Question Box time! Children, let’s skip over to PeaceBang’s inbox and explore the burning questions of our time!
One of my sister priests really could use some new clothes. And by new, I mean without holes in them and frayed hems…for starters. Would really love to know what to say or do in this situation. She’s great, and talented, and faithful. But she looks pretty ragged. How does one approach this without hurting another one’s feelings?
Oh, this is a really tough one, Sister Priest. The first thing I would do it ask your colleague out for coffee or lunch, your treat. Find out how she’s doing. To me, threadbare and raggedy clothes may signal poverty of purse or spirit. Imagine that Rev. Ragged has been getting dressed lately, looking in the mirror and noticing her frayed hems and holes and thinking to herself, “This is awful. I have got to find some funds for new clothes or to get these repaired. But I hope no one will notice for now.” That’s a terrible place to be, especially in secret while putting on a good face for one’s colleagues or community. If she is in struggling with poverty, that needs to be known and addressed before you raise the question of her attire. Thank you for (maybe!) being willing to be the one who starts the conversation.
Poverty of spirit is a bit different. It means that your colleague has the financial means to take care of her wardrobe but isn’t paying attention to what she looks like, including the condition of her garments. This is an issue of self-care and can be a sign of a deeper problem.
Historically, the down-at-heels pastor has been cherished in popular imagination as the image of what a faithful servant of the Lord looks like, ie, too busy caring for his flock to pay attention to the threads hanging off his coat or the shoes that are falling off his feet from wear. This is the archetypal de-sexed, harmless, cozy minister of yesteryear, and some of our colleagues are still stuck in that very same yesteryear. They need help getting into the 21st century. What the world does not need is religious leaders who are stumbling around looking like they’re barely in their bodies, so ethereal or cerebral that they can’t be bothered to replace a missing button on their blouse (although in the archetype I reference, there’s always a pastor’s wife to replace that button).
That archetypal holy frump is not our friend, friends. He is Pastor Milquetoast who exists only to pray with people and deliver a comforting Sunday sermon. He does not have leadership vision or talents and never challenges power brokers.
A very angry Lutheran pastor from Pennsylvania recently accused me of exploiting people’s insecurities for my own gain through this blog. Hearing this, I rubbed my hands together like Whipley Snidelash, or whatever his name was (Snidely Whiplash?), and twirled my mustache. Yes! I have dedicated the past eight years of my blogging time here for the personal gain of seeing fewer people who are not closely associated with churches or religious communities regard clergy as out-of-touch, oatmealish frumps and delusional losers serving tax-exempt relics from an unenlightened past! Mwa ha ha ha ha!
Which brings me to the third option for why Sister Threadbare may be walking around with frayed hems and holes in her elbows: she doesn’t think it matters. Like so many other clergy who cannot and will not acknowledge our responsibility to changing times, she thinks that shabby attire is okay, that no one cares what a spiritual leader wears, and that religious leaders should be beyond such concerns.
She is wrong, of course. Walking around in stained or ripped or unkempt clothing communicates lack of attention and care to ones basic needs, and therefore an inability to “take care” in a literal sense. How can someone who doesn’t know enough to patch a hole on their blouse be in touch with the reality in which her people live and move and have their being? Unless we have communicated with our people that we intend to wear our clothes until they fall apart because of a commitment to sustainability, or because we have taken a vow of poverty, they should fairly expect us to represent the Church in respectable attire while we are about the work of ministry.
How to broach this conversation, once you have established that poverty or debilitating depression are not the factors behind this raggedy attire?
Honesty is the best policy. “I asked you out because I was concerned about you.” [Really, why?] “I have noticed of late that your clothing looks very worn and even has holes in it. I felt that you wouldn’t be so inattentive to your appearance if something wasn’t wrong either financially or personally. I know this might make you angry or uncomfortable but I thought it was worth discussing with you because I really admire your ministry and if I’m wrong to bring it up, well, I am willing to learn why. I have been reading a blog called Beauty Tips For Ministers for awhile and it has really gotten me to pay closer attention to clergy public image. Have you heard of it?”
If she doesn’t throw her tea in your face and storm out, you might have a very interesting conversation.
Of course such conversations are always best broached by close and trusted friends, so if you have one of those in common you might mention something in a discreet and caring way, eg, “Hey, Mary, I have a kind of awkward question and I was wondering if I could trust you with it. … I am confused about why such a respected and impressive religious leader such as Louellen wears clothes that are in disrepair.”
As in all sensitive discussions,stick with facts. It is honest and fair to inquire about holes in garments and frayed hems one has personally observed. It is not fair to generalize and say something like, “I was wondering why you’re always so sloppy.” It is always difficult to hear criticism or even suggested criticism. Stick with specifics and try to open a conversation. See what’s going on. If the environment seems safe for it, express your own sense of what it means to dress appropriately as a member of the clergy. There is no need to problem solve for our colleagues, and please don’t be condescending and offer to steer them colleague to the nearest Savers or Salvation Army if you’re the one having this conversation. Our role may occasionally be to compassionately inform one another that we are being noticed for the wrong reasons, but this does not involve rescuing or parenting each other.