Dressing for the role

Feb 29, 2016 by

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When I signed my first pastoral contract and began trading my Atlanta wardrobe for suburban Chicago, I took a long look in my closet and asked myself: Am I willing to give up skinny jeans?

Hillary Watson


I don’t think skinny jeans are the best fashion choice I ever made. But I like the way they place me on par with my peers. I like the way they tuck into rainboots — and rainboots may be the best fashion decision I ever made.

When you’re 25 and a single woman, with a three-year contract to be an associate pastor, there is no dress code. Going through my closet, I realized I was not only out of my league, but the league was not designed for me and still wasn’t prepared for my presence.

There is no dress code for being a female pastor, much less a young female pastor. There’s a double-standard in women’s professional dress. Naomi Wolf called it the Professional Beauty Quotient. Beauty is a professional requirement; but too much beauty in the workplace, or too much trendiness, becomes “unprofessional.” Too often, professional dress for women is still based on imitating men without looking masculine.

The double standard doubles again in a church setting, when your presence is also expected to exude holiness — or at least, some implicit sign of your faith. But what are holy clothes? In my congregation, women wear everything from strapless dresses to flowing skirts — professionalism is highly subjective when your profession is building community. On top of mixed expectations, there’s no practical way to dress for a Sunday that includes serving communion, high school activities and lunch with toddlers.

A friend asked me recently, “Of all the cultural expectations you face as a pastor, which one do you ignore the most?”

“All of them,” I said. “All of them.” The cultural expectations of pastoring — the world in which people generally can agree that I have earned my position — almost always assumes my position involves children’s ministry, involves my nonexistent husband, involves a bland and inoffensive wardrobe, doesn’t involve preaching or late night conversations about tattoos or confronting my own vulnerabilities. If I take any single expectation seriously, it is so connected to the others that my life devolves into a complicated dance of people-pleasing the perceived audience — and we all know Mennonites are terrible dancers.

I wear heels more often than is professional because they fit better than my modest flats, and because shopping for women’s shoes is like gambling — except you won’t know until you break in your shoes if you’ve hit the jackpot. I wear basketball shorts more often than is professional because the summer is hot and there are side effects to living next door to your workplace.

The dress code I’ve set for myself is “what reminds you it’s not about style; what makes you feel certain that God didn’t bring you to this point just to abandon you.” Sometimes that means button-down shirts; sometimes it’s basketball shorts; sometimes it means skinny jeans.

I hope that I’ll outgrow some of these styles. I hope I stop wearing skinny jeans when they no longer make me feel confidant in my self and my competencies. For now, as a young pastor, I’d rather spend my time on more pressing concerns. When, in my morning routine, I find myself putting on and taking off three separate outfits (I always thought when I was 16 I’d outgrow this crisis of clothing), I try to breathe. Stop. And remind myself: John the Baptist wore camel hair. God can surely work with whatever’s in my closet.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com.

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