Ministerial Formation In The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Internship Politics

Please reinforce your spirits with prayer before reading this Dark Night of The Seminarian Soul that came to PeaceBang some months ago:


On a lay religious professional, in a worship leadership role. I am hyperventilating here.

Sorry, do not have pictures. I was also on the chancel. In a dress. An appropriate dress.

Here’s the thorny part, though. I’m the brand new intern. Our mutual colleague who supervises this person (and me!) apparently doesn’t care what anybody wears. We’ve talked about the subject from time to time and this minister has other priorities. I think she’s wrong, but this is not a hill I’m willing to die on.

Political savvy, I do not have it yet. Is it obnoxious of me to keep wearing professional dress when the people I’m working with might as well be in their pajamas? Do I need to dress down? Or can I try to subtly nudge standards by dressing intentionally?

Sign me,
I put on hose for this? Yes I did.

Yes, you did, intern pigeon. And you will continue to dress appropriately even if others feel it is appropriate to insult the sanctity of the occasion by wearing yoga pants for any aspect of leading worship. Just because a religious professional is not ordained does not give them a “I’m messing around on the floor with the kids later so I can wear yoga pants now” pass.


So what’s an intern to do? One way to broach a conversation with your supervising minister is to play dumb. “Is there any kind of dress code or expectation for Sunday morning worship attire? I was wondering.” Do NOT say, “I noticed that Sloppy Sally was presiding in gym wear, is that okay with you?” or refer to anyone else at all. You are in ministerial formation, so ask for yourself only. The supervising minister may have an interesting and thoughtful response or she may laugh at you for asking the question. The supervisor may not have thought about it, at which point you can say, “Well, I’ve been reading this blog called Beauty Tips For Ministers for awhile and the author has really persuaded me that we live in a visual, media saturated culture and that clergy need to be intentional about our public image if we are going to have the kind of impact we hope to have in the world.”

Conversation launched!

If your supervisor says, “Thank you for asking, I notice that you have tended to dress more formally and I appreciate having an opportunity to explain to you why I dress extremely casually,” you’re lucky, even if you yourself choose to dress more formally. The two of you can discuss your own strategies openly and you may decide to start skipping the pantyhose or sports jacket in deference to the particular ministry context.
If your supervisor says, “Oh my God, who cares?” then you should quietly file that away under “mentoring deficiencies.” Find someone else who does care with whom you can discuss and discern your developing leadership image.

All supervisors have strengths and weaknesses. While under a particular mentor’s tutelage, it behooves interns to play Follow The Leader to a certain extent, unless to do so violates their integrity. If you are dressing more formally than your internship supervisor, that isn’t necessarily a bad or inappropriate choice. You are modeling respect and professionalism, and the wider community may appreciatively note your self-differentiation and polish. Don’t be surprised if they come to you to complain about their pastor’s disappointing garb, as happened to someone I know very well. If that should happen, never triangulate with your supervisor! Tell the parishioner that it would be best to address their pastor directly about their concerns and get out of the conversation as quickly as you can. Never, ever under any circumstances be caught making critical remarks about your supervisor with parishioners or staff. That’s what your friends are for, or in the case of egregious ethical or professional violations, your seminary or denominational support systems are there for. Never, ever be tempted by the fawning admiration of a parched, frustrated or neglected congregation into taking testimonials about how crappy their minister is. Always remember that a congregation is a bizarre, “Rocky Horror Picture Show” carnival of God’s weirdos. You are Brad and Janet at the door in your pristine outfit and part of the initiation process is for you to get crawled all over by — wait, am I really using this metaphor?

Anyway, just stay in your lane and respect professional boundaries, dammit (Janet). You’ll be the one in the lab coat soon enough.

If members of your internship committee or parishioners comment on your attire beyond general feedback (and “We’d like to help you pay for a suit” is not an uncommon way for lay people to supportively steer seminarians toward a more professional look and hey, free suit!), alert your supervisor. It is fair game for lay people to comment on your grooming, attire, social affect and voice, as all of those aspects of your exterior presentation are important factors in your effectiveness. However, that does not mean that you have no right to set boundaries about how much, and when and where, you are willing to hear this feedback. Make sure that it is never in a free-for-all manner, and make sure that you are never subject to anonymous comments. Again, if you feel your internship committee members are commenting too freely and too frequently on your appearance, call in your supervisor.

“The sunlight creates a glare on your glasses in the pulpit, and this makes it impossible to see your eyes,” is helpful feedback. “It’s a shame you have such bad acne, would you like the name of a good dermatologist?” is not. Unfortunately, as I have written before, the minister’s body is in many ways a public body and you will eventually learn to stop being shocked by people’s insensitivity and sense of entitlement to insult you or violate your privacy.

For what it’s worth, I do think that “It’s a shame you have such bad social skills, would you like the name of a good therapist?” is a perfectly appropriate riposte to an invasive and cruel remark. Part of the changing clergy archetype in our time, in PeaceBang’s not-at-all-humble opinion, is reacting honestly to things that hurt. If we respond to obnoxious remarks with saintly patience, that only reinforces the stereotype of clergy as characters who are miraculously spared ordinary human emotions.

Show up for yourself and stand up for yourself, in non-defensive and non-anxious ways. Your clarity about how you want to be seen, how you want to communicate respect for the office of minister and the institution of the church (or wherever you are doing the work of ministry) may rattle clergy supervisors who have not deeply considered the question. You be you and let them work out their own stuff. If they get snippy or petty with you (“I don’t know how you can afford such nice clothes, it must take a lot of time to iron your shirts and do your hair so carefully”), keep cool. “I find a lot of great stuff at the Savers, actually” goes great with a smile. “Yes, I wake up 15 minutes earlier on Sundays so I can spend time on the details of getting ready; I find it really helps me center myself before worship” should shut that insecure senior colleague right up.

If respectful and appropriate attire is not a priority for your ministerial supervisor, that does not mean that you shouldn’t maintain it as your own priority. This time of formation and training is exactly the right time for you to be figuring out how to dress and groom and outfit yourself on your budget and within your time and energy constraints. You do not want to just start thinking about how to dress and comport yourself like a minister later down the road when your responsibilities have increased exponentially.

Good luck, darlings. We have all been there.

One Reply to “Ministerial Formation In The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Internship Politics”

  1. sigh… I confess. It was me. I’m 36 weeks pregnant, growing by the hour, and refuse to buy more pants. Black stretchy pants with a long black tunic clerical collar and black flats. New uniform for the next month? ;-D

    [Reverend Mama, it was NOT you! You go right ahead with your black stretchy pants. Blessings on your pregnancy and delivery and a healthy baby soon! How many months is 36 weeks? Let me run and get my calculator… – PB]

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