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.