More Thoughts on Clothing Choices for Male Ministers

Well, that last post drew a lot of comments, both electronic and in person. I guess I struck a nerve.

I won’t retract a thing. But perhaps there’s some need for me to say a little bit more, to fill in some of the gaps. So here, in a less ranty mode, are my further thoughts on appropriate attire for male ministers.

Context is important

In that post, I offered my plea for some self-respect in how guy pastors dress. It seems that some people read my perspective as uptight or stuffy, or as very suburban. “But what about …” they would offer. And of course I would say “of course.” Which is to say that how one should dress appropriately is greatly impacted by the context in which one ministers. That’s why I wrote “In most places in my tradition, ministry does not have a formal dress code. It must be worked out, perhaps informally, with the congregation.” What is right for you as a pastor is connected with where you are as a pastor.

For me to acknowledge this entails no retreat from my concern that underlies the entire previous post, which is that guy pastors should not dress like slobs, but rather should dress with some care, showing respect for their parishioners and themselves.

Yet it is surely true that the male minister’s choice of clothing is deeply contextual. And let’s be clear: context is not one thing, but many. There’s the context of community, whether that be urban, suburban, or rural, working class or business class, age, ethnicity, and climate. But there’s also the context of the moment. Worship or Bible study? Wedding or funeral? In-church meeting or hospital visit? Each of these impact the choice of what is right or wrong to put on.

My choices are going to be different from those of some friends partly because of these contextual considerations. (Another reason is because I’m a bit of a dork.) We’re in different places, and so what makes sense to wear or not to wear will differ.

Yet none of this causes me to say that it doesn’t matter what you wear. There are still standards, although the burden is on you to figure out what those are in your context. Some choices, however, would most always be wrong.

There are always exceptions

Yes, of course: there are exceptions. I acknowledge that. There are times when the choice of clothing has to be not so professional. I wouldn’t wear my best slacks to a Habitat build site, or to a flooded-out church where I was going to be helping clear out muck, or to a downtown mission where I was going to help serve dinner. When Trinity Church has its Strawberry Festival, I could be helping flip burgers or run supplies from the kitchen to the serving area, as well as greeting people from the neighborhood. Shorts and t-shirt may be the right thing to wear then. Such circumstances aside, I may simply have misjudged the expectations of the day, and I find that I am underdressed for the occasion. Mistakes happen.

But these are exceptions. They do not undercut the fundamental imperative: dress like a grownup, showing respect for your parishioners and for yourself.

Dressing appropriately can help your attitude

My friend Matt wrote this in response to my last post:

For the last two and a half years I have been telecommuting for a large tech company – not a minister. Although I do not see any coworkers, managers, or customers I sometimes wonder if dressing up would influence the work I do. If beyond perception by others that I would be more productive, etc., if I ditched the jeans/shorts & tennis shoes for more formal wear.

Is there any impact on the wearer of the clothes in isolation? If yes, then that would be one more argument for your cause – that dressing up also changes how we view ourselves and how we conduct business/ministry.

He’s so right. (Thanks, Matt!) This is highly relevant for ministers. Dressing appropriately for ministry can be a big help emotionally, even when it’s a day when you might not see a lot of people.

That’s the thing with pastoral ministry, especially in the small church. There are many occasions when you’ll be working intensely all by yourself. The meeting isn’t until that evening. The secretary isn’t in today. You’ve arranged your week so that your pastoral visits were yesterday. So you have the whole day to work on your sermon, and start planning worship for next week, and draft the agenda for next week’s consistory meeting, and reply to e-mail.

You could go very casual. But, to be honest, the isolation is not easy. Depending on your personality, it may be drawing you into loneliness, sorrow, depression. Among the things that can help a minister handle this isolation is simply dressing with some attention to detail. What you choose to wear may not be at all formal. Maybe instead it shows some whimsy. The point is that you are seeing your work, even if it is solitary and isolating, as important work. You dress for its importance.

And, as Matt suggests, it may even make you more productive.

Some of my rules

Even though I see a great deal of leeway in appropriate menswear for ministry, I do have things that I think are fairly definite (given the caveats above regarding context and exceptions). Following these rules (or “guidelines,” if you prefer) should help a male pastor look presentable.

  • It must be clean

Need I say more?

  • It must fit

Your pants should not puddle on your shoes. You should be able to button the top button on your shirt so you can wear a tie, when appropriate. The length of the jacket sleeve should allow no more than an inch and a half of shirt cuff to show.

  • Belt and shoes must match

There are some exceptions for creativity, but generally you should wear a black belt with black shoes and a brown belt with brown shoes. Also, formality comes into play: casual belts go with casual shoes, while formal shoes require formal belts.

  • A tie must always have a jacket (or maybe a sweater), but a jacket doesn’t need a tie

There’s some sartorial history here that I won’t get into, but the “tie sans jacket” outfit is the uniform for waiters in certain restaurants. For a variety of reasons it works right in that context and with that profession, but not in other contexts, where a tie requires a jacket, or at least one within arm’s reach.

  • A jacket should have a pocket square

To my eye, an empty chest pocket on a sport coat or jacket looks so forlorn.

  • The pocket square and tie should complement, but not match exactly

The matchy-matchy is just too cutesy.

  • Always button a button-down collar.

Having the collar unbuttoned doesn’t make it more casual; it just makes you look disheveled or forgetful.

  • The Bluetooth headset (you know, the thing that you have in one ear to talk on your cell phone) is not a fashion accessory

Really, take it off when you are not using it. Continuing to wear it gives the impression that you’d rather be talking to someone else besides the person with you.

Author: Dan Griswold

A good life is motivated by love. My loves: the Triune God, family, music, friends, parishioners, theology.

8 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Clothing Choices for Male Ministers”

  1. Mostly agree, although I certainly don’t believe there needs to be any connection between a tie and a jacket. A shirt and tie is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable without any jacket in sight. If that draws a connection to the service sector… well… that’s probably healthier than ministers being confused with lawyers or bankers or politicians (respectable vocations, of course, but very different from the calling of a minister).

    Your suggestions seem to lean in the direction of a suit as being most appropriate (perhaps I’m reading too much in between the lines). I’d just put my 2c in against that. While a suit *may* be appropriate attire for some pastors in some settings, I’d argue that – in many cases – it promotes a number of misconceptions about what a pastor is and should be (misconceptions often promoted by ministers themselves). People make assumptions about someone according to their attire (as you point out) – suits reinforce assumptions about a pastor’s role that are often unhelpful and inappropriate.

    Out of curiosity…. any chance clerical attire is the topic of your next post? 😉

    Grace and peace,

  2. I agree with Kelly — I can’t help but assume that people only whear them so constantly because it makes them feel important.

  3. Tim: again, context is so important. And another thing I’d like to add now: you’ve got to know the rules to break the rules. But let me take another run at the jacket thing. My sartorial inclination is that, if a tie is appropriate, then so is a jacket. I might wear a tie without a jacket if it was very hot, or I was aiming for a particularly style. But in general (and that’s clearly the burden of these posts) a tie requires a jacket, but a jacket doesn’t require a tie. Again, there are always exceptions.

    In case anyone missed (or misconstrued) my point about professions in the earlier post, it was this: a sport coat and tie or a suit and tie are not identifiably the uniform of a single profession. It is simply men’s fashion. It is just “dressing well.” Nobody has accused me of thinking I was a banker, CEO, lawyer, whatever, nor have I ever felt that my parishioners had any mistaken notions of the ministry reinforced by my clothing.

    I don’t think that my suggestions “lean in the direction of a suit being most appropriate.” I can assure you that I didn’t have this in mind between the lines. In some settings, a suit may be the best choice, or, perhaps more accurately, what I would choose to wear. But by no means mostly. During the week I will only sometimes wear a tie, perhaps if I was visiting in the hospital, and if I do, of course, I’ll wear a sport coat. I often wear a sport coat and no tie. (But always with a pocket square!) I wear a suit only if I am doing a funeral, a wedding, or some other mid-week formal service of worship (during which I’ll usually don my robe).

    (Technical distinction: a “suit” is an outfit with matching coat and slacks. To wear a sport coat with non-matching slacks is not to wear a suit.)

    About clericals (which, for the uninitiated, means (usually white) clergy collars and their special shirts): I have no experience in these, so I can’t speak to them meaningfully as Tim can. In my ministry context they would not be accepted by many, and I frankly don’t like the look for myself (speaking only for myself!). I have no objections to other ministers wearing them.

    But of course at this point we’re not talking about those ministers (and ministers-to-be) who were my main concern: those who dress with no respect for their parishioners, themselves, or their office. The collar-wearing minister does not worry me. The slovenly man-child does.

  4. There are unquestionably benefits and drawbacks to wearing clericals -y although I do so daily, I don’t suggest everyone should. It was a careful decision on my part for specific reasons.

    I still wonder about the coat, and if – perhaps – it is generational? I don’t even own a sports coat any more (although I do wear a shirt/tie for non-suit, non-ministry events sans coat). I used to have one and wore it occasionally in place of a suit. I *do* wear suits once in a while (although – currently – it’s usually to non-ministerial activities).

    I never wear a pocket square… although perhaps that has to do with the fact that I wear more jewelry than most (2 earrings, 2 rings, occasional cuff links and watch… sometimes glasses).

    Anyhow… interesting conversation 🙂

    Grace and peace,

    1. I would say that wearing sport coats is not strictly a generational thing. A lot of guys posting on and appear to be in their 20s and 30s. Some are even in their late teens.

      The pocket square is a relatively recent thing for me. But I believe that it really helps. It “completes” the look. What I’ve learned about men’s fashion strongly encourages the use of a pocket square.

  5. I believe respect is hugely important. Respect is gospel to the law of context. Respect for your parishioners (that is, a sense of “office”). Respect for clothing and for the history and culture of clothing. Respect for yourself, and for your body as a temple. Respect for the church. Respect for the public. All of St. Paul’s counsel on freedom and license.

    I used to sing in a symphony chorus as a volunteer. Once I was walking to that evening’s concert with a paid musician in the orchestra. He was complaining about his having to wear a suit and the expectation to wear shined shoes. I admonished him (Did I really think I had the right to do that? Yes, as a paying subscriber for the season.)on two counts: respect for me, as a listener, and respect for all those who wish they were good enough to play an instrument but are not as lucky in talents as he is. I told him it was a privilege for him to play his instrument professionally, and he should regard it as such.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtfulness on this topic. I especially appreciate the point you make about the context of the moment. My experience has been that deciding what to wear can be hard sometimes, given the wide variety of different contexts in which I might find myself within the span of a single day. When in doubt, I usually opt for the “business casual”‘ look (dress pants and shirt, maybe a vest, but no tie).

    In any case, I’m glad you’re standing firm in your appeal to elevate the standard of dress for ministers. It lends dignity to, and hopefully engenders respect toward, the office in which we’re privileged to serve

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