Dressing Well For A Specific Place

I attended a professional gathering last week where one woman was wearing a kind of sundress with a jacket over it, Tevas, and a huge mop of totally unruly hair.

As an individual, she was fun and striking.

As a minister, she looked sloppy and disrespectful for the setting: a gathering of ministers of venerable New England congregations.

I wrote in the comments recently that when I get dressed on Sunday mornings, I ask myself if I appear to be worthy to be the identified spiritual leader of my specific congregation. If the answer is “no — my own comfort has clearly taken precedence over my responsibility to look appropriate to my role today” — I go back to the closet and do it again until I get it right.

Not only does the tendency of my own congregants to dress nicely for church factor into my efforts, so does the beauty of the building and the history we represent. Humor and attitude-wise, we can be a pretty wild bunch. I love that about us. But there seems to be a tacit agreement that we dress to honor the ancestors and the “moments of our high resolve,” as Howard Thurman so beautifully said.

Many of you have said this before: you have to know your setting. You have to know your people, and to appear to be worthy of the high calling to which they have ordained and sent you forth.

I feel that even though I serve within a notoriously casual and even unkempt denomination, I should dress to the standards of the most formal among us. Why? Because although I believe in progress in many areas, no one has ever managed to convince me that increased lack of attention to the finer details of attire and grooming constitute progress in the religious sense.

I contend that lack of attention to attire and grooming are progressive only in the individualistic sense, ie, “I’M more comfortable this way, so I’M going to dress the way I want.”

Since this stance does nothing to strengthen community, I have never supported it. I believe that dressing with care and as much elegance as one can muster does strengthen community; it is a way to say “I honor being here with you to encounter together our highest ideals. You can tell by the way I am dressed and prepared to be here that I respect myself, you, and the church.”

Sometimes people are hurting, are in trouble, and are unable to put themselves together for the sabbath experience. It’s helpful when that occurs, for then the community can identify when someone isn’t doing well.

That person should never be the minister. If the minister feels unable to preside, he or she should get the help, care and support he or she needs. Dressing in a slovenly manner should never be a passive-aggressive alarm to the gathered congregation that Pastor Jill or Jay is falling apart.

I’ve seen that statement made before, and it caused a great deal of anxiety among the people. I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: the scrutiny placed upon us may not be fair, but I believe it comes more from intimacy and love than just a judging and critical eye. I’m sure that some of my own congregants are eyeing my expanding girth and thinking, “Our girl needs to take care of herself and go on a salad-eatin’ vacation.”

That’s all I have to say on that subject except to share with you that the graduates at Andover-Newton Theological School were looking very handsome at their reception yesterday afternoon. Having seen some of them only in schlumpy class-wear, I was thinking that they sure did clean up nice! Congratulations, ANTS!

11 Replies to “Dressing Well For A Specific Place”

  1. Amen!
    Every Sunday I want to make sure that people know I treat the occasion with the utmost respect and love.
    As for gaining weight – maybe, for me, that is a kind of passive aggressive thing. I’ll have to think about that. Do something about it? That’s another matter, altogether. I’ll probably just go buy bigger clothes.

  2. You raise an interesting question about weight and respect for self and others which I think is going to start to be burning. The last large clergy gathering I went to was, unfortunately a gathering of many too-large clergy, and the newer in ministry, by and large, the larger they were. I’m too large myself and I was distressed at the sudden and unique feeling that I was quite svelte. Since I’m getting old enough that my excess weight is a health concern, I felt quite alarmed at what I saw among younger and newer ministers. It was not a picture of happy, healthy, energetic people, I’m afraid.

    I know (oh, I know!) that loosing weight is no simple matter, in spite of all the ads and articles that bombard us all, the fact of the matter is that many people can’t loose weight and most who do can’t keep it off. I have found that even not gaining weight is very hard. This is an area of my life which is puzzling and infuriating and not very successful.

    But all the makeup, careful dressing, and snappy attitude can’t hide the fact that our eating, exercise, and stress levels are not in control, and for our appearance, our health, and as a part of being polished, I think we need to do what we can to get those things in control and thereby control our weight.

    And the passive-aggressive thing…I’ve felt it, too, and it makes the weight problem an even bigger problem for women.

    The whole thing is way hard.

  3. This is a publishable essay. Well, the Web is a form of publishing, and that’s why we have blogs, so in that sense it is already published. But I would love to see this in a newspaper, magazine, denominational journal, any number of places. It also articulates seriously why you do the Beauty Tips for Ministers thing. It is anything but frivolous. And I love your critique of individualism. It’s key to the whole argument. Right on, Rev.

  4. I’m not a minister but a ‘card-carrying’ UU. I read your posts regarding the importance of dressing ‘up’ to a level that reflects respect for your congregation, its members, and your office. I find the advice helpful in my work casual work environment. I don’t understand folks who wear sloppy shorts (especially in a–male–goofy combination with ugly socks and running shoes) and other entirely-too-casual clothing for an office. I believe the ‘respect’ concept is the same–if I sit in a meeting looking like a ‘schlub’ I am not likely to be treated as the professional I am. Although I don’t wear suits to the office I do dress with a view to appearing ‘professionally casual’. I wear attractive denim skirts or neat pants with a neat, non-sloppy knit shirt–that’s my usual attire. I’m wondering about other non-ministerial readers and their feelings/experience with this issue.

  5. Christine, tough words and very important. I have noticed the same thing and I think it’s time we started a serious conversation about it.

    I look around at all us extreme chubsters and I think, “What’s going on here?” As you say, our eating and stress are out of control. And all the snazzy fix-ups can’t hide that fact.

    It’s a bloody struggle that I lose on a regular basis. I like to say that I often feel “spiritually fit” but physically is another story. There has to be a better balance between the two realities.

    Thanks, all ya’ll, for “weighing in” (forgive the pun!).

  6. Christine,
    Interesting comments. I’ve been overweight for soooo long, but these days I’m almost not, thanks to a lot of factors that combined to help me lose 40 lbs since Christmas. I’m looking pretty good, if I may say so m’self. 😉
    Anyway, I’ve grown so accustomed to being the largest woman in the room, and just the other day I went to a UCC lay & ordained minister event, and I was floored that I was the smallest one there. That made me sad, because I’m really not that small. And now that I think about it, I wonder if I was sad because I couldn’t understand how I could possibly be a normal size, or if I was sad because I know something of what they felt like to be so large.
    I dunno. There is hope, friends. It can happen. What happens if it doesn’t?

  7. Hey, Kaji, thanks for sharing that this has happened to you, too. I was really surprised at how disoriented I was to be one of the smaller persons in the room. It made me realize again how relative my feelings about my body are.

    Congrats on your 30 pounds. Any tips?

    I’m curious about what those of us who struggle with weight issues think the relationship between spiritually healthy and physically healthy is? And can one assist the other, somehow?

  8. well said — i appreciate the stance on community.

    Christine, you ask an excellent question. I won’t pretend I’m perfectly qualified to answer it, but I have struggled with weight in the past and have successfully come back to a healthy level.

    i’m going to say several things here.. hopefully i don’t go on too long! I can think of several common areas between spiritual and physical health — we can’t attain either on our own. its perfectly legitmate to acknoweldge we need God’s help (and often the help of others) to maintain committed to spiritual and physical health.

    we often carry around pointless, unredemptive guilt about both, thinking we have to be perfect. and there is far more grace than that.

    i think health in one does help the other — if i have a regular devotional life, its easier for me to use that discipline and regularly eat a healthy breakfast. if i’m used to fasting and not being ruled by food, that helps me enjoy and be wise about food as I do eat.

    if i’m trying to be a good steward of my whole life, and not model a disconnect there to other people, i have to think about how i’m investing in and using all God’s gifts – including this glorious, lumpy, imperfect, beautiful body I have been given.

  9. first, let me say thanks for noticing how fabulous we looked at ANTS commencement. I didn’t get a chance to come say hi because of the insane crush of people everywhere, but… “Hi!”

    As for the weight issues, the connection between spiritually and physically healthy is ABSOLUTELY there. I believe quite emphatically, adamantly and strongly that the key to success with physical health is to intentionally link it with spiritual health.

    I could talk about this for *days,* and will do some blogging of my own as soon as I wade through the forest of emails and voicemails waiting from my five whole days away from the office!

    But let me begin by saying that I believe that there is a deeply ingrained CHASM between our spiritual bodies and our physical bodies. I could blame Augustine or Paul or whomever, but I won’t waste space on that here! The bottom (pun intended) line is that I haven’t had success with weight loss (and I’ve been a Weight Watcher since 2000! total loss +13 lbs. ha ha.) until this year, which was when I began to really explore the spiritual and emotional realities of WHY I “need” so desperately to protect myself with excess weight and stuff my feelings with food.

    Seriously. I could go on for days. But I’ll wait until I get a moment to do my own blogging.


  10. Womynrev, I saw you from a distance but I was singing and couldn’t say “Hi!” and “Congrats” and “You look so happy and terrific!”

    But hurry up and write those blog posts, because I just read your post about the space within, and I think your insights are beautiful and relevant.

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