in public.)
Reflecting the surroundings, I started off like this in my current church:
Until I realized that all the other women in the congregation, save one, wore pants:
Then we moved to a less formal space:
+100 points for that mid-sentence facial expression.
On a related tangent, I don’t feel any compulsion to dress a certain way at other events because I am a pastor – if I’m going to work out, or go dancing, or go to the beach, I’ll don what I personally feel comfortable wearing in those situations (which, admittedly, is really not that edgy to begin with). My spouse once wondered whether we should buy alcohol at a liquor store further from home so we wouldn’t run into our neighbors or seminary classmates – nope. I’m invested in reminding church members and the world at large that clergy are people, first and foremost – called to a specific ministry, yes, but not necessarily any more pious than anyone else. And most definitely allowed to express themselves through clothing!
For weddings/ordinations/formal worship services I add the oatmeal-colored robe, cincture (rope around the waist) and a stole:
Or if I’m marching in the rain, here is the super-chic water-repellent outfit I wear (same stole as above, better view):
What have been your experiences with spirituality and dress, modest clothing, or shaming around clothes? If you grew up in a faith tradition or currently participate in one, what are your thoughts on what’s appropriate to wear to worship? There are such a wide array of opinions and experiences out there – I’d love to hear yours!
11 thoughts on “Preacher Style”
I remember a huge brouhaha at the church I was attending while in high school. One of the lay ministers, who was in the National Guard, wore his uniform (and boots) under his robe; he had to leave right after the service for a week-long training. This was at the height of the Viet Nam war. There was talk of taking away his lay ministerial status, banning him from committees, etc. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and he was “allowed” to continue his service in the church, but he never wore his Guards garb again. Thank goodness now, whether we agree or not with US involvement in military action overseas, we as a country do understand the personal sacrifice of military personnel and their families.
PS-Love the henna hands!
Ps thanks, I loved them too! It was an Indian/euro-American wedding and my husband and I co-officiated the western ceremony.
Full of salient points. Don’t stop believing or writing!
This sounds like the controversy many churches have faced over whether to keep/place a flag in the sanctuary – those can be epic! I like your distinction between opinion on military involvement and the sacrifice of military personnel & families.
In my lifetime, “what to wear to church” has run the gamut. As a child I wore a mid-calf dress with hat, gloves, white socks and dressy shoes (we also had “Sunday-Best” and “everyday” clothes, plus extra special togs for Easter)! “Ladies” didn’t wear red, wore only black or navy for funerals and wore hose every day even in the summer! And of course, no woman or girl ever wore pants or trousers of any kind to church, school, or even shopping!!!
Now, I feel self-conscious if I “dress-up” too much . . . and I live in pants and jeans. Although I believe the current “relaxed” cultural climate is preferable to a rigid “dress code”, I still try not to be too casual for serious events (weddings, funerals, celebrations, holidays, etc.). As a result, I felt over-dressed when attending a Menorah-lighting ceremony because I hadn’t wanted to appear disrespectful of another faith! Still affected by my early training . . .
“Ladies didn’t wear red” – now that’s one I’d never heard before! Glad it’s changed because otherwise I’m pretty sure I’d be labeled a harlot!
I agree about dressing for serious occasions – I think it’s where a lack of formality equated with a lack of respect is most likely to be hurtful to those involved. Although you still have to factor in context… At my friend Gerald’s funeral, 90% of those in attendance were living in homelessness and dressing up might have made others feel awkward they weren’t fancied up.
Same with religious ceremony – the church where I work as an administrator during the week is a suit and tie kind of place, but if you wore that to the church where I preach, you’d feel way overdressed, as you did at the menorah lighting ceremony. Sometimes it’s hard to tell beforehand what’s expected!! Thanks for sharing, Carol.
Growing up, I wore “Sunday Best” (i.e. frilly dresses) to church, but as a ‘tween and teen my parents gave me more latitude. Oddly enough, the only enforced rule was”no shorts in church.” I’m not sure why. Anyway, in my late teens I became convicted regarding modesty, which my parents did not support. It wasn’t just a phase, as I continue to eschew pants, sleeveless styles, etc, and cover my head while praying publicly 20 years later. I do find that my choice (I never try to impose it on anyone else except my own daughters) sometimes creates a barrier to fellowship and evangelizing, which is something I struggle with. As odd as it sounds, remaining reasonably fashionable can be a part of our Christian calling, in my opinion. Thanks for delving into this topic.
Gwendolynn, your last line made me think of what I’ve heard many modern Orthodox Jewish women say – that God wants them to keep the commandments, but also wants them to feel beautiful while doing it so that it’s a joy, not a burden.
I can imagine it being somewhat of a barrier – for better or worse, we often get caught up on appearances and feel awkward when someone else is dressed noticeably differently from us. For me though it makes me curious – what must this person’s faith mean to them that they’ve decided to change a significant part of their life? That’s powerful!
Thanks for commenting!
I would say that dressy casual dominates at my church, but there’s quite a range. When I first joined, I often wore Kasper skirted suits, but now feel comfortable in nice slacks and a pretty top even for ushering. I do remember that my grandmother found it hard to adjust to pantsuits in church in the 70’s. I think the pastor’s wife started wearing them so that made it OK.
I love the idea of a pastor (male or female) being interested in style! Our two pastors are women and I think they are each stylish in their own unique way. I also love seeing them in their clerical robes with beautiful and meaningful stoles.
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