How to dress for public ministry

There are situations in which clothing is very important. I found this out by accident once, when I walked into a furniture store, coincidentally wearing the same sort of shirt as the employees. I had to leave because the other customers expected me to wait on them.

Clothing conveys a message. A business suit says, “Money!” A police uniform says, “Law!” A tuxedo says, “Wedding!” Casual clothing says, “Me!” Clericals say, “Church!” Any of those messages might be valid in different contexts, so you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes for the occasion. If you wear a business suit in a department store, people will mistake you for the manager. If you wear a tuxedo to a ball game, they won’t ask you to play. If you wear a jogging outfit to a fancy restaurant, your clothing says, “I wandered in here by mistake,” and the staff will treat you accordingly.

The word clericals refers to the special clothing that clergy wear outside of worship services, usually consisting of a white collar on a black shirt (for male clergy) or on a black blouse (for female clergy), combined with other clothing that is either black or grey.

If you are a pastor and you think you are aggrandizing yourself when you wear clericals, you’ll be disappointed. The congregation quickly gets used to the clericals and they see them as badges of service, not honor. Clericals put you in the same functional category as bellhops, waiters, police officers, airline pilots, and so on. We do not dress to please ourselves, or anyone else for that matter; our manner of dress facilitates our service. It makes our function obvious to strangers. It makes our duties inescapable, and it constrains our personal conduct, because we can’t disappear into the crowd when we are wearing clericals. Clericals mean that visitors don’t have to ask, “Where is the pastor?” They know just by looking.

Clericals also have other advantages. They communicate to the congregation that you are not a proxy child, a potential date, a worldly expert, or a bosom buddy. It allows you to focus on the job of pastoring, without slipping and sliding into those role conflicts and boundary issues your denomination keeps warning you about.

A friend of mine, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ, was required by his ministerial association to wear a clergy shirt with a tab collar while he was traveling. He thought it was a huge imposition on his personal liberty, until he obeyed. On the airplane, he heard a confession, reassured a frightened traveler, and calmed a terrified child. He was delighted that a routine air flight had turned into pastoral ministry. If you are clergy and you’ve never worn a clergy shirt to visit people in the hospital, you should try it. The clergy shirt means you don’t have to explain what you are or why you are there. The staff extends you all necessary courtesies, and even delirious patients know right off what you are. You can get in after visiting hours and quite often you don’t have to pay for parking, even if you’ve never been to that particular hospital before. Of course the catch is, you have to be on your best ministerial behavior the entire time you are there, so this is not something you should try if your self-discipline is weak.

If I called the police because of a burglary in my house, I would not be reassured if the police showed up driving a sports car with his kids in the back, and wearing jeans and loafers. If I am in distress because of a crime, I want the police to arrive in a police car and I want them to be wearing freshly pressed uniforms. If I have just been through a burglary, I don’t need a buddy, I don’t need a narcissist expressing himself in his clothing, I need a policeman. I need a policeman who will carry out the law, not his self-expression. I couldn’t care less about who he is personally; I called him as a representative of a greater force. Similarly, if I am on my deathbed, facing the greatest spiritual crisis in my life, I don’t want a buddy to come express himself. I want a properly uniformed and equipped minister of God who subordinates himself to his ministry, and who confidently and authoritatively represents God.

Our parishioners deserve nothing less.

When you visit people in the hospital or in jail, for example, what sort of message do you convey with your clothing? If you show up in casual clothes, you are trying to say, “I’m just one of the gang,” but they hear the message, “I’m not taking this seriously.” If you show up in a business suit, you are trying to say, “I’m a well-dressed capable person,” but they hear the message, “I’m a man of the world.”

When you are watching television, you can tell right off what sort of character has just appeared on the screen, because script writers take advantage of our cultural stereotypes to dress the characters to give us the right first impression. For example, if the character is supposed to be an inhibited secretary, they pull her hair back in a bun, put glasses on her face, and give her plain make up. When she loses her inhibitions, they signal the change by removing the glasses, letting her hair down, and improving her make up. Very few actresses play romantic scenes with their hair up in a bun.

So have you been paying attention to the way they dress the characters who are supposed to be clergy? Because women are relatively new to ministry, they almost invariably appear in tab-collar blouses. However, the men tell us what sort of ministers they are by the way they are dressed:

  • If the minister is a shyster who is fleecing his flock for their money, he is most often wearing a sports coat and tie.
  • If the minister is the manipulative type who is gradually transforming his congregation into a mind-control cult, he is most often wearing a well-tailored business suit.
  • If the minister is an activist who is crusading against the establishment, he is most often wearing casual clothing, with a tab-collar shirt under his sweater or leather jacket.
  • If the minister is competent and respectable, and if he is performing a valuable spiritual service (such as a wedding, funeral, or exorcism) in a dignified setting, he is most often wearing clericals on the street and vestments in church.

Objection: But Jesus Didn’t Wear Clericals!

Now of course there is the objection that Jesus allegedly wore the clothing of the working man, not special clothes of the clergy. The assertion doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny in Scripture. In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as “teacher,” which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word “rabbi.”

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
—John 1:38, NIV

Without knowing who He was (that is, Jesus), they knew what He was (that is, a rabbi), because they asked him to do rabbinical things: to heal the sick, cast out demons, settle disputes, probate wills, and decide religious issues:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
—Mark 10:17, NIV

If they thought He was a rabbi, these were reasonable expectations, because those were the duties of rabbis. However, in John 7, Jesus attends a festival at the Temple and even though everyone is talking about Him, they are unaware that He is among them in the crowd. Since there was no photography in those days, we can understand that strangers would not recognize Him by His face. There was no television newscaster to say, “Galilean rabbi draws large crowds with His controversial miracles—film at eleven.”

However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the Temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”
—John 7:10-15, NIV

So we have to ask: how could they know He was a rabbi in one circumstance, but not in another? Why were people surprised by His expertise at the Feast in John 7:10-15, when they took it for granted in situations such as Mark 10:17? The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed. When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi; the surprise was not that He was a rabbi, but how He handled their requests. In John 7, they did not recognize Him as a rabbi, so they were surprised that He knew rabbinical things. He must not have been dressed as a rabbi. The only way He could attend the Feast “in secret” was to go without wearing rabbinical clothes.

While Jesus definitely did not wear a black shirt with a white collar, He obviously wore the first-century equivalent. So clergy who wear clericals are imitating Christ. I think the clergy who do not wear clericals have the more difficult position to defend.

Objection: Some People Have an Adverse Reaction to Clericals!

Conflict-avoidant people raise this objection, but there are two problems with letting other people’s phobias dictate your wardrobe. The first is that you are not solving their problem by changing your clothes, you are only letting it fester unresolved. The second is that if you are driven by your own fears of what other people will think of you, you’re on a slippery slope to second-guessing yourself into total ineffectiveness as the Rev. Milquetoast. If someone has a problem with clerical dress, at least this exposes it so you can help them overcome it. I observe, however, that this problem is more apprehension than substance.

Recently, a colleague of mine visited my church. I knew he had a chasuble and that he liked it, so I invited him to bring it and wear it—which he did. One of my parishioners admired the chasuble. When I told her that he doesn’t wear it in his own church because he’s afraid his congregation won’t like it, she looked very frustrated and said, “Sometimes you just have to assert yourself!”

A person who is assertive without being authoritarian or bossy is said to have a strong character.

Objection: But a Collar Would Make Me Look Catholic (or whatever)!

Don’t bet on this one, either. One Sunday I went to lunch with some of my parishioners. The restaurant was so crowded that you couldn’t exhale without saying “excuse me” to someone. As we got up to leave, we walked past a booth with a well-dressed family. Their son was sitting on a chair at the end of the table. The young man grabbed me by the hand and said, “Pastor!” Then he saw my face and was confused that I wasn’t who he thought I was. He said, “You are a pastor, aren’t you?” and I said, “Yes, I’m pastor of Garfield Memorial Christian Church,” and gave his father my card. The father explained that they were members of a Lutheran megachurch that is nearby. The young man asked me, “Is Garfield a Lutheran church?” and I said, “No,” and turning to his mother who was looking at me, I said, “However, if you sat in our church blindfolded, I bet you couldn’t tell the difference.” And the father nodded, saying we are all alike.

The reason this happened is that for the young man, the collar made me look Lutheran. To an Episcopalian, it would make me look Episcopalian. In some areas, it would make me look Methodist. Orthodox clergy have taken to wearing black shirts with white collars. Recently someone wrote to me to say that in his country, rabbis wear black shirts with white collars.

My parishioners who witnessed this exchange were very proud of their church. In their minds, it made our little church just as important as the Lutheran megachurch, because I received the same treatment as the Lutheran pastor for whom I had been initially mistaken. This is not a bad thing.

And by the way, the inventor of the clergy shirt, the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod, was not Catholic.

Objection: None of This Applies to my Congregation!

You may be surprised on this one, too.

Some time ago, I attended the installation of a pastor. Her church was a startup, so the installation service took place in another church’s building. She had worked out all the arrangements with the host pastor over the phone, so she had never seen him before. The startup church was Disciples of Christ and the host church was one of those independent community megachurches. Neither congregation had ever experienced clergy wearing clericals before; I was the only one there in a collar, so this was definitely the acid test.

I severely overestimated my travel time, so I arrived at the church much too early. As I was standing in the narthex in my clergy shirt, the guest of honor walked in the door. She walked right up to me and began thanking me profusely for everything I had done. She had mistaken me for the pastor of the host church—whom she had never seen before—even though she had no reason to expect the pastor of an independent community church to wear a collar.

About a half hour later, someone else mistook me for the host pastor, which was very embarrassing for him, because he was standing right next to me at the time. Later, I was mistaken for the host pastor a third time! Now all the other clergy were beginning to feel a little out of uniform, because I was the only one whom lay people perceived as clergy.

After the service was over, someone complimented me on my lovely wife, which was strange, because I’m not married. Then I realized that the person had met the pastor’s wife and presumed I was her husband—after all, I was the one wearing the collar.

All this happened in an environment where it was not customary for clergy to wear collars.

The lesson is that if you dress like a minister, everyone will think you are one.

Full Circle

So we come full circle. Maybe if you are ordained clergy, and you wear a black shirt with a white collar, someone will come up to you and ask, “Pastor, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

A black shirt with a white collar makes you look like ordained clergy. If that is what you really are, why not dress like it?