Dressing your best for the pulpit—or not

Jan. 10, 2017 | by Ronald Keener

The best blogs for pastors and church leaders, bar none, come from Thom Rainer and Charles (Chuck) Lawless. Day after day, five days a week (they write on weekends too, but in a different context) sound advice and challenging commentary is shared in a multitude (by now) of topics about church change, health, and transformation.

Any pastor will gain from either of the two writers for their ministry and congregation, if they are willing to have their biases challenged and methods improved. (That, I have to say, however, is more than we can count on in many churches.)

But let me turn to one specific blog of Thom Rainer’s, when he offered up “Six Thoughts About Pastoral Attire for Worship Services” written for July 13, 2015.

Without taking the space to repeat his six points in detail, the bold face lead-ins are 1. Understand the demographic context; 2. Understand the church’s expectations; 3. Understand changes in fashion; 4. Lead change gradually; 5. Don’t put your preferences ahead of your love for others; and 6. Understand your members’ emotional attachments to certain forms of attire.

Pretty quickly Thom received more than 200 comments back from his subscribers, probably one of the very most “popular”—if that is the word—blogs he has posted over the years. Eighteen months later another comment to Thom’s blog came through just the other day. When I was editor of Church Executive magazine [2005-2013] l wrote an editorial asking a similar question to Thom’s, and never received as many comments on a single topic as I did then. It is obviously a hot topic, but judging from the comments to me (and to Thom) there isn’t an easy response to the concern.

I am annoyed, I have to say, by some of the casual dress of pastors in churches I visit: shirt tails out, blue jeans seem standard, no neck ties, sloppy demeanor, and the standards slip even further for the praise team and instrumentalists. Flip flops? Come on!

I recently came across a website for a commercial company that makes shirts and pants, and their name says it all: untuckit.com. They even provide a diagram for what they mean by “untuck it.” One part of their style is the look: “Our contoured hem line [of the shirt tail] is designed to fall halfway between the belt and the bottom of the zipper.” Of course, they are suggesting that you buy their product that is designed to be “fashionable.” Still, I thought it interesting how a clothing company latched on to a market of some 350,000 churches whose pastors and praise teams might be looking for guidance for how they should look in the pulpit or platform.

One response to Thom Rainer said no one was asking that everyone needs to wear a suit. “The statement was ‘your best.’ I believe Jesus and John wore their best,” the responder wrote. “If it’s all you have then it is indeed your best. It seems to be there are a lot of folks looking for a fight, assuming ‘facts not stated.’ Jumping to conclusions, and, basically, talking about things they know nothing about. It really perplexes me the fear and anxiety the word ‘best’ creates. Some think doing, wearing, being your best is some kind of sin.”

Thom Rainer said from the get-go in his piece that “I must disclose a clear bias of mine. I do not like neckties. They are too similar to a hanging noose for my comfort.” The reaction to this question of dress for clergy will likely go on for a long time. But when it comes down to it, Rainer’s six “thoughts” are good ones—and not exhaustive, but not likely to tamper down the uproar out there for pastoral attire.

Topics: Leadership, Ministry, Preaching

Ronald Keener
Ronald E. Keener was editor of the national business and leadership magazine, "Church Executive," for eight years, and writes from Chambersburg, Pa.

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