KENNER, La. (Christian Examiner) — I posted a paragraph on Facebook calling for pastors to dress "to inspire confidence"–and not look like they'd been out hitchhiking all night. It's important to note that I did not say he should wear the uniform of the previous generation–a coat and tie–but merely to "dress one step in front of most of the men in the church," whatever that means. Twenty-four hours later, we had 245 comments. Clearly, people have strong feelings about this.
"If I see you standing at the pulpit wearing a suit and a tie, I'm out of there."
I smiled at that. The fellow who said it is so dead-set on making sure the church does not put too much emphasis on appearance that he...well, puts too much emphasis on appearance.
As I write, the television set in this motel room is running the results of last night's Iowa caucuses. At some point I noticed something about the men candidates for nomination for president.
All were wearing suits and white shirts and ties.
Watch any newscast. The anchormen are wearing suits and ties.
This cannot be accidental. It cannot be because they are stuck in a rut. Nor can it be because they are trying to flaunt their wealth or impress the world.
These people never do anything–repeat, never do anything!–without good cause.
So, why do the candidates and the anchor people dress up when they go to work?
We will pause here while you consider your answer.
At the same time, drop in on the typical church and you may be stunned to see that the fellow who looks like a hitchhiker just in from a day on the highway turns out to be the preacher. His jeans need pressing and the t-shirt he's wearing looks like he has worn it all day. His shoes? Sneakers with lots of miles on them.
Some in the congregation actually take pride in the sloppiness of the preacher's attire. They say the object is to make the outsider comfortable on entering the Lord's House. They say the preacher is making a statement against the overemphasis of the previous generation on externals, on "dressing up" for church.
Now, if you want to incite a holy reaction against your hypocrisy and superficiality, say something about how the preacher is dressed. (You're not even saying he should wear a coat and tie, but only that he should "dress up a little." Watch the reaction to your simple suggestion.)
The comments will include:
- That's why I don't go to church any more, the emphasis on clothing!
- God doesn't look on the outward appearance!
- A suit and tie would turn off the people we're trying to reach!
- My jeans cost more than my grandpa's entire outfit.
- Only the heart matters.
- We want outsiders to feel welcome here.
This "tempest in a teacup," I suggest, is ridiculous. We may as well be championing the outsiders' lack of musical taste and installing heavy metal music lest we turn them off. Oh, wait, we're already doing that.
At one point, the call for pastors to "dress down" was well-intentioned, I will grant.
Rick Warren (with his Hawaiian shirts – remember those?) is probably as much to blame as anyone.
Because I am white-headed and in my 70s, I have no right to speak about such a thing. Right?
There was a time–in the Jurassic past, I suppose–when the seniors among us were assumed to know a little and were given respect when they voiced their opinion. Those days are a distant memory. This generation automatically dismisses the point of view of anyone older than their parents.
My last pastorate was from 1990 to 2004. To show how completely things have changed in one decade, it was my practice to give up the necktie during August. One month of the year, I did not wear a necktie. At night.
Yep. I wore a tie on Sunday morning every Sunday. But for the evening services one month of the year, we shucked our ties.
These days, the tieless preacher is the norm. (In my itinerant ministry–what some might call "retirement"–host pastors usually send word ahead of time that no one wears ties. And frankly, I'm not unhappy about that. And that, I guarantee, is going to make some think I'm contradicting myself here!)
From the beginning the casual look in the pulpit was a reaction against the emphasis on fashionable clothing, as people donned persona for Sunday church different from who we were during the week. As I say, the change was well-intentioned.
But that trend has run its course in my judgment. In fact, it has flat run in the ditch.
I see preachers entering the pulpit wearing t-shirts that stretch to cover their paunch. I wonder if they have any idea how ridiculous they look?
Anyone who knows the first thing about me is aware that I am completely committed to encouraging pastors. (That was one of three vows I made to God during a difficult time in my minister over 25 years ago. I vowed to live simply, give generously, and encourage God's shepherds.)
Not long ago, a young pastor friend where I was preaching confided in me that he would be open to moving to another church if the Lord so led. That's when I made a suggestion. "The way you dress in the pulpit fits right in with your congregation," I told him. "But a pastor search committee is going to want a little more professionalism than what you are showing. If I were you, I'd dial it up a notch." He took that counsel in the manner in which it was given, and has since thanked me for it.
I will admit that finding a young pastor who is open to a suggestion about these things is refreshing.
The time has come to reverse the trend.
I urge preachers to turn up the dial a notch, to dress a little better than the sloppy hitchhiking model they've been giving the Lord's people.
Some say, "Teens are turned off by overdressed preachers." My responses are several:
- No one is suggesting you "over dress." Just dial it up a notch. (In many cases, I suggest starched dress shirts–not necessarily white–and slacks or khakis, sometimes with a sport coat.)
- Since when do preachers alter their approach to suit the juveniles in the congregation?
- Since when do we let the unchurched or the immature set the direction for anything in the church? (Answer: We do when we are lost and directionless ourselves.)
- It's time for the preachers to look and act like the adults in the room. Quit following the kids and start showing them proper respect for the Lord's house, the Lord's service, and the worship of the Lord.
Honestly, most teens are not "turned off" by the preacher wearing a coat and tie. What they will think – and you may not be able to handle this – is that he is the adult in the room.
The problem, of course, is with the preachers.
As it often does, this comes down to the preacher.
Many preacher tend to be followers, not leaders. They make decisions out of fear and not faith. Once they learn someone is criticizing them for preaching on tithing, that's the last they'll mention that subject for a year. Hearing that someone is unhappy over his haircut or facial hair, the typical preacher will let it grow out or shave it off.
No one likes criticism, granted. No pastor enjoys hearing that he was the subject of discussion around a family's dinner table.
No pastor who makes decisions from fear of criticism has a right to stand in God's pulpit on Sunday.
"Be strong and of good courage."
If clothes do not matter, why such a violent reaction to someone suggesting the preacher and worship leaders ought to dress up and not down?
A few years ago, one of the start-up cut-rate airlines had their cabin crew dressed in short pants and polo shirts. They made a lot of jokes and played games with the passengers. They thought people wanted that. They were wrong. What passengers in those death-defying pressurized aluminum tubes rocketing through the stratosphere want from the crew is competency and professionalism.
We do not want airline pilots wearing jeans and pullovers and sneakers. We like seeing them in their uniforms. It inspires confidence.
That's what it's all about. It's why television networks require their male anchors to wear suits, white shirts, and ties. Even sportscasters wear suits and ties. Mike Carico and John Gruden do their Monday night games dressed better than 90 percent of the preachers in the land, all with a goal of inspiring confidence.
It's why the presidential candidates are wearing suits and white shirts and ties. (Sure, they will occasionally don khakis and polos for a quick bite at a Laconia, New Hampshire café. But before the day is out, they're back in the uniform for a rally somewhere. Inspiring confidence.)
At the New Orleans airport, I picked up a denominational leader who was to address our annual gathering that night. It was a hot day and yet he was decked out in a suit and tie. I said, "Dr. Gary Frost, why are you wearing a suit? That has to be hot!" He laughed and said, "When the crew is looking for someone to upgrade to first class, they pick me." It happens quite a bit, he said.
Argue with it all you want. The truth is what it is.
I thought readers might be interested in a few comments from the Facebook discussion.
From Michael: "Here is my follow up thought for this. Why is a t-shirt and jeans good enough for Sunday morning preaching but not for preaching a funeral? If the deceased was OK with your attire on Sundays, certainly they would not mind that same attire as you preach their funeral. But I've never attended a funeral where the hip young pastor wasn't wearing a suit."
From Todd: "I have noticed that if I lead a meeting in a suit and I lead a meeting in khakis and a button up dress shirt, there is a qualitative difference between the two meetings. Whether it is psychological or whether it's fair is irrelevant. It's real, and sometimes guiding a church requires one to do things in a certain way regardless if it is the manner at which I would choose to do it. Just as I didn't choose to be "called by God," I don't always get to choose how I follow Him!"
From Jeremy: "I pastor a very contemporary church, and started dressing up more about 6 or 7 weeks ago. I looked at myself on camera and felt I looked sloppy. Interestingly, two doctors have joined in the last few weeks. I don't know if there is a correlation, but anecdotally, I think wealthier people are more comfortable with a more sharply dressed pastor. I don't wear a tie, but wear slacks and a nice sweater or crisp shirt."
Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist, and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com. This commentary is used with permission.