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What Not to Wear

I’ve received a surprising number of links and blogs about how ministers should dress. But the ones I’ve seen have been about street-clothes/civvies. As I recall, one author was inordinately enthralled with pocket squares. Really!

I’d like more advice on what to wear while leading worship.

For the past 25 years, I’ve worn an off-white alb, a rope-like cincture and a stole the color of the church season. And I’m not likely to change, but I’m open to attempts at persuasion.

I can think of three reasons I dress as I do for worship.

  • First, my seminary field-ed assignments were in Episcopal and Lutheran congregations—where I wore an alb. I’ve heard it said that we all lock into the clothes we’re wearing when we’re about 25 and we wear them for a lifetime. Maybe it’s true for worship garb too.
  • Second, I specifically remember paging through a church-supply catalog after receiving my first call. Albs were about $75 and came in a few basic sizes. Geneva robes were about $350 and needed to be fitted for each person. My mind was quickly made up. I’m still wearing that same alb.
  • Third, given my first two reasons, I admit that I’ve sort of backed-into this reason. Nonetheless, I’ve come to think that an alb is nicely anonymous and sets a good tone for worship. With my white alb, gray hair, white skin, standing against a white wall in a white pulpit, I joke that like the invisible man, if it weren’t for my glasses, I would be undetectable. I know that people say they want real pastors, real humans with real problems and real hearts leading worship, vulnerable ministers, self-disclosive preachers. That’s not a bad thing. But there is still a place for pointing away from self and toward Jesus.

For the past year, a group of people in my congregation have been thinking and praying about our future, our direction, our mission. Part of what we’ve done is visit a great variety of churches across the spectrum. Observing. Learning. Questioning. We’ve seen ministers dressed in all sorts of ways. While it has hardly been the focus of our discussions, there has been some talk about the way my wife and co-pastor, Sophie, and I dress for worship. The possible issues aren’t surprising.  Are our albs too traditional, too churchy, off-putting, etc? I’m not closed to switching to something else, but what?

As mentioned above, economics was more decisive than high-minded thinking in choosing an alb over a robe. But allow me some after-the-fact high-mindedness. And any robe-wearers that want to explain or defend, please share. Albs feel rooted in the church, robes in academia (especially when they have hash-marks on the sleeve). Robes seem stodgy, an older generation than me—but that may be more a reflection of my childhood than anything else.

Several years ago, I wore a suit and tie for a service, mainly because the alb can be a hassle and a bit of a trip-hazard. After the service, several people complimented me on my tie. I decided then to stick with my alb. I like compliments as much as anyone else and I appreciate nice ties. But I didn’t like the idea of people scrutinizing my clothes during worship. My alb seems to keep the focus appropriately off me in worship.

Suits, ties, coats, business-casual? Too corporate? It’s easy to bash the suit as a symbol of “the man,” the “traditional” church, uppity and aging. Yet I’m often struck by all the places we still expect and are perfectly comfortable with men in ties—news and sportscasters, weddings, court and Congress, etc. Most of the time I wear a coat and tie to church on Sunday before I put on my alb. But if I were to give up my alb, I’m not inclined to lead worship in a suit. In that role, I’m not an emcee or Congressman.  And I don’t want people liking last Sunday’s tie better than this week’s.

Hawaiian print shirt with cargo shorts? They’re almost de rigueur, part of the traditionally contemporary church. I don’t wear them any other time, why on Sunday? I would look like a desperate poser.

Perhaps my typical casual, work-a-day clothes? Khakis with a polo shirt or Oxford cloth (see note above about locking into to certain clothes at age 25 and not changing!) Would this put guests and the unchurched at ease? Would it make me more human and approachable? I wear them five days a week so it wouldn’t be like I was a phony. I should feel comfortable in them. I would still be concerned about which color shirt and will people analyze. But the same could be said of weekdays and that doesn’t concern me much. So maybe khakis and a shirt would just take some getting used to on my part.

Give up my alb for this? I don’t know. Can’t quite do it—yet. Input and opinions welcome

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Paul Janssen says:

    Acknowledging that what I wear would not pass muster with the real liturgical folks… On ordinary Sundays, I wear a black robe with a stole per the season, and a pectoral cross. Underneath ( not way under), a plain shirt with a solid tie that goes with the season. And pants. Haha. On Sacramental Sundays, an off – white alb, cincture the color of the season, and a stole, the same. And a pectoral cross. I still feel finny with just the alb, as it is technically an undergarment. Sobeit. We are amcrazy quilt when it comes to dress anyway. I findthat whats more important than whatever one wears is being intentional about it, and using it as a teaching tool. But, not to draw attention to myself, or to use the garments to express my own opinion.

  • Randy Lubbers says:

    At first, I wore a black Geneva robe (usually with either a simple white stole or a rainbow stole given to me by Carolyn's sisters) because the robe was the only thing I owned. And it seemed the right choice, graduating from a Presbyterian seminary and heading to a Presbyterian church for my first call. Later I bought an off-white alb to wear during Advent and Lent and for sacraments with stoles in the seasonal colors, sometimes matching the fabric and style/themes of the paraments as our church gradually purchased new sets of paraments. Lately though, in the summer, I've been dressing down with khakis and a nice polo shirt. Sometimes with Birks–no socks or my daughter would have my head. In some ways I much prefer the alb–it feels more ecumenical and humble than the robe. However the robe is much, much easier to wear than the alb—- maybe I need an easier alb than the wrap style I have but I'm always feeling hassled trying to get it to lay right and not bunch up… and for the hem to be straight… etc. I really like the alb in the summer because I can wear it over shorts and a tee with sandals. But lately I guess I've been lazy.

  • Ron Rienstra says:

    Hi Steve.

    As I’m fond of saying in class sometimes, just about everything in worship communicates something. The worship leader's choice of clothing communicates – implicitly or explicitly – certain theological convictions. It seems to me that one of the most important of these has to do with the source of pastoral authority.

    I remember when I graduated from a presbyterian school, and like you, thinking about the expensive black robe. Like you, it was too pricey. But its meaning isn’t to signal “I’ve got $300 to throw around.” The Genevan gown with white tabs and perhaps sleeve chevrons – resembles and indeed has its historical roots in the medieval garb of the academy. So it’s a common liturgical choice for Protestants (particularly of the Reformed flavor) who have always valued an educated clergy. Wearing such a robe, we communicate that our preaching authority comes from mastery of a certain body of knowledge. (That knowledge, of course, has largely to do with the Bible, hence the understanding that the protestant pastor’s primary purpose is preaching).

    You also note a secondary function of the robe: to signal that the person preaching is not just the same Steve who you see at Jaarsma's and with whom you chat about the dry weather. No, when Steve dons the black robe (or any robe, or uniform, really), he steps into an institutional office, and creates a bit of distance between himself and the congregation. He speaks as God's representative.

    It seems to me that the everyday clothes you mention – whether suit and tie or hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts or khakis and polo shirt — shrink that distance altogether. They say "I'm not that special – I’m one of you." Here, I think the theological ground for pastoral authority comes not from learning, but from location — from the congregation. At their request, the pastor steps out from among them briefly in order to speak a Word from God to them. This increasingly popular choice seems quite natural in an era where folks are suspicious of hierarchy and institutional authority; especially in the USA, where democratic and egalitarian values run deep.

    The white alb you mention communicates something different yet. Its origin is in the simple Roman tunic. But I’m sure you know that very early in the church’s history, a simple white covering came to be used as ‘resurrection’ uniform. It was donned when the newly baptized would come out of the water, and would symbolically “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27). So I think that we when we wear a white alb as a pastor, we communicate that our authority finds its source in baptism: in being identified as a child of God, a member of the body of Christ, called to ministry, gifted by the Holy Spirit. (The rope-like cincture, by the way, communicates a Petrine obedience, being ‘dressed by someone else and going where you do not want to go’ [John 21:18]. There are days in ministry where this would be the most fittingly meaningful piece of liturgical garb!).

    Of course, these aren’t the only options. One can imagine contemporary hybrids. Think of a pastor who wears common clothing: Khakis; and then, a modern alb: a simple, white, collar-less shirt. This is the same every week to avoid the “ooh! look at the pastor’s tie!” distraction you speak of. But then to signal connection to and derived authority from the church, add one difference: a short stole or prayer shawl or even a simple vest — in a solid color corresponding to the liturgical season, and matching decorative fabrics on the communion table and perhaps the pulpit. A contemporary vest-ment, if you will.

    Some will object that congregations are not likely to have all (or any) of this in their minds and hearts when they think about what their pastors wear. True enough. So I think it’s a good idea to explain it. Liturgical practices and symbols bear meaning at multiple levels, and they do their best work — expressing and shaping our convictions, our passions, even our behaviors — when we tell each other what we mean by them from time to time.

    Thanks for giving me a soap-box to do so myself. How often does a geeky worship-wonk like me actually get asked to say something about the tiny sliver of the world I know something about?

  • Linda says:

    How about people in congregation commenting on your wild and very colorful socks you wear during the week and on Sundays. Your socks are very noticeable when you deliver your sermon sitting on a stool down in front of the pulpit. Your Sunday socks are probably way more flashy than the socks worn by any of the gentlemen sitting in the sanctuary.

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