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“California is confusing when it comes to dress codes. Some people show up to business meetings in shorts and a polo and someone else will choose a pantsuit. Anything goes here. Well…sort of.”

This was the answer given to me last spring when I asked a woman on the pastoral search committee what this Michigan woman should wear to a Senior Pastor job interview in the Bay Area. Her answer was clear as sensible opaque stockings. 

I stared at the pile of possible interview options I had set on my bed. Safe to say none of those outfits included shorts and a polo. Black suit. Pack the black suit, Beth. And throw your fun orange blazer into the mix for the informal BBQ they’re throwing too. 

Heaven forbid I should lose the job because I showed up in the wrong clothes.

One of the things they don’t formally teach in seminary is that how you dress as a woman pastor is a thing. Believe me, we female identifying clergy talk about it, even if our male preaching professors never mentioned it. We groan together about the Sundays we accidentally wear dresses with no pockets for mic packs. We admire each other’s liturgically correct shoe collections, especially those chosen for Pentecost — cherry colored Converses all the way to red bottom Louboutin’s. 

But we especially talk about the things congregants say to us after the Sunday service. How we spend 20 hours pouring our souls and minds into a practical but theologically rich sermon for a Sunday. How we get up at 4:30 AM on a Sunday morning to spend a final 3 hours on our craft – choosing just the right words and praying for the specific folks in our congregation we want to be encouraged by those words. Then, at 9:30 AM we confidently step behind the pulpit and speak passionately, enthusiastically, laying our souls bare. Exhausted after the service, we step into fellowship time feeling a bit vulnerable wondering how our words hit and how congregants might respond. 

And then it begins. “I love those earrings.” “Your sermon was great but I found your knee length skirt distracting.” “Can you remember to pull your hair back when you preach? It hides your pretty face.” 

Certainly not all the remarks are about our appearance, but the ones we do get, even the compliments can feel reductive, confusing, and sometimes even insulting. It can make us women pastors focus inordinate amounts of precious time worrying about how we look instead of the quality of our work. Dressing for pastoring jobs is like picking a sermon title. You want something that is classy, interesting, and not too short. 

My clerical collar has been like a fashion life ring for me. When I took the call as the Senior Pastor at my church in California, I began wearing it each Sunday as my solution to the “anything goes in California…sort of” dilemma. At my former church in Michigan, we wore robes each week, which is the ultimate appearance equalizer. (Is she wearing sweatpants and a stained T-shirt or a designer blouse under there? Who knows?!) But robes are a bit too formal here. And certainly, in a place where Christianity is not the same cultural giant as it is in West Michigan, the collar prompts its own fellowship time questions. 

“Can I ask you, why do you wear that collar?” 

The energy behind this question is completely different. Many people have never seen a protestant clergyperson wear a collar before; the gender part is secondary. When people ask me about my collar, it is an invitation to a broader conversation, a curiosity about my faith tradition and values, a desire to learn and connect, not a critique of my physicality. And what pastor isn’t thrilled to enter into conversations like these?

I tell them with excitement that my reason is twofold. Wearing a black collared clergy shirt gets both my focus and the observations of others off my appearance and on my words. And more importantly, the ritual of inserting that white tab into my black shirt each Sunday morning centers me. It roots me in who I am, who I belong to, and to whom I am called. The collar grounds me. Like Lenten ashes on my forehead, the collar reminds me that God has marked me as beloved, as a woman who belongs, and as one forgiven and called. And that accessory is always in style. 

Now if I can only remember to wear pants with pockets.

Beth Carroll

Rev. Beth Carroll is the Senior Pastor of Oakland City Church in Oakland, California. She is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary and Hope College, both in Holland, Michigan.  She is married to Richard Perez, who is a theatre artist, and she has three kids - Josiah, Natalie, and a cat named Kate Spade.

38 Comments

  • Fred D Mueller says:

    Thanks for the insight into yet another labyrinth women face. I am a male minister and as in most things male am oblivious to the challenges women face. In his book Pitfalls in Preaching, Richard Eslinger gives a gentle exhortation to women in the pulpit not to try to be “seductive” in their presence to gain approval for their preaching. Then he comes back hard on the guys saying “not so fast!” Admit it men, you do gender things in your preaching too to gain appreciation. But honestly, my heart goes out to my women colleagues who must cope with this. You really showed us, Beth, what you face. In a somewhat related matter, I had a young friend in the ministry whose wife was taken aside after a worship service and told by one of the members of the church, “Do you know that is the third week in a row you have worn that same dress?” God help us. For a male? Someone could have said to me, “Do you know this is the third decade you’ve come in here in a black suit?” BTW, if you asking yourself how it is that a minister of the gospel is commenting on a blog at 7:43 in the morning on the Lord’s Day, this is called retirement. All I have to do this morning is take my two little grandsons to church and Sunday School and I don’t mind it one bit. (I won’t pretend however that I do not miss preaching. I am available any time to be a substitute preacher!)

  • Beth, this was a wonderful bit of thinking and writing. I remember my wife, Rev. Dr. Pamela Pater-Ennis going through this on many preaching assignments.

  • Kama Jongerius says:

    Beth, thanks for so beautifully articulating a common experience for clergy women! It took me down memory lane: someone distressed because the length of my liturgical robe didn’t cover the hem of my dress; a male parishioner admonishing me to smile more, and (in the 90’s) someone suggesting I was “too big and pregnant” to be leading worship. Although such experiences can become entertaining “Can you believe it?!” anecdotes, there is an underlying, maddening reality of sexism. This, of course, extends beyond our physical appearance. Thanks for being a bold, truth-telling leader walking in The Way!

  • James C Dekker says:

    Wonderful! Thank you. I am going to send this to my Michigan-based daughter, pastor, chaplain. And I’m guite sure you didn’t get the job because of what you were wearing or not wearing. Blessings and thanks again. jcd

  • Ann Conklin says:

    Thanks for your insight, Beth. The struggle is real! As another West Michigan woman serving a church in California (First Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara), we should connect sometime! The cultural differences are significant. Blessings to you and upon your ministry.

  • Jen Holmes Curran says:

    I totally know this. Once I wore a dress and someone shouted from the back “She’s got legs!!” I am just starting to learn about how people respond to my words differently too… vulnerability from a woman preacher means something different than it does from a male and gives people a different understanding of our relationship. Hopefully by the next generation they’ll know enough to be able to teach us these things in seminary. Or maybe they’ll start to fade as it becomes more common?

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Yes, another double standard in the church tilted against women and tinged–and maybe way more than just tinged–with sexism. But I will share that after my first preaching gig as a seminarian back in 1987, I was eager to see the sermon evaluations people in the congregation filled out. The first one said, “Nice blazer but don’t you own a whole suit?” That is a rare blip for me, though, but a constant critique for female pastors!

    • Beth Carroll says:

      *face palm* Seriously, I think some of this is connected to the ways we’ve been trained by consumerist media. I have two female friends who are TV anchors. The horrific things people say to them about their appearance is awful.

  • Amy Ceaser says:

    I enjoyed reading this and honestly can say I am shocked people would comment at all on someone’s appearance like that. Wowzers! I mean my students have made plenty of comments about my wardrobe in the past but they get a pass because they are teens. Who knew adults would think it was any of their business. 😉

  • Diana Walker says:

    Hillary Clinton spoke at Yale University a time or two ago. Her message was entitled “Hair Matters”. Her point was that regardless of her credentials, accomplishments and abilities, the Media at the time was forever reporting on her hairstyle. Long, short, bangs, headband etc.
    How sad is that!
    Will it ever change?

  • K Wynbeek says:

    I learned a lesson many years ago as a new teacher of high students when I was asked by an 11th grader
    how long it took me to get dressed in the morning. I was stunned by the question and asked why she asked me that. Her answer was “because your earrings and dresses always match.” I used the situation for a lesson in the value of planning ahead to remind her that she had forgotten her flute on Tuesday and it would be a good idea to set out the material that she needed for the next school day. Forever, a teacher with a lesson. I also learned that it can help in my understanding a question if I ask why the question is being asked.

  • Sherri Pilon says:

    Well said Beth! I miss your insight and humor!!!

  • Bill White says:

    Really appreciated this – thanks!

  • Lydia Frens says:

    You nailed it…again and as always, Beth! Thanks for your insights. It sounds from the comments like your words have been helpful to other women in your position as well as to the broader conversation about this double standard. Thank you!

  • Gretchen Munroe says:

    Wonderful! Thank you.
    I was once interrupted during a worship story by a child commenting on my manicure while my hands were in our desert box! Too bad some do not outgrow the “distraction factor.”

  • Judith Boogaart says:

    Trust smart ol’ you to figure out a practical as well as spiritual use for a clerical collar. 🙂 Miss you and your humor and your challenging sermons!

  • Kristin Brouwer says:

    Thanks so much for this! I could resonate with so much of this.
    I had someone tell me once they were able
    to hear me so much better the Sunday I wore a dress. All the comments we get on hair, jewelry, clothing, and appearance.
    #femalepastorproblems

  • Heather says:

    As a seminarian and children’s director, I really resonate with this! I love to dress up and primp for Sunday mornings, but I do find it frustrating when congregation members are more interested in commenting on my clothes than my message. And I certainly don’t appreciate it when folks find it appropriate to comment on the length of my skirts to my male coworkers!

  • Sheryl L Mulder says:

    Having been a part of a congregation that wholeheartedly wanted to support having women as pastors, we too engaged in this double-standard, but in less obvious ways. People put expectations on women pastors to “be emotionally supportive” to all of the needs of its members in ways they would never expect of a male pastor. The strong skills of a female pastor in administration, organization, typical traits often attributed to males, does not get the same degree of respect that it would garner if the pastor was male. In fact it can be a negative for female pastors.

  • Emily Scatterday Holehan says:

    This. All of it. Every single word (I guess except the part about California since I’m still in West Michigan. 😁). I can’t count the number of times I’ve received feedback on my outfit before and/or instead of on my sermon or pastoral care or leadership. I, too, have resorted to the collar for the exact reasons you named: to be reminded of my own call and ordination, and to negate the attention to my fashion choices. And, I’ll add a third- which is maybe just a nuance of the other two: to take up the appropriate amount of space/authority. While my clergy collar reminds me of my call and ordination, it also empowers me to step into my role with confidence AND humility. It is God who has called me; it is God who I serve.

    Bonus: With the black clergy shirt, I still get to accessorize with my liturgically colored shoes, jewelry, and even sometimes pants… *with* pockets.

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