Abandoning Preaching Gowns: “Unweirding” Church

Hello, hello, hello!

Pigeons, how are you? It’s been awhile. PeaceBang has been in the Land of Summer, reading her little head off, thinking (or as she likes to say it, “THANKING”), swimming in the great Atlantic ocean and spending tons and tons of time with friends. That last thing is the best, isn’t it? When the church year gets really hopping I just don’t see my buds enough, and when it freezes and starts blizzarding I don’t see them at ALL! I love this time of year for long, relaxed dinners, nights at the movies or the theatre, concocting something fun in the blender and digging toes in the sand.

But ’tis indeed mid-August and ones thoughts turn to the fall and that wonderful back to school feeling. I have been thinking a lot about how weird and intimidating church feels to many unchurched folks and really auditing how and where in our congregational life we can be more accessible, easy, non-mysterious and welcoming. In this era where so many people seek spiritual community to strengthen and equip them to cope with the nihilistic ravages of our modern world, the last thing I want to do is seem like some arcane figure all Dumbledore’d out in my long robes and pointy hat with stars on it. And a wand. Don’t forget the magic wand!

But you know what I mean. I mean, that’s what vestments really feel like to a lot of people, I think, and I want to explore the possibilities of leading worship in street clothes with a stole. Or maybe no stole. I am not sure. As I said, I want to try some different things and see how it feels for me and for my worshiping congregation. I’ll ask them for feedback. Maybe I’ll miss wearing a robe – the specialness of it and the convenience — but maybe my wearing a suit or some other outfit will help newcomers (both online and in person) see me as a more accessible person.

I have thought about this a lot, of course, and have determined a few things:

1. I want to wear solid colored suits, but not traditional business suit cuts. Therefore, I need to find suits that have a slightly more creative cut to them. Separates will not do: I need the color and fabric of top and bottom to match exactly.

2. I want to have one black suit and one blue or green version, and possibly one ivory. I will have a Sunday uniform, then, which will not be any different than men who wear the same sports jacket and trousers or suits every Sunday. It’s just that, as a woman, and as a creative woman, I will be less able to have fun wearing a variety of outfits. This might be a great relief!

3. Skirts or pants? I will try both. A woman of my short, round stature (or lack thereof) tends to look better in elongating skirts, but I will check options and see how I feel about them. Skirt lengths will always be well below the knee for worship presiding, while my skirts are knee-length for regular ministry work. Longer is less flattering but more appropriate for Sundays. I don’t want to have to worry too much about my skirt hiking up when I sit down.

I found some garments on Jessica London catalogue that interest me.

This peplum jacket is 28″ long, which is the perfect length for me. That matters a LOT, as many jackets hit me too low or are too cropped. 28″ is my magic length. The color is decent and would look nice in our sanctuary, I think. Sorry the photo is so tiny. I would get this with a skirt, as teal pants and top would make me look like a big lollipop who’s running for public office.

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If I got the suit in black I might do pants instead of a skirt. Where to put the mic pac is a real question:

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This belted blazer really excited me, although I wouldn’t do purple. I would get black or charcoal with a matching bi-stretch skirt. Again, this is 28″ and I can clip my mic pac on the belt. I LOVE belted blazers. They’re so much more feminine and flattering to me than traditional 3-button styles.

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These skirts (this is the knee-length but they have a calf-length as well) look serviceable and easy to tailor.

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So, talk to me. Are any of you switching up your pulpit attire? Why? What’s your vision? What are you hoping for? How much are you willing to spend to try the new look? Remember, darlings, always budget for tailoring! Nothing is too detailed when it comes to outfitting yourself for worship. Nothing. Stand up in the garment. Sit in it. Bend over in it. Reach up. Does it fit the waist, the sleeves, the legs? If it’s a blazer, can you see a half inch of shirt cuff peaking past the sleeve? You should be able to; what do you think cufflinks are for? Can the garment stand candle wax? Multiple launderings or cleanings? Is it lined? Does it fall nicely? Have you seen yourself from the rear in it?

Wherever you are in your ministry, darlings, PeaceBang wishes you well with a big kiss of peace.

19 Replies to “Abandoning Preaching Gowns: “Unweirding” Church”

  1. Whoa. Was that the ground shaking just now? Seriously, it feels like a big decision. It would be for me. I’m pretty curmudgeonly about robes. I preached in a suit for a guest gig where their minister didn’t robe, and it felt like I wasn’t wearing PANTS. On the other hand, you are totally right, I’m sure it will make folks less weirded out about church and about you. I like your suit ideas. But if a lot of people hear about this, the Womens Spirit people might start to get nervous. I’ll be interested to hear how it goes! [Well, I don’t want to put WomenSpirit out of business and I have actually talked to Patty about designing less Dumbledore-ish traditional preaching robes. The PeaceBang line! She is totally open to new ideas but is very busy filling orders and we haven’t had a chance to talk. I suspect that in the end I’ll want to design a modified pulpit robe. I am noodling one in my mind lately and have been for awhile. – PB]

  2. I’m a Christian lay person who changed churches because the one I had attended for twelve years went down the “accessible” route–remove the pews, move the crucifix, put hotel-style chairs in a circle, take away the hymnals (presumably because books are “too intimidating”–a five minute walk away from one of world’s top-ranked universities), replace Bach and Mozart with the annoying little ditties churned out by Marty Haugen, the “musical” answer to Thomas Kinkade. Accessibility is a polite way of expressing “dumbing down.” And it’s patronizing and insulting to assume that an interested inquirer will find a pastor in a robe “intimidating.” Somebody seeking spiritual comfort and strength may well be reassured to see a member of the clergy dressed in special clothing as they go about their work, just as a police officer’s uniform or a doctor’s scrubs are reassuring to a person in some kind of crisis. [Thanks for this perspective. It’s a struggle to discern the fine line between dumbing down and becoming more accessible. Work in progress. – PB]

  3. I’ve just been ordained (PCUSA) and am serving a small, rural church. The congregation is very flexible about what I wear…many pastors I know are wearing suits for Sunday worship and robes for weddings/funerals etc. Here’s the thing: a robe means I spend less time and money worrying about what to wear on Sunday, but as I gaze out at the member wearing his flannel shirt/jeans/suspender Sunday outfit, I do wonder what the robe is for.

    Sign me,

    Bemused by Too Many Choices

  4. In the summer month we go much more casual around here. It is hot. Even with AC, it is hot. Standing up in front, doing my thing — singing, preaching, etc — lights on me, heat (and humidity right outside those doors — even with AC it is hot. In order for me to not look like I just stepped out of a Sauna, the AC would need to be cranked WAY down. Think “blue-hairs” with matching skin! (wearing parkas in August!) So, I wear a stole and a cross, and have to remember to wear something with a waist band or pocket (for that DA&% mic pack). So, I look forward to getting back to the fall, and putting the robe back on. Putting the robe on means I can “strip down” to the essentials under the robe, and stay cooler, too. Plus, try as I might, I don’t look good in suits. With my height, and my overly ample bust, it always comes off looking hard/harsh, over-powering, no matter the tailoring. And that is something I work hard to soften. Give me a soft sweater any day. . .softens the lines. Plus, I have a huge variety of stoles for the liturgical year. . . so the “look” changes. . . I’ll be interested in hearing how this works out for you. . .

  5. In total support of this!! Keep us posted on how it goes. We wear albs for our first service and street clothes (no collars/stoles) for the next two. I personally think stoles look terrible with street clothes and never do it. I really enjoy expressing my personal style. Mic packs can be a challenge — I have a “go-to” braided belt for when I wear dresses. I find I’m much more comfortable after taking off the robe, especially in the hot summer months. I agree some find it comforting, especially for funerals, but I appreciate the ability to share my own style with the congregation — in a PeaceBang approved way, of course!!

    I’m also in an informal area (Southern California), and suits wouldn’t be appropriate here. I typically wear skirts and tops or dresses with cardigans. I formerly steered clear of sandals, but I have a few appropriate/necessary pairs again with the August heat.

    This is what works in our context; I know all of this is context-driven. But I’m excited to see how it goes for you! I think for women in particular, robes and clericals weren’t originally designed for us, and it’s tough to make them look right, now matter how we try. Just my opinion 🙂

    [Thanks for writing! – PB]

  6. I am a lay person with long exposure to both the Unitarian and Anglican communions – 74 years now. I am quite sure you, Peacebang, will be able to pull it off. But I am very worried about the rest of your colleagues. Our rector (female) performed a funeral in the summer for an important person in our community – full church – wearing Madras shorts, t-shirt, birkenstocks and a stole. The men in the congregation , all rural, were wearing the Canadian uniform of blazer and shirt and tie. The women had linen or cotton summer shirts. It was not good.

    I find myself very distracted by the Unitarian ministers, male and female, who wear strange stoles with cabalistic designs over an assortment of street attire. Most of the street attire is idiosyncratic leading to musings about the age, the background, the self image of said clergy person. Hard to concentrate on anything they are saying.

    The wisdom of a Geneva gown is that a congregant can then focus on content – can worship – isn’t tempted to see the clergy person as the current god.

    The stoles – other than the Episcopal variety that were a single colour based on the liturgical season are a distraction. I don’t care that a worthy person in your last congregation quilted a skyline of the city along with symbols for all the world religions onto your stole.

    I don’t want to spend 1/2 hour trying to figure out the symbolism of your “cute” stole with magic dragons on it.

    Curmudgeonly yours,

  7. As with most things it depends on context. I wear a robe & stole most of the liturgical year… however… for evening services think Thanksgiving Eve, or Lent or Advent Hanging of the Greens… I’m in slacks/jacket or skirt combo. If we’re doing a rogation service, (since I’m in a rural area) it’s boots and jeans that Sunday, no robe required. Any time a pastoral act – bury; marry; baptize – robe on. Only you know what fits your context… but if I ever feel what I’m wearing (good, bad or otherwise) becomes the topic of conversation rather than what the Gospel’s saying… eek!

  8. I would have never thought I would agree with you on this….but I’ve been engaged in an ecumenical endeavor over the last couple of years where no one wears vestments. It is still pretty formal in the sense that men wear suits and women wear dresses or suits.

    The problem is, men in suits here “look like” clergy and women don’t. Robes really do help with that translation issue.
    [I know. They really do. Well, it’s all an experiment and we’ll see what happens. – PB]

  9. I now serve in a tradition (semi-programmed Quakers) where pastors do not wear vestments, but I had previously served in Unitarian and Episcopalian settings where vestments are the norm. Some observations…

    (1) In my current setting, with no vestments I must pay very close attention to the pulpit clothing I am buying and wearing. There is a tricky line between looking professional and accessible; versus over dressed and intimidating. At the opposite end there is the tricky line between informal and accessible; versus overly casual and sloppy. But then, this dynamic is a major focus of your blog.

    (2) In my current setting, without the vestments it is difficult for new visitors to identify me as the pastor, until they see me at the facing bench or the pulpit. The black gown does work like a police or nurse’s uniform in terms of visitors being able to identify roles in the community.

    (3) In my old settings, the vestments (black Geneva gowns) did add a note of equality between the multiple clergy present on the staff. Nobody looked like they were lording it over the others, in terms of expensive vs. cheap clothing. We all had very similar uniforms.

    (4) Although when I was younger I often wore stoles with street clothes at public events, I have in more recent years distanced myself from the practice. Too often it looks sloppy, and makes movement awkward; especially with a full length piece of cloth dangling past your knees. If I don a stole in an Ecumenical setting, while wearing street clothes, I now restrict myself to “visitation length” stoles in bold and solid colors (green, white, purple, or red) with no symbols. Visitation length stoles are the short kind of stoles that Catholic and Anglican priests don when offering communion to somebody in a hospital, home, or nursing facility. [Yes, I need to acquire another few of this length stole. Love to you, Derek!! – PB]

  10. I sit on our steps for the Children’s Message. I wear pants most of the time, and if not the skirt or dress is full length. No flashing of anything during a church service.

    We’re a tad more casual here in the Midwest. My parishioners generally wear jeans to church and so wearing a suit and/or vestments feels way out of place. I am always a step nicer than the average person, but still not formal. I found that the Sundays I wear a suit there is less participation in the congregation. I do wear a suit on the “Special” Sundays like confirmation, graduation, baptisms, etc.

    I slide the mic pack under my jacket or cardigan and clip it onto the pants or skirt on the side. This hides it like you would with vestments, but allows for the accessibility of the mute button. My mic is over the ear with a clip on the cord that I attach to my jacket, shirt or cardigan in the back under my hair so that the chord isn’t pulling when I turn my head.

  11. I serve in Southern California. I wear the exact same outfit every Sunday: black trousers, black loafers, and a black shell with 3/4 length sleeves. Then I wear a stole. No necklace or bracelet; stud earrings.

    The sameness (and blandness) of my outfit keeps my clothing from being a distraction or anything worth commenting on from Sunday to Sunday. The stole–awkward though it can be–clearly marks me as the clergy, especially helpful for first time visitors who are trying to figure everything out.

    A suit jacket would add formality to my appearance, but I prefer the clean lines of the shell. 3/4 length sleeves are my favorite length, so I suppose that’s my nod to personal style.

    I’m sure many of my colleagues might find this look too casual, but it seems to work well enough for my congregation and our location. In terms of “accessibility,” I find that people new to the church are still somewhat intimidated by me (nervous about asking to meet with me, for example), so my authority is not being undermined.

    I would also note that this outfit that works well at my congregation on Sunday morning is not one I would wear and expect to be recognized as clergy at interfaith gatherings or to do justice work.

  12. I don’t wear a robe in the summer. I typically wear a skirt, clerical shirt and a summer weight jacket. I stay away from loud patterns, but do wear striped jackets. I do wear the stole with my street clothes, which can be problematic since I’ m pretty short and some of my stoles are fairly long. So any stole that is longer than my skirt is relegated to robe-wearing season!

    I just purchased a beautiful hand painted silk scarf in graduated colors of green, which if I wear as a stole comes to just below the hip – longer than visitation length (which can be problematic for an amply endowed woman!) but not so long to look odd with street clothes. It’s a perfect length for me. The scarf is much too light-weight and too wide to lay correctly as a stole, but I am going to fold it into thirds, and put interfacing in it to give it some substance. I have a friend who makes beautiful batik stoles and I’m going to have her make me a second stole in this summer length.

    I think the trick to wearing a stole with street clothes is that needs to be rather plain – solid color or a fabric with a simple pattern and either no design or a small design on it. The clothing needs to be plain as well and you have to consider how the color combination of your street clothes with work with the stole. I also think stoles look better with skirts or dresses than slacks, but that’s just me.

    Maybe I should look into getting a cassock type dress for summer…..

    [Good point about keeping the stoles and the clothing SIMPLE. And let us know about your friend’s summer length batik stoles. I’d love to see them. – PB]

  13. I actually gasped out loud, causing my husband to ask “What’s wrong?” when I read Nellie’s comment above. WHAAAATTT???? What on earth was that rector thinking? I hope someone has spoken to her. Good grief, what are we coming to? [I was similarly horrified but my outburst had more swear words in it. – PB]

  14. I serve a church in downtown Pasadena, CA and environmental sustainability/spirituality is a key component of our purposes.

    We’re in a lovely 1923 historic Universalist building, with soaring arched ceilings and stunning stained glass windows. I lead worship in dresses with classic lines and almost always they are in solid, subdued colors. I prefer elbow length or 3/4 length sleeves, mid-calf hem. I do wear a stole, and love the shorter ones (above my knee) that are also thinner. I’m 5’2″ and petite, so longer stoles are pretty ridiculous on me unless I’m wearing a robe. I especially love the stoles created by Kit Wright.

    I put a lot of effort into being “put together” on Sundays and other days, the dresses feel respectful of the office of minister and I’ve never had an issue with anyone not knowing or understanding that I’m the minister.

    The one thing I struggle with – shoes! Some Sundays I walk 2 miles, just in and around our building, and cannot for the life of me find vegan, professional shoes that are worship-appropriate and don’t leave my feet aching at the end of the day. Help! I’m ready to go barefoot. 🙂

  15. I’m doing the reverse! After serving two, small, casual congregations, where to robe seemed really inappropriate, I’ve been called to a midsize congregation with beautiful Povey stained glass windows of Jesus. It feels appropriate to robe in this space, and I’m looking forward to the new experience. (I take off my robe for coffee hour.)

  16. I find this conversation utterly fascinating and though-provoking for so many reasons.

    I’ve read a few articles entitled, “Keep church weird”; in other words – an alternative community shouldn’t look/act like every other community. So, how do we attract people to a “weird” community? Do we wear street clothes to attract, then do a bait-and-switch? That may sound judgmental, but I don’t mean it that way; it’s a genuine conundrum for me.

    Then I think of how I feel every time I read in the NYTimes wedding announcements, “officiated by Grace’s friend Jane, who became a Universal Life minister for the occasion…” If anyone can assume clergy duties for a day, what does that say about our role? I find myself wearing my robe at all weddings (unless it’s blazing hot outside).

    We truly are in one of those threshold moments in the church, and conversations like this one seem to get at the heart of what that means on a daily basis. Thanks for the post, as always! [Thank you, Kelly! I agree with you totally. So – an experiment. – PB]

  17. Whereas I am really looking forward to being able to wear my cassock, surplice and stole again – I’m working towards readmission as a Licensed Lay Minister/Reader/Worship Leader and even though I’ve been preaching in church I haven’t felt it right to wear my cassock-combo, as I am not “official”. My usual preaching/worship leading garb is black trousers/skirt, shell top and black jacket. My usual sit-in-the-pew garb is jeans and a jumper (I err towards the less formal end of the congregation) but I very much feel that the priest/worship leader needs to be formally & appropriately garbed (Nellie’s story made me gasp in horror!).
    While I understand that some congregations are much, much less forml than ours I still would feel a bit urgh about a casually clothed minister. It would not sit comfortably with me. Not One Bit.

  18. This is a terrific and timely conversation. I think leading in civvies is somehow seen to be easier for a man. Men have had a uniform for various workplaces which at it’s simplest is suit shirt and tie, cuffs, vests,cut vary but the uniform has been pretty static since the 1930’s. Women especially in positions of leadership are faced with a plethora of choices based on a well(or not) developed sense of style, colour and current cut and holy moley did she really wear madras shorts?!! I am short, roundish and have an unruly head of hair that I battle, so for me alb and stole with the addition of chasuble for communion services means I don’t have to worry about whether I look “nice” just tidy, clean and not distracting while I am worrying about who hasn’t shown up or will I be late again as I drive at breakneck speed from one congregation to the next behind someone taking their car out for a Sunday stroll. “Nice” I leave for formal meetings, the office
    and pastoral visits. I don’t know if I could even speak without an alb on! But I am tempted for my more casual services to see how this would work so thank for your work on my behalf..I do appreciate your explorations.

  19. Sorry, I vote with the Keep Church Weird contingent.

    I feel that there is something important about setting aside dedicated time and a space and marking that time together. We are gathered to do something different. We rebuild and go back into the world to do the work that needs to be done. For me, Vestments are a part of marking this setting aside. I sometimes need large markers to notice. We live, observe, give thanks, and pray with the senses that we have been given. Also, it might help visitors to be able to tell the players without a scorecard (e.g. deacons are in the diagonal sashes vs priests with stoles vs the Bishop with the “pointy hat” and then there are the colors as we walk through the liturgical year). There are meanings in this and for the inquirer, some engagement starts with the question “Why…” (for which we should know how or where to get the appropriate response.

    Again, from my perspective as a Lay person, I also try to dress differently when participating in the service. When I serve as Eucharistic Minister, Eucharistic Visitor, or Usher, I wear a sportcoat and tie. The tie is perhaps the most radical wardrobe item (note: some of this is also in response to my father’s repeated lesson to “Have some consideration for the people who have to look at you!” )

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