Worship Alone and Together


Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. (Psalm 100:2)

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

I want to offer a word in support of worship.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir. If you’re reading this, then you probably already agree with what I’ll say. You find worship meaningful and important. You attend public worship regularly, perhaps even every week, and you pray regularly.

But maybe you don’t, and this article was passed to you by a concerned friend, who wonders why you don’t “go to church.”

Either way, I want to speak up for worship. Because I think worship is important. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s beautiful. I think worship makes Sunday complete. I think it makes the week complete.

Except, when it doesn’t. Because sometimes, worship isn’t so wonderful. Sometimes worship is boring, or irrelevant, or infuriating. Sometimes in worship we feel excluded or misunderstood. Sometimes worship is clunky, and sometimes it’s stuffy.

It’s important that I (with my vested interested in worship) acknowledge that public worship sometimes isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, by me and others like me.

Yet even as I acknowledge that actual services of public worship can suffer from many flaws, I cannot accept that it’s better to stay home. And I especially cannot accept that oft-repeated excuse, “I can worship just as well by myself.”

I do think it’s an excuse. And a pretty lazy one, too! Besides, it’s only partly true. Because I am quite certain that the only ones who really do engage in worship better alone than with others are those who regularly do both. They have become good at worship, both alone and with others. They know how to pray. The have learned enough scripture and hymns so their worship has shape and direction. They have become disciplined in turning off the noise in their heads, or at least in directing it toward prayer that is somewhat focused. These are disciplines that are almost never learned all alone, by someone who has rarely set foot in a church sanctuary. And they are hardly ever cultivated sufficiently past the point of basic competence (and thus enjoyment) by those who never attempt any private forms of devotion and worship.

The two kinds of praise work together: the private worship and the public worship, so that each of them helps the other. And without one, the other will have less benefit for the worshiper, and indeed is less likely even to take place. Without public worship, private devotions are shallow, uninformed, and narcissistic, if they happen at all. Without private worship, Sunday morning worship is awkward, inauthentic, and unsatisfying, if it is attended at all.

So I encourage you to cultivate both kinds of worship in your life. Give time to prayer and scripture as a regular personal habit, thus deepening your experience of private worship. And make a priority of your regular attendance at public worship, eager to lend your voice to the praise of God with your fellow worshipers.

Open wide?

The following was from my sermon on July 14. The Gospel reading was the parable of the good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37.

Every once in a while, I hear someone ask whether a program will bring new people to our church. Almost as often, I hear someone ask whether making the church’s facilities available to outsiders will result in our church growing.

There’s something backwards about this thinking. Or maybe it’s just that something is missing. You see, churches don’t grow because their buldings are open. They grow when their hearts are open. If you want the church to grow, don’t look first at your buildings. Rather, look first at your hearts.

But when our buildings are closed, unavailable to the community, I have to ask whether that reflects an inward reality. I have to wonder

if closed buildings mean closed hearts,
if unavailable facilities mean that we are unavailable,
if limited outreach means limited concern,
if inactivity on the outside means inactivity on the inside.

I have to question whether our understanding of “neighbor” is woefully limited, un-expanded by encounter with the merciful Good Samaritan, the ultimate Stranger who became Neighbor, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Suggestions for Writing a Minister’s Profile

I have twice had the privilege of helping a church who’s pastor had moved on. Such a position as the one I held we in the Reformed Church call a “supervisor.” As the supervisor of Pultneyville Reformed Church in 2009 and part of 2010, and of Lakeview Community Church from June of 2011 to September of 2012, I basically was a resource and guide for their consistories and search committees.

Because of that, I know a good deal about the minister search process in our denomination. In particular, I know a good deal about the Minister’s Profile Form. That is an instrument the RCA uses to provide some common framework in the call process. Basically, ministers complete it and search committees read it. (There’s also a form that congregations complete, but let me talk about that another time.)

I have read many minister profiles. And I have seen certain kinds of problems come up with some frequency. I hope that by naming them I’ll help a few people who are writing, or perhaps rewriting, their profiles.

Um, no …

To be sure, I understand the impulse. Would worship have such passion! And there is truly a strong line in the Christian tradition, stemming from scripture itself, that speaks of intimacy and desire for God. Without a doubt, Sunday worship would be greatly improved in most churches if people felt that God was beautiful beyond measure and greatly to be adored.

But worship is more than the expression of a lover for the beloved. For we’re not talking equals here. A love song is what is sung by one who is (or wants to be!) in a relationship of mutual affection. But worship is the interaction between creature and creator, between sinner and redeemer, between disciple and Lord. It is not one of mutuality.

Because of that, there is much more that should happen in worship than love-drenched praise and the expression of adoration (as important as these surely are). In worship, we listen to God. We are corrected and inspired. We are fed. We confess. We profess. We resolve to live better and do differently. All of these are part of complete worship. And they cannot be subsumed under the rubric of a love song.

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.

Hey, minister dude: dress like a grownup!

Okay, this is going to be a bit of a rant. If that’s not your kind of thing, or your tender view of me does not include a ranting Dan, then perhaps you’d prefer to mouse over to some other web site.

Also, I am directing this to ministers, or those who are studying to be ministers. Others may be interested, or entertained. But my intended target — um, I mean “audience”, is the clergy, especially those who are men, because I can speak intelligibly about mens wear, while speaking about women’s clothing might get me in big trouble.

So here’s the thing, guys: would you please dress like an adult? Would you please give some thought to what you wear when serving in your official role as pastor to a flock?

Honestly, I have grown impatient with the dumb reasons I hear for why it’s okay for a male pastor to dress as a slovenly man-child. Yes, the reasons are truly dumb. I have heard these often enough that I will here take them apart.

“I want to be comfortable”

This has got to be the dumbest reason I’ve heard. “I dress the way I do” (in ratty jeans or goofy print T-shirt or whatever) “because I’m comfortable that way.” Oh, please. By that standard, if comfort is the deciding factor in your choice of wardrobe for ministry, then why not go to work wearing your pjs and slippers? On warm days, why not go naked?

Talk about dumb.

Sure, comfort is important. But it can’t be the only criterion. Really, it’s never the only thing that factors into your wardrobe decision for any occasion, let alone for ministry work.

But let’s take this comfort thing a little further. Many men (not just ministers and seminary students) believe that decent, adult professional clothing is uncomfortable.

They’re wrong. A pair of khaki slacks is much more comfortable than jeans. And a dress shirt with a tie is uncomfortable only if you have believed your pleasing little lie that you are now the same size you were in high school.

Guess what? You’re not.

Basically, if attire appropriate for ministry is uncomfortable for you, then either it doesn’t fit or is poorly made. And nobody looks good in such clothing, either.

“I don’t want to look like a CEO”

I first heard this over twenty years ago from a good friend. Actually, what he said was that he didn’t want to look like a banker. More recently I heard the “CEO” version. Which is actually part of why this is a dumb reason. Do I not want to look like a banker, or a CEO?

Or maybe a lawyer?

Or how about a detective?

Or maybe a politician?


Or a scientist?

Or a journalist?


My point is that the style of men’s dress that is derided by these unreflective male ministers and candidates for ministry is not the uniform of one particular industry of profession. It is simply appropriate menswear in professional settings. In other words, it’s what men wear when they want to look presentable. (See here.)

Now maybe my targets are trying to show some correspondence between their choice of outfit and their theology of ministry. But what sort of theology of ministry does slovenliness reflect? And how does dressing with some care and self-respect indicate a deficient theology?

That leads to another dumb reasons I’ll consider:

“I don’t want to set myself apart from my parishioners”

Well, guess what. You already are. And what’s more, whether you like it or not, they expect you to be. That expectation does not mean that they hold a deficient understanding of the priesthood of all believers, or that somehow their expectations of pastors are messed up. (They might be anyway, but that has little to do with their belief that you should dress differently for pastoral work than you do for flipping burgers on your back porch.)

Ministerial work is special work. Oh, don’t worry: it’s not because you’re special. No, this work is special because God is special, and because the people God has appointed you to pastor are special. What you wear shows them how special you think they are. If you dress as if what you are doing is important, vital, and life-affirming, they will pick up on that. If you dress as if this task is no big deal, well, they’ll get that, too.

“I can’t afford it”

This reason is a lot less dumb. But it still doesn’t pan out. Yes, it costs a bit of money to develop a decent wardrobe. But it’s not all that much, and you do it over time. To look decent doesn’t mean plunking down over $1k for a Brooks Brother’s suit, or $125 for a pair of Bill’s Khakis. Good clothing is readily found at lower prices. And never be too proud for thrift stores!

If you worked in an office, perhaps even for a lower salary (yes, people do make less money than ministers), you could very well be subject to a dress code. You would have to budget some of your income for clothing that was acceptable. It goes with the job. Flaunt the code, and you could be out of a job.

In most places in my tradition, ministry does not have a formal dress code. It must be worked out, perhaps informally, with the congregation. Even so, you should expect to spend some of your income each year on clothing that is appropriate for your work in your ministry context.

There are probably other reasons I could deconstruct. But those biggies will suffice. Let me sum it all up this way:

How you dress signals your respect for yourself and for others. So please show some respect, and dress decently.

Why I Am (and Am Not) Taking a Sabbatical

As I said in my first post, I will be taking a three month sabbatical starting on April 25. I’ll say more next time about what I’ll be doing. Today I want to cover my reasons for taking a sabbatical.

The word “sabbatical” comes from “sabbath.” This suggests that it should have something to do with rest, and that would be rest not as in sloth but rather the kind of rest that has its God as its origin and goal.

It’s not that way for everybody who uses this word. I have a number of friends who teach in seminaries, and for them sabbatical is not mainly a time for rest but rather for work of a different kind. They use the time to finish the book that will get them tenured or promoted. “Publish or perish.” Or, as it was for my beloved dissertation advisor, Charles Wood, it would be the break from teaching and other responsibilities as your final chapter at the university. I think they call it “terminal leave,” which sounds very disturbing.

Among ministers, we find an attempt to retrieve the sabbath aspects of sabbatical. So the ideal is for the person on sabbatical to reconnect with the holy rhythms that God has built into the structure of creation. This would involve a temporary cessation from the typical activities of one’s “professional life,” so that one can eventually be made stronger for it. It would involve work of different kind, perhaps more intensive and focused “soul work,” than what is typically possible in the relentless demands of pastoral work.

That’s the ideal. Of course, in real life sometimes the ideal doesn’t happen. And so there are pastors who take sabbaticals in order to look for a new job. There are pastors whose sabbaticals are indistinguishable from vacations. There are pastors who say they’re on sabbatical and yet are still seen frequently at their places of ministry.

I would like this to be very clear to all my friends: I am not taking a sabbatical to figure out if I am going to stay in my ministry at Trinity Church. Rather, I am taking a sabbatical so that I can stay (God willing). And not merely stay, as in hanging around with no passion, by simply coasting along. Rather, I want to stay here well, and I believe that the sabbatical is an excellent way to do that. Indeed, it might be my only way.

It is my expectation and desire to use the sabbatical as a time of renewal. It’s a wonderful gift of time. In it I will have not only room for rest but also space to create.

More about that soon.