Church Issues

Why is the Pastor Wearing That?!

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.


24 thoughts on “Why is the Pastor Wearing That?!

    • Seersucker suits, bow-ties, and white saddle shoes are to the suited crowd what diesel jeans, graphic tees, and large leather watch bands are to the hipster crowd. So I guess you could call seersuckers the ECF garb for a suit-wearing church.

    • Matt H. says:

      As a Southerner, I find it quite practical if you go to a more formal church.  It lets you wear a suit comfortably when it’s 90 degrees + outside.  I do wear a bow tie often, so I guess it means I’m in the ECF crowd.  Oh, well…

  1. Jedidiah says:

    Thanks Sam! Let me know what you guys decide to do.

    I wonder if someday ECF would be identified with the other options. What if robe-wearing comes back into style?

    Your post makes me think a general philosophy of what we hope will happen at worship determines the decision. The attraction of a traditional liturgical service with trad. liturgical garb to me is a sort of timelessness (although that’s not totally true as your first picture shows) but also its rootedness in a well developed theology of worship that is broader than recent American Evangelicalism. Because of the richly symbolical nature of liturgical worship the clothing of the minister can become more than a stylistic option too, it can reflect, something about the gospel. But I don’t wear a robe Sundays so who am I to talk?

  2. 1manofgod says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Churches where the Pastor was somewhere between 4 and 5.
    I’ve attended a Church or 2 where a robe was the norm. I always thought, “WOW!! They must be extra special.” In such cases, I was more attentive to them and what made them so apparently different than I was their message and its distinction. I won’t try to put my attitudes/thoughts forward as the norm though. I do enjoy being, at least apparently, on common ground with those I worship with and receive the Word from. I think it really speaks of normalcy and the universal need of the Gospel. In such environments (between 4-5), I have not failed to see folks who still dress in suits, slacks, polos, etc. Though in the robed and suited Pastor environment, I’ve rarely seen jeans. That doesn’t mean anything though.
    I think this was a well-balanced writing, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Good food for thought.

  3. Pingback: How Pastors Should Dress in the Pulpit

  4. Greg says:

    Christians should give a pastor the benefit of the doubt, trusting that he knows what clothes best serve the particular calling and ministry God has given him.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Another major issue about wearing a robe is that it brings a level of formality that is not always desired.”

    I can’t think of anything more “formal” than an audience with the King.

    I wear my vestments precisely because they do not draw attention to me as an individual: rather, they point to the office I hold, just as a judge’s robe emphasizes the office of the bench rather than the man who occupies that office.

    If I were CEO of the church I might preach and celebrate the Eucharist in a business suit, but I’m not.

    • Hey man, so glad you commented.

      I’m curious if folks in Louisiana, especially non-Christians, get that your robe is meant to draw attention to your office as pastor rather than to you as an individual. Do they? Or do you have to teach them about that? How do you minister to the non-Christian who walks into your service and is prone to think of you as a judge or a priest because they are unfamiliar with the gospel use of robes in church history?

      I’m sincerely curious about your answer. I wore a robe for the first 6 years of my ministry and never felt like I explained it very well, especially to new Christians or non-Christian, first-time visitors.

    • My first reaction is that if you truly would like to know my thinking on this, DM me your e-mail address on Twitter, because I’m not interested in getting flamed by a bunch of “missional” people telling me how stupid/nonspiritual/insensitive (check all that apply) I am for believing as I do. And yes, that has happened to me before. Lots of times.

      Having said that, I will go back up to what a previous commenter said about giving pastors the benefit of the doubt in their sartorial choices and give you the benefit of the doubt in your motive(s) for asking. I believe that non-Christians are going to be mystified by EVERYTHING in the service, not merely what I’m wearing. Whether it’s “Rock of Ages” or “Shine Jesus Shine” they will not know what the heck we’re singing (or why). Passing the plate has got to be weird. Whether we stand, sit, or kneel to pray, public prayer will be weird. The first time I went to synagogue with friends I had not one clue what to expect. Everything was unfamiliar. Fortunately I could read Hebrew, which helped, but whether or not the rabbi had a robe or a suit on was the least of my concerns! And to tell you the truth. I can’t remember what he was wearing: I was too busy trying to keep up with the service. If a non-believer comes to church and I’m in a robe, then that’s just “what we do,” just like at Temple Beth-El when they took the Torah scroll out of the Ark and everybody stood up. I just assumed that’s what they did.

      Whenever we have visitors, I do some sort of “instructed” or “narrated” liturgy, talking to people about the rhyme and reason to the shape of the liturgy and the various elements of it. And yes, I do frequently talk about why I’m in a robe (whether we have visitors or not). They know I’m “not into the little outfits,” as I often say, especially on a summer day when I’m sweltering up there!

      Our service is catholic by design. We have found that Christians of all stripes: RC, Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, and yes, even Baptist, can each find SOMETHING in the service that they can identify with and hang onto. People appreciate the connectedness to the universal church, both the church around the world and down through the ages. And vestments are a part of that connectedness.

      Not sure what the “folks in Louisiana” comment was all about. We have shoes and indoor plumbing, and even universities! (I teach at one of them.)

    • Ha John Id suggest that what you just said above would put you in the totally-non-traditional-presbyterian camp in the PCA. Especially a worship that is “catholic” by design.

      Also you’ll notice that none of the styles above were put down in general (other than the crazy robe dude but thats not normal or typical).

    • @knowtea – well I’d hope you’d admit that there is a range that is consider too formal for worship, as space where social everyone is on pins and needles, as to become a distraction from the Presence of a God who speaks to Kings and Shepherds alike.
      Lets say for instance your service everyone showed up in tuxedos and formal gowns–whether or not it might be acceptable culturally (at least in America) that would probably consider too formal.

    • The “tuxedos and formal gowns” thing must be in a book somewhere or have been used by some missional speaker or something, because I had that thrown in my face (in those very words) not long ago when trying to talk about this subject. So please see my comment to Joe (above) about not wanting to be flamed by all the missional “cool kids.” At any rate, since our service is at 10:30 a.m., tuxedos and evening gowns would not be acceptable or appropriate at all. If our service were at 8:00 p.m. perhaps, but only the cool people have their principal service at night, and I’m one of those nonspiritual “traditional” types who doesn’t really love Jesus, believe the Bible, or care about the lost (or so it is often reported concerning those of my ilk). Besides, 8 p.m. is past our bedtime. Sorry for the bitterness but I have really grown weary of the condescension of “missional” people toward those who hold to more “traditional” views.

      I believe that when Hebrews 12:29 says “Let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire,” then that means there is a type of worship that is unacceptable–namely, worship that is not characterized by reverence and awe. And I just don’t see how a “casual” approach can communicate either reverence OR awe. In all of the “casual” churches I’ve been in, it communicated a “Jesus is my buddy/boyfriend” vibe instead. Maybe not what they were going for, but that’s where it was.

      Our society has become casual about EVERYTHING. Maybe it’s worth communicating that there are some things about which we shouldn’t be so casual. And yes, that God spoke to kings and shepherds alike, but when he did “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and “they were filled with fear.” When John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” possibly Jesus’ best friend during his ministry (he entrusted his own mother to John, after all) saw the risen Christ, he “fell at his feet as though dead.” Not a casual response at all, and this from someone who had more reason to be familiar with Jesus than anyone.

  6. Let me give a personal example of the decision making process this entails: I decided against wearing a robe because we were already bringing a liturgy that was much higher than most people are used to already, the thought being that it would make worship too distant from the rest of our church life if we were to have both formal dress and formal liturgy. It was either going to be a robe or casual, I chose to spend more visible communication on the ordinaryness of the Christian experience. It was a decision that means that in a few weeks when we come to Paul’s passage in 1 Corinthians 9 about the labor being worth his wage I’ll have to spend more time talking about the office of an elder in the church. Whereas It might have been something we talk about more often in less detail if I had worn a robe.
    It was a missiological freedom which we had. (Maybe sometime Ill write about the freedom side of the Regulative Principle)

    • Only one more comment from me (for now). For me, walking into a liturgical service in which the presiding minister was not vested, my thoughts would be “he’s not taking this seriously enough” or “he’s not really committed to liturgical worship.” Now, that may very well not be the case, but that is what the incongruity of a liturgical service led by a casually-clad minister would suggest to me. It would be like serving chili cheese fries with sushi. Individually each is fine, but they just don’t work together. I would process that as a church that is somehow embarrassed that it has a liturgical form of worship and is apologizing for it with casual attire. Again, I’m not assigning motives: that’s just how it would seem to me as someone visiting such a church.

  7. Tim LeCroy says:

    Sam, we’ve talked before, and you probably know that I prefer both a liturgy which is well thought biblically and historically and ministerial garb which is historical and ecumenical. However, I commend your choice of a liturgical service, and think that they form for worship is much more important than the clothes anyone in the room is wearing. Yet, while saying this, I have a hunch that as you continue to worship with historically, ecumenically, and biblically sensitive liturgies you and your congregation will find yourself after a number of years leaning toward the use of liturgical vestments, paraments, etc. The form and the function to fit quite naturally on this.

  8. I think the real challenge is that sometimes folks fall into an all or nothing view of interacting with a history. While Im not simply talking about a buffet approach, I think we have the ability to not participate in historic patterns when present realities make them less productive.

  9. Drew Jones says:

    As a PCA minister laboring in Japan, I’d love some chili cheese fries with my sushi…


  10. Reverand to be Matt Gibson says:

    the alb all the way! I plan to minister in the PCA ( still got a lot of years and college first) but I totally plan to wear both the collar ( weekday street uniform) and the alb, stole and amice for all services.
    BTW, the thing is church is not about style, it’s about our utmost for HIS highest. It’s about representing ( as a minister) Christ to the congregation. Jeus did not wear a buisness suit or 16th century academic gown. If a an played the role Geaorge Washington giving his farewell address you wouldn’t see him wearing a pair of jeans or a 20th century buisness suit. He wear what GW would have worn. When a minster preaches and administer the Eucharist, he is “role playing” so to speak our Lord Jesus Christ.
    One last note, the high church traditions are drawing young people because unlike styles 4-6 it’s not concerned with being cool, trendy or appealing. It is real, uplifting and not trying to “get the youth” or “be like you.”
    God calls us to a high standard, a standard of holiness. By grace, He takes our rags of sin and clothes us in a His marvelous righteousness. Should we drop our standards because ” we might turn people off” when God says the world will usually hate us ( until His grace works)?

  11. Andrew says:

    What about the evangelist who gives a sermon in the church. How should he dress? Would a baseball cap be acceptable?

  12. David k says:

    I live daily this my friend is a worship leader ie v-neck wearer. My other friend is a youth leader ie tattooed bearded guy me I’m odd man out teaching pastor ie business casual. All love Jesus. All serve him with a whole heart. All different.

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