Toning It Down For CPE

Happy Indigenous Peoples Day, mah friends.* I got this interesting letter the other day. Let’s take a look and have a talk.


Hi Peacebang,
I am currently getting ready for my first CPE [Clinical Pastoral Education] interview. I am trying to decide what to wear and what pieces to add to my wardrobe down the road when I get closer to actually doing CPE.
I loooove a suit and I have a fair collection of professional appropriate clothes. Except: they are a bit on the loud and bright side. I love bold patterns and super saturated bright colors and jewel tones.
I’m in the south applying for CPE in the south. I’m southern enough to know that my professional wardrobe is too eye catching for CPE generally and it is for sure too eye catching for CPE here.

I’m pretty sure that CPE is not the place for my bright red blazer or my blue monochrome suit outfit. Or my white blazer with black faux leather collar. Or my hounds-tooth blazer. Or ….many things.
I can do a few all black outfits but every time I put one of my SUPER COLOR shells underneath my black jackets I think I look like I’m headed to a political convention.
Do you have any suggestions for toning down a pop-y wardrobe without resorting to all the earth tones I hate? (they look fine on other people and forests)
Thank you for your awesome ministry!
May your day be bright and your sleep deep,

Dear Thoughtful Chaplain-To-Be,

Preparing to do CPE is a great time to consider your developing clergy image. You’re asking all the right questions: how well does my personal preference in attire work in my ministry context?
You have wisely assessed your geographical context (the South) and your professional context (chaplaincy work) and considered the typical choices for that context (earth tones) and are putting it all together, showing a willingness to edit and adapt your own style to suit your ministry. Brava! That non-defensive wisdom will serve you well in your work, so you’re already ahead of the game!

So, I’m thinking about what you said and about what you’ll be doing.
My first thought is that much of CPE happens as we minister to those in beds and wheelchairs and it’s considerate not to want to strain their eyes. On the other hand, maybe a dose of hot pink is just what the doctor ordered!

Busy patterns are not restful to the eye, I agree. Houndstooth is a classic neutral pattern but I’d save it for days you’re not visiting patients. Bright red is a wonderful power color but very hard on the eyes in close proximity, so yes, retire that blazer for patient days.

“Shall we pray?”
“Can I keep my eyes closed? I’m already getting eye strain.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.37.23 PM

“Hello, I’m the Chaplain, can I visit with you for a moment?”
“Sure, but can you take off that blinding tie though?”
Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.37.45 PM
The houndstooth pattern of his jacket is nice and small but the lines in the tie are eye-straining.

“Hi, how are you this morning?”
“I’m doing well, chaplain. I like your jacket. Very fashionable but it’s making me squint.”
Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.37.58 PM

“Good morning, it’s so good to see you again. Are you up for a short visit?”
“I’d like that very much.”
Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.38.30 PM
Save the houndstooth pattern for the lower half of your bod.

You mentioned black as the kind of default option for toning down your cherished eye-poppin’ looks. But how about eggplant purple? How about navy? How about charcoal grey? Those can be non-blah-earth-tones that could be paired with brighter tops. They’re rich and restful enough on the eye and won’t upstage your face and eyes, which will be the focus of most interactions.

* I wrote this weeks ago!
I learned this year that it’s not Indigenous People’s Day but Indigenous Peoples Day — no apostrophe needed because the day honors the entire diversity of indigenous peoples.

5 Replies to “Toning It Down For CPE”

  1. I completely agree with the advice to look for gray and other neutrals that aren’t black. When I did my very first chaplaincy internship (pre-CPE), one of the chaplains told me that he never wore all black because it scared people. I could tell he had thought about this carefully because as a Catholic Priest, all black had been his standard outfit before becoming a chaplain. I’ve heeded his advice as I’ve built my own clergy wardrobe and been fairly pleased with the results.

  2. Another thing to keep in mind is you will want to be able to wash most if not everything you wear in the hospital. The new (medical and pharmacy) residents wear dry clean only clothes and heels for a little while and replace them with dressy knits and flats very soon.

  3. Seconded the “washable” recommendation as well as that for sturdy, sensible shoes good for walking, standing and crouching at the bedside when the chair’s missing again. I like knits – yes, PB, they’re floppy and unstructured, but it means you don’t have to change clothes if you get to take a nap during an on-call shift. Cardigans and slacks work for me: think a femme version of Mr. Rogers. Chaplaincy is a good place for calm, cuddly, non-anxious presence. We can be sharp and prophetic in other contexts.

    As far as color schemes go, I favored solids – jewel tones mostly, because earth tones (and anything with a yellow undertone) makes me look jaundiced. Black, navy, and all shades of gray work for me; your mileage may vary.

  4. “femme mr rogers” Exactly!

    Actually good ole lands end dresses and knit pants work great and often have pockets. If you get things that fit properly, choose colors wisely and care for things carefully, they look nice and not sloppy at all. and if you need to sit on the ER floor, you aren’t thinking about what you are wearing so much.

    I advise picking a color scheme and sticking with it, with one basic color like gray, navy or black. Brown is such a chaplaincy stereotype I’d be careful with that but if it works without hair and skin go for it. jewel or brighter colors as accents. I know it is boring but every time I try to branch out into other things it seems a distraction. Also remember on many units scarves aren’t allowed for safety reasons, same with dangling jewelry.

    Chaplains are in a bind fashion wise: you don’t want to be mistaken for medical personnel (scrub like attire, too much fleece) but you don’t necessarily want to look like someone from legal or corporate either (traditional suits and similar)

  5. I agree with the sweaters and knit pants and flats. Depending on your context, you may be racing to respond to a “code blue” along with everyone else. Fitted suits and heels just get in the way.

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