How should a pastor dress, particularly for preaching and leading worship? I grew up in the Reformed Church of America in west Michigan, among very traditional Dutch people. On Sunday mornings and evenings it was the norm to see our pastors wear either black preaching robes or traditional suits. The exception was in the hottest part of summer where our pastors would wear short sleeve dress shirts with a tie. We did not have air conditioning in our church, and the heat was just too much for a suit some Sundays. The congregation accepted that and also knew that when more comfortable temperatures returned the suits would be back.
When I began pastoring in 1998 (in a very different denomination) I followed the same pattern of wearing a suit to preach on Sunday mornings. Why? For three reasons: (1) I was only 27 years old and I needed to convey to the congregation that I was taking my work seriously and that worship and preaching itself was serious business. If I did not convey that, then I knew they would not take “that kid pastor” seriously. I needed to earn respect. And since liturgical vestments are rarely used in my denomination, I could not vest without raising unnecessary controversy. (2) My most influential professors in seminary and my pastor in seminary all dressed traditionally in suits for teaching and leading worship, though one was committed to wearing liturgical vestments for worship whenever possible. As Professor Donald Boyd said to me, “Dress so appropriately that people do not think much about what you are wearing.” (3) The influence of my pastors during my growing-up years was (and is) still with me.
Pastor H.B. Charles, who is known for wearing black suits, wrote in a blog post last month about his experience which turns out was much the same as mine when he started pastoring, yet he was even younger:
I was a boy preacher, starting my first pastorate at the age of seventeen. I needed people to take me seriously. And I did not want my attire to be a reason mature people despised my youth.
But why has he continued to wear suits for preaching? Charles wrote,
This is how I want to mount the pulpit. I want my appearance, demeanor, and conduct to show I am on kingdom business. I want to stand up to preach like a herald for the King, not a pimp, clown, or entertainer.
I don’t have any biblical, theological, or religious reasons for wearing black suits all the time. But it is my quiet protest against the lack of respect for the dignity of the pulpit. We need preachers who look and talk and act like preachers – not fitness coaches, talk show hosts, or GQ models.
The designer jeans look is not necessarily easier or cheaper. What is cool has to be kept up with, afforded, and pulled off well. Don’t tell me that pastors who go this route do not care about their appearance – they work hard to have just the right look – and have to update it regularly. A good,traditional suit stays in style a lot longer than designer jeans.
The point is that how we dress as pastors sends messages to a congregation and triggers various responses. A preacher in cool designer jeans and an equally cool untucked shirt sends one kind of message while a suit sends another. What do I want to convey about pastoral ministry, the worship of God, and the importance of God’s people? I want to convey reverence for God, the authority of preached Word, and the dignity of the pastoral office, and respect for mature believers. I recognize not all contexts are the same, but suits work for were I have served and do serve now.