The more I look around at different churches I realize that dress is one of the most diverse issues seen in churches today. It turns out that there are a lot of varying expectations out there about how people dress at church, and the heaviest expectations are often placed on the people who are up front the most (ie. the Pastors or Elders of a church). Let’s be honest: in some respects, this is fair. What a leader wears will affect the style for the rest of the church; it will encourage or challenge the way other people dress when they go to worship and even how they reflect on the purpose of gathering for worship at all. Some people might figure that there is some set rule–there isn’t (at least not in the Presbyterian tradition).

I’d suggest that there is more of a variety of opinions on this issue than any other time in recent church history. From robes to ripped blue jeans, the way church leaders dress in church is incredibly varied in the 21st century American Context.

The really interesting thing seems to be the apparent variety, even for pastors within the same denomination.

A number of questions might come up surrounding this topic in general, and addressing some of them up front might give us a chance to lay some ground work down so we are all headed in the same direction.

Why is this becoming more of an issue today?

Well, thanks to technology we are closer to each other than we have ever been before. With cheap video options, more churches are putting videos online. This means I can attend hundreds of services on any given weekend, all from the comfort of my couch. On top of this, most churches realize that people care a lot about dressing right, so they often put pictures of the pastor wearing their Sunday clothes on their website, so that visitors know what to expect.
In addition most people carry in their pocket a mobile production studio, so a few quick flashes of a camera phone can send an image to the web and around the world in a few hours.
Because of all this we have the ability to be nebby about how other pastors dress. (Nebby is a Pittsburghese word that means nosy but most people in Pittsburgh at some point can be called nebby so it’s not as mean.)

This means that I can find out that Mark Driscoll wore a mickey mouse shirt when he preached one Sunday. I can find out that normally Ligon Duncan wear robes, and that Al Mohler is most often seen preaching in a suit.

The flip side of living in the 21st century is that while we might be closer, localism and cultural contextualisation have become more of a reality in most churches. This means that even in a ten mile area you might find different churches having meaningful reasons for different dressing habits in their church (and they might all be in the same denomination).

What do you mean by worship?

Well, sure. While all of life is meant to be focused on glorifying God, I’m specifically referring to how pastors and elders dress when they are leading a gathering that has the specific purpose of worshiping God.

Why the focus on Pastor in worship and not during the rest of the week?

Well to be honest, I’ve decided to stick to just times of group worship for churches, because this is a blog post and not a thesis project. It’s just too much to cover such a vast topic and I think we would have to establish a lot more theology concerning pastoral calling before coming to the question of what a pastor wears in order to reflect his calling during the week.  For good or bad (and I say that because I’m not quite sure), pastors often dress differently in situations where they are up front leading than they do when they are going about less prominent work.
With a few remarks out of the way, here is my plan of attack: as I’ve looked at different churches, five major style categories have seemed to keep coming up time after time. What I going to do now is explain and examine each one of these styles. In each I’m going to try to explain the arguments I’ve heard for why this style makes sense. I’m also going to talk about some benefits and some dangers found in each style. Let me warn you up front—different people have different reasons for arguing their individual styles, and I can’t cover them all.

1. Robes

Robes are by far the most historically-connected style of pastoral dress out there (Please don’t let the first image throw you off). Robes started out as the default way to dress, and over time they went from being used for practical purposes to holding more symbolic use. During the Reformation, church robes underwent major changes. What we see today as the Geneva Robe was actually the outside part of the scholarly robe worn in the Renaissance. The plain white robe, called an Alb (which seems to be growing in popularity) was originally the base of numerous different types of garb.

Wearing a robe can covey one’s sense of connectedness to the historic Church (not to mention  the Church throughout the world). It can also take the attention off the individual style of one pastor over another (both the young punk and the old vet can come across as being simple ministers of the gospel, and even share a teaching time with out people wrongly focusing on surface differences).

When it comes to challenges, I think Mark Driscoll is right on this one – most people don’t have a lot of contact with people in robes outside of the church (So someone might call you a Jedi). This means that if you go this route you will have to often explain to people why you are dressed is such a manner, but  that is by no means a deal breaker.

Another major issue about wearing a robe is that it brings a level of formality that is not always desired. While some doors might be opened by this church garb, other people might be turned off. Additionally if you are a pastor in an area that is, or was, heavily Catholic, a robe might wrongly associate you with the Roman Catholic Church — and no one likes a bait and switch approach to faith. (“While I look like a Catholic and we sound Catholic let me explain the many advantages of our Reformed system”.)

The other major challenge to wearing a robe seems to be connected to the idea that we don’t need anyone but Jesus to give us access to God. Robes say authority and uniqueness. While this might get you a lot of kind remarks on Sunday I’d worry that people would fall into the “ministry is for the professionals” trap.

2. Suits


It seems that some time in the beginning of the twentieth century, ministers started hanging up their robes and started preaching in the suits that they were wearing underneath. (After all, if you wore a suit to go to a bread line there is a good chance you had one on under your robe.) For many pastors going into a new church, the suit is the default style. Very few people will be offended if the Minster is wearing a suit, while if you dress down anymore, a more formal church might think you aren’t as serious about your responsibilities. There are a whole bunch of reasons that people might use to argue for wearing a suit to preach. Some of them are: ‘If you’d wear a suit to meet the president, why not wear one when you go to meet God?’; ‘If you were going for a job interview you’d wear a suit. Is a job more important than God?’.  Others might simply suggest that wearing a suit or at the very least trousers, a tie and jacket, communicate that you are serious, that you rightly understand the importance of preaching and leading worship.

On the down side, suits (and the reasoning behind them) can tend to force members into a great textile arms race, where suit proliferation threatens to turn the church into a corporate board meeting. The real danger in everyone dressing formally in church lies with the fact that not everyone owns a suit or can even afford one, yet if wearing one is a prerequisite to church life, many might not feel comfortable visiting. It can also send the message that all leaders need to fit comfortably in white collar upper middle class America. Finally, from a theological perspective, the reasoning behind suits tends to encourage the idea that somehow we make ourselves presentable to God, before we can go and meet with him.

3. Business Casual

I think its fair to say that the business casual look for pastors is to a suit what a suit is to a robe. It’s still kind-of-formal in comparison, but with less perceived baggage. I’d put in this category khakis and a button-down shirt, maybe even a jacket or a tie, but not both (basically anything that would be acceptable at an outdoor country wedding). For many pastors, this style is a good way to get across the idea that you are accessible, and that you’re a normal person just like them. (Of course, some of this depends on how the rest of the church dresses.) If your church is more on the informal side, business casual is good so that if you do get a few people who have dressed more formally they don’t feel out of place. The business casual style is the uniter between formal and informal church style. While business casual is often intended to appease everyone, it sometimes can create the opposite effect. If a pastor were to wear khakis and a button down shirt to a church were everyone wore suits, people might misconstrue the style as lacking proper reverence. On the other side, if a pastor is preaching to a predominately blue collar church, wearing a jacket or a tie might wrongly convey a sense of middle class snobbery.

4. Casual

The pastor who dresses casually tends to dress at church the same way he would dress at most other outings.  Sure you might see a tie or jacket every once in a while, but most people out around town are wearing polos and jeans or some similar garb. A pastor who is dressed casually is often trying to communicate that we come to God with an understanding that nothing we do can make us acceptable before him. In a more formal church, dressing casually is a big no-no, but when done right it can set a tone that welcomes people who are not used to visiting a church gathering. While I call this style “casual,” it’s not so much about being comfortable (I wouldn’t put pajamas in this category), as it’s about being relatable, and communicating our shared need for grace. The down side of this style is that, for simple logistical reasons, it’s hard to find a pastor or leader if you are in a church where the leaders are dressed like everyone else. (I’ve known people who would suggest that a pastor as a leader of his community needs to dress one level above those around him—I remain unconvinced of this rationale.) It also means that if you aren’t dressing any differently for church than for most other social events, your church won’t be either. Therefore you might need to spend extra time on the idea of slowing down and turning our attention to God.

5. Everybody’s Cool Friend (ECF)

This style is probably the one that most people are least aware of, so give me a moment to explain. The “Everybody’s Cool Friend” style seeks to dress in the most trendy way in a given community. The rational behind this has not been discussed as much, but it is still in the back on many pastors minds. The logic goes that the pastor is often one of many competing voices in a person’s life, so the pastor is not only a spiritual leader but also must be a trend setter and be seen as culturally “with it” as any other savvy voice. Before too many people read “sellout” into this style, the ECF style is really a meta style. “Everybody’s Cool Friend” style can show up in a suit, but it will be a Don Draper cut of a suit (or maybe with a modern bow tie). It can show up in business casual but instead of khakis and a button down, you’ll see a tweed jacket and trousers (more akin to the coolest professor on campus look). In the causal style the ECF can end up looking very hip, sporting the latest fashion. The real mark of the ECF is the sense where a pastor is always seeking to be fashion-forward. While there really isn’t anything wrong with looking fashionable — and it might even be argued that style and art are things that church leaders need to embrace, especially if they are intersecting with a fashion forward group of people — the ECF can often make the pastor out to be the rich kid in school, the one whose mom always bought him the best stuff first. But what about the poor kid with the hand me downs, who got picked on by the rich kid? A danger of the ECF is that a pastor might come across as snobby or superficial (two things that are really destructive towards pastoral relationships).

Closing Thoughts

I’d like to end by taking a look at the following quote about clothing in church.

“It must first be observed that the wearing of particular clothing to mark a particular occasion or function appears to be so nearly universal in the history of human society that it may be regarded as a natural cultural law, departure from which is not only psychologically unhealthy, but also in practice all but impossible:

If, for example, the celebrant of the Eucharist today decides to wear ‘ordinary clothes’, they immediately cease, psychologically, to be ordinary clothes, and become another form of symbolic ecclesiastical garb, their very ordinariness making an extra ordinary theological or sociological point.

Second it must be noticed that in more than one religion there is a tendency for the formal ordinary dress of a formative period of that religion to become ecclesiastical vesture, and so to survive long after it has disappeared from use in any other context, attracting to itself in the course of historical development a symbolism and rationale which have little or nothing to do with its origins, and under the influence of which changes then take place in the vesture itself.” – W.J. Grisbrooke from the Study of Liturgy (edited by Cheslyn Jones).

So what’s he saying:

  1. Most of the time we are thinking about our clothing within the grid of different occasions. ie. Work clothes, “comfy pants”, running shoes, painting shirt, etc. Grisbrooke suggests it’s actually counter-intuitive to do differently. Additionally, clothing almost always has certain logic and symbolism behind it.
  2. If you see worship as a significant thing, then whatever clothes you wear will have certain symbolism. Dressed up, or dressed down, there will end up being some symbolic reason you dress that way. I’d say that as we consider the nature of communities, just because you might not know of any such rationale doesn’t mean that other people do not have such rationale.

If you’ve noticed I’ve tried not exalt or condemn any one of these styles, but I must say that I found W.J. Grisbrooke’s comments about the way we infuse meaning in ordinary things a helpful principle to keep in mind as I recently made certain decisions about the church I was called to plant in Pittsburgh. It turns out that no matter what style we adopt, we still have to do the hard work of explaining our rationale, and overcoming whatever downside that we inherit with a given style.