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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.