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.

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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?

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Or a scientist?

Or a journalist?

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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.