Six Thoughts about Proper Pastoral Attire for Worship Services

I never expected to write an article on this topic, and I’m still not certain I should. But I’ve received sufficient questions from readers of the blog and listeners of the podcast to indicate I should tackle the issue.

Allow me three caveats before I go further. First, this post is about high-level issues of attire, not the specifics of fashion and dress. I am not qualified to write about the latter. I once tried to subscribe to GQ and was rejected as unqualified. Second, though I am writing about pastors, much of the content could be applied to other church staff. Third, I am only writing to males. I am not about to delve into issues about female attire.

With those caveats, I must disclose a clear bias of mine. I do not like neckties. They are too similar to a hanging noose for my comfort. With those issues cleared, let’s look at six thoughts about pastoral attire.

  1. Understand the demographic context. Most churches in South Florida and Southern California have different expectations about dress than some churches in Mississippi and Alabama. Find out how other pastors dress in the community. Find out how the men in your own congregation dress for worship services.
  2. Understand the church’s expectations. The expectations of churches in the same community typically vary. Because I speak all over the nation, my assistant always asks my host about the expectations of my attire. I would never want the way I dress to be a distraction or stumbling block.
  3. Understand changes in fashion. I have been fascinated to observe the changes toward a more informal dress in many churches. When I became a member of my church ten years ago, about 90 percent of the men attending wore ties. Now I suspect the number is below 10 percent. Such changes may be a signal to you as a pastor that you can dress a bit more informally.
  4. Lead change gradually. The pastor’s attire in a worship service can be a sacred cow for some church members. Don’t let the way you dress become a major divisive issue. For example, if you notice a more informal trend for dress in your church, you may want to move from wearing a tie all the time to leaving the tie off in the summer months. Gradual change can be better tolerated than radical and sudden change.
  5. Don’t put your preferences ahead of your love for others. The biblical principle of the stumbling block (See 1 Corinthians 8) means that we put our own rights on the backburner for consideration of others. It is not a sin to dress without a tie and coat, but it can be a problem for others. The matter becomes sin when our own preferences become our idol.
  6. Understand your members’ emotional attachment to certain forms of attire. I knew a pastor who was called to serve an established church in the South. Previous pastors had all worn suits and ties in the worship services. On his first Sunday, he wore jeans, an untucked shirt, and sandals. He had the shortest tenure of any pastor in the history of the church.

I welcome your input on this issue. Ladies, feel free to share about female attire for church staff as well. You are far more qualified than I to broach that topic.

Posted on July 13, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • We have a new Pastor about a year now. As I recall he wore casual dress pants, then winter came then warmer weather. He said this AM there is nowhere in the Bible that says no shorts for Sunday AM service. He is tall so I close to front I see his legs. So l got upset with my husband about sitting so close. All I wanted to do is look in my book.

  • It’s good to know that the times have changed such that it’s more acceptable to be more informal when it comes to dress codes in church. One of my uncles recently became the local pastor of his town and I’m quite proud of how far his faith has taken him. Perhaps I should buy him some pastor stoles as a congratulatory gift.

  • Michael Woods says on

    Throughout my 45 years of ministry, I always preached in a suit. I was comfortable in that attire. I preached give God the best you have. There were college students putting themselves through school and their best was jeans with holes, not bought that way, T shirts with holes and athletic shoes with holes. That’s what they wore. They were not uncomfortable with me and I was not uncomfortable with them. We both gave our best. When a church member representing “them” of the church complained about the college crowds dress, I explained it was their best and if these members wanted them dressed better, give them the money to do so. The church members did – out of love – and the students were grateful for the expressions of love. By the way, this church I am seeing in my mind grew mightily, began two services to accommodate the crowd and baptized 62 that year, regularly exceeded the membership in Sunday School attendance. What folks want is real Christianity, an honest, sincere presentation of the Word, and honest real Christian love that only Jesus in the Christian can give. They want to see Jesus in the Christian without hypocrisy. Sing it! Give of your best to the Master, Let others see Jesus in you!

  • the fact that this is such a hot topic shows just how sidetracked the church is from their main goal. good grief…get over it…quit preaching “love not the world(including fashion trends) and then turn around and “abide” by those same trends! no wonder outsiders see the church as one huge hypocritical coven!

  • the fact that this is such a hot topic shows just how sidetracked the church is from their main goal. good grief…get over it…quit preaching “love not the world(including fashion trends) and then turn around and “abide” by those same trends! no wonder outsiders see the church as one huge hypocritical coven!

  • I.m new to the area an hour north of Detroit and was looking at different churches.

    To each church we went to I wore pants ,shirt and tie.

    People at two of the churches came up to me to tell me that I didn’t need to wear shirts and ties. Sounds like the dress down people were trying to tell me how they wanted me to dress. I settled on a church were men still come up to me and give me that “are you preaching today” look.

  • after reading all these comments I’m left with—-Christians after all is said and done, STILL have a really hard time separating the heart, from the fashion, don’t they?

  • I pastor a small country church in Southern Ohio. The truth is, most of us wouldn’t even think of wearing shorts and a tank top to meet with the governor of a state or the President of a country. We wouldn’t even dare dress “beach casual” to appear in local court! So, I find most of the excuses for super-casual dress amongst pastors to be sorry excuses.

    This is one of the best arguments for the black preaching robe. It minimizes the fuss concerning current fashion trends while deflecting the attention back to the message where it should be in the first place.

    • Randy Chappell says on

      I totally agree. We certainly would dress up when we go to court or wear our best if we were invited to the White House. And if I entered God’s presence once a year, I might wear a robe with ephods but I meet with God all the time because of His mercy and grace. I greet Him in the morning when I rise from bed and my hair is messed and I am wearing shorts and a T-shirt – I meet Him throughout the day like when I am mowing my yard and am hot and sweaty, and so on.

      I have no problem for people who want to dress up for church – on Sunday morning you would see me in a coat and tie but I wouldn’t think less of someone who isn’t. I think we should be careful when we begin to tell others how God wants them to dress when we enter His place of worship. I haven’t heard God speak on this issue so I am going to let God deal with this issue in the lives of individuals. I do know the Pharisees were pretty nicely dressed and Jesus called them a bunch of “white tombs.” I think we ought to be much more concerned about the inside rather than the outside. Could it be that the reason the church in the United States has lost it’s “salt” is because we are more focused on dressing appropriately than being like Christ?

      My desire isn’t to offend but hopefully point out that we continue argue about something that God didn’t spend His time addressing – so why do we? Are there more important things for us to do?

      How many have our churches reached for Christ? How many of we grown to be like Christ who are reproducting themselves? How are we impacting our community and world for Christ?

      One thing I do know – 100 years into Eternity, I don’t believe it will matter one but what I wore to church on Sunday morning. Only what is done for Christ will last.

      Have a blessed day!

  • I would hate to think that one simply wearing a coat and tie would be an accurate representation of his spirituality, love for the Lord and His people (The flock). It is always possible for a pastor or even a false teacher to dress in a way that “looks” better than what’s actually in their hearts towards the Lord. Jesus warned in Matthew 15: 8-9,
    “This people honors me with their lips [coats and ties], but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” May the Lord be pleased with my inside and my outside.

  • I am a pastor. I wear a dress 99.9% of the time on Sunday morning and tryto always dress nicely. But I will be honest if I walked in a church and the pastor had on jeans and a tshirt I would be as okay with that as one who is wearing a suit and tie or a cleric collar or a robe. As I look at the congregation, I am not looking at what clothing they have on. I am looking to see if they are wearing the joy of the Lord on their face as we worship together with our brothers and sisters. I think what is important for us to wear is the characteristics of our Lord and Savior. It saddens me to see so many people walking around judging one another when our appearance should show the love of Christ that embodies us.

  • Robert Carter says on

    I usually wear a shirt and tie and I pastor a small country church in Alabama. A couple of things to consider. One, suits are now so expensive they are not as accessible as they once were on what a lot of ministers make. Secondly, in order to keep the older members comfortable the temperature is pretty warm and wearing a suit is difficult the way I perspire. Only one man in my congregation wears a suit and by his own admission out of habit. I wear a suit for funerals and weddings, but dress shirt and tie most other times. I don’t wear a tie at all on Wednesday nights. However, where ever I pastor I dress based on the expectations of the congregation I am pastoring.

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