Six Thoughts about Proper Pastoral Attire for Worship Services

July 13, 2015

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.

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245 Comments

  • My first annual review was done by all members that wanted to fill out an anonymous review of my first year as their pastor. (On a side note, I made sure reviews were never done that way again.) I remember one (I assume older member) writing how they didn’t like seeing me out in public dressed down. They thought pastors should wear suits every time they left the house. Wow, I’m now in my 8th year at the church and that person has either left, changed their views, or has been very disappointed in me all this time. My Sunday attire varies, but my attire for regular day to day is never a suit.

  • Kathy Nelson says on

    Who knew an article about pulpit attire would stir up such a flurry of responses?!

    I am an associate pastor at a multi-staff church in the Pacific Northwest. Each of the pastoral staff dresses according to their own style. Some wear jeans with a shirt, tie, and vest. Some wear jeans with a button down shirt. Another has a penchant for cardigan sweaters. I personally dress one step above what I wear to the office during the week. This puts me in the middle of the road in regards to the spectrum of attire represented in the congregation.

    Jesus didn’t dress as a king on earth. He dressed as a carpenter. His focus was the kingdom. My hope is to follow well.

  • Why do those who broadcast the news on TV dress better than those who preach the Gospel on Sunday? And why are they required to “dress up”?

    • Jim Watson says on

      It might have something to do with the level of air conditioning needed to keep the equipment from overheating. Let the air conditioning go out, and you will see the attire change. Let the amount of time they spend on the air and the events at the time, and you might also see the attire change.

      It also has to do with the expectations of society. Should we let the world dictate our style of dress?

  • I am blown away by the amount of comments that this issue generates. After reading all of them there is one observation that I would like to make which is related to the topic.

    What are we doing on our Sunday worship service?

    It seems I have a fundamental difference in approach to the Sunday worship service to many people here.

    Many people talk about John the Baptist, or Jesus, not wearing a suit, but I believe they were not conducting church services . . . they were (primarily) evangelizing the lost.

    It appears from the comments that many people here believe that the primary purpose of the Sunday worship service is evangelism and I simply do not agree with this focus.

    The majority (close to 100%) of our Sunday worship service should be believing Christians. We should be focusing the content of our pulpit sermons to believers to exhort them and provoke them to good works. The prime purpose of our pulpit message should not be evangelism. As such we should not be dressing to make unbelievers comfortable (equally we should not be making our members uncomfortable).

    Evangelism should be occurring on the beaches, in the fields and streets, on the hills . . . and from time to time it will occur in the pulpit but, if we are tailoring our church services to the unsaved, I’ll suggest to you that we have lost the focus.

    So to everyone who says we must be dressing in the pulpit to make the unsaved comfortable in our services, I must respectfully disagree.

    I do agree that we must be dressing to avoid drawing attention to ourselves . . . but, within reason, we are much more like to draw attention to ourselves if we are slightly more informal than formally dressed.

    And to those preachers (like me) who wear a tie in the pulpit . . . our choice of ties in itself can be a distraction . . . we can be just as rebellious with loud psychedelic ties around our necks as we can be wearing skinny jeans with an untucked shirt.

    Just in case you wondered, I do not wear a tie when I am street preaching, only in the pulpit – again, it is about NOT drawing attention to oneself.

    • I think there is a problem any time you compartmentalize worship or evangelism. I believe it was Wiersbe who said that there is no greater evangelistic expression than believers truly worshipping God (obviously worship is far more than Sunday morning but rather a lifestyle of worship). I don’t think that we ought to make the worship service about evangelism and I don’t think that we should make our worship services based on believers. However, in saying that – what if we looked at the aspects of our worship services that aren’t biblical but are traditional. Ties and coats aren’t a biblical concept (even though many try and twist scripture to support it) and that’s what this discussion has been about. There are obviously many who feel strongly one way or the other. I, personally, was brought up in a very traditional setting as a pastor’s kid and have worn a coat and tie more most of my years in ministry. However, it isn’t the contextual setting for our community or our church so we made the decision as staff to relax. For the most part, it has been welcomed highly and as we get a number of guests in our services each Sunday (obviously some are visiting because of the lake who are Christians) and those who have come for a variety of reasons who are not Christians (and have been here before and after the change) have remarked about how much more comfortable they have felt. Some (we have two that like to harp on this issue) have said we are “compromising” the scripture but honestly I don’t find scripture stating on how to dress in worship. I think it’s a non-issue. I have been on staff in a church in a very “yuppie” area and the majority of those in that church still wear ties and coats (or at least ties) – I would say that’s a different culture both in the church and in the community.
      I personally don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here unless we think that our way is the only way to do it – then I would say you are wrong and judgmental. I think God cares a great deal about our worship and our worship services but does He care about how we dress? I believe He wants us to worship Him with everything we are – and that is what will reach the lost as well – those inside and outside our church walls.

  • Jim Watson says on

    After reading all of these comments, I wonder how many churches would have allowed John the Baptist to preach. Even in his day, he did not dress his best (by any cultural standards). But, he delivered the best message that God had given him to preach.

    From the discussion here, I wonder where the focus in the pulpits is.

    Just continuing to think aloud….

  • I would like to ask the question of what did Jesus wear when he was preaching? What type of clothing did the apostles wear on and after the day of Penecost? Did Paul wear a three piece suit?

  • Jack Marshburn says on

    For me it is a personal thing. I consider God’s call to preach to be a sacred assignment and the pulpit my responsibility. Therefore, I choose to show my respect in the way I dress which is with coat and tie. Others see this differently but I happen to believe that preaching is more than just one of the things I do. It is exceptional and thus deserves to be treated with disctinction not just in how I dress but how I dress is included.

  • The topic of dress for those leading in a church service has always been a delicate one. There certainly was a day when the unofficial “uniform” for a pastor was a suit and tie. Style and trends in the U.S. have definately changed with corporate business leaders tending for a more “informal” look. I would have to agree with Thom’s first two comments especially: Consider the church demographics and the church expectations. In the cooler months (if one can say El Paso, Texas has cooler temperatures) I do typically wear a suit and tie. During the summer months, I remove the suit coat, but do wear a dress shirt and tie with appropriate slacks and dress shoes. The congregation I serve is prodominately older adults (over retirement age). I recently looked at a video sermon from a local area church that I suspect appeals to a much younger congregation. The co-pastor preaching was wearing a T-Shirt with some logo or saying on it, shorts and sandals. I must admit, I was so distracted by his apparel that I could not concentrate on what he was saying because of his dress. I was also distracted by the tatoo on his lower leg that was visible because of his wearing shorts. I fully respect the rights of others to have tatoos and I do not judge them for them, although I have none or have any desire for any. In this case, I found myself wondering exactly what that tatoo was, since it was on the side of his leg and not the front, and could not be fully seen in the video. I would simply want my dress to be respectful and not a distraction.

    I have heard other ministers make comments such as, “If I can wear a suit and tie to attend a symphony, I can certainly wear them to worship my Lord!” I understand and value their comments and even agree to some extent, yet again I desire to do what is appropriate. I have been able to honestly tell those who have inquired about proper dress that we have some who dress very nicely and others who come in T-shirts and jeans. Typically I am asked about acceptable dress by those who have been asked to leave other churches because they were not dressed “well enough” to be accepted. May we never be that way with people coming to meet the Lord in our services!

  • Pastored churches in Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and now Arizona. Was always a suit and tie guy until I got to Yuma,Arizona. My attire made the congregation uncomfortable and it seemed a bit ridiculous to wear a coat when it is 112 outside. I would dress differently in the Bible Belt’s more established churches. I struggle with a personal preference issue when I see guys in the pulpit in t-shirts and sandals. The key point is know your demographic and setting.

  • I find it interesting that some want to put claims to scripture for us dressing “in our best” and all the while skipping Jesus. Jesus spent his time going out into the community and meeting people — probably in the very clothes he worshipped in at the Temple. I find the idea of trying to educate people on what to wear (i.e. getting nicer clothes so they can “give God their best”) to be quite contrary to scripture. Worship is a heart issue and if we “accept” people as they are (and as they dress) only to expect them to begin to dress better after they come to know Christ (and accept our religious trappings and traditions) — are we any different than the Jews who expected the gentiles to be circumcised after salvation?

    I think God is far more interested in our hearts and getting us (as a church and as individuals) to stay on task — reaching our communities with the gospel of Christ and training them to serve Him. When we start adding trappings “look like this, talk like this, read this translation of the Bible, etc. etc., we begin to tread on pretty dangerous ground (beware of adding anything to the gospel, in my opinion. We also get distracted from what we are to do — Paul said I will become all things to all people so I might have the chance to win them with the gospel of Christ (my paraphrase, of course). I think sometimes we like to focus on the outside so we don’t focus on the inside.

    I will say that my wife and I went to Hawaii for our 25th Anniversary and I was impressed by a pastor who was wearing shorts and flip flops. Because he was having an early service on the beach that was completely geared for those who don’t know Christ. He met them right where they were. He didn’t act like them, talk like them but he did dress like them. We were so impressed that we went to his church for a later service (we had planned to go to a different church but changed because of this) and he had changed — and looked very much like the average person in the congregation.

    A couple of questions for you to consider:
    – Does my attitude about dress (either way), give glory and honor to Christ and does it help me win and grow others in Christ?

    – Take a look at the “tradition” of “dressing up” for church. When did that start? For centuries people were lucky to have more than one change of clothes – so this is a rather “new” tradition and doesn’t have root in scripture. So should we be honest about our feelings for this tradition or should we search the entirety of God’s Word and allow Him to show us?

    – What does the Bible say about judging others based on their clothing?

    – Is God more concerned with the outside or the inside? If we allow HIm to change us from the inside out, won’t He convict us if our clothing doesn’t meet His standards?

  • Let me say at the outset that I have never turned anyone away from church because of the way they were dressed, and I would be greatly offended if any of my members did (granted, I might have to take a different approach if someone were pushing the limits of decency, but thus far that hasn’t happened).

    That being said, is it really so horrible for church members to set an example for our culture by dressing up a bit on Sunday? I’m not saying we should go back to the days of coats and ties, but I think we can do a little better than we’re doing today. It really bothers me when I see people leading worship with uncombed hair, unshaved faces, and shirttails hanging out. When I say “unshaved faces”, I don’t mean men with neatly groomed beards and mustaches; I’m talking about men with three or four days’ worth of stubble on their faces. We can do better than that, can’t we?

    Surely there must be some happy medium between “too formal” and “too casual”.

  • Betty-Jo Walker says on

    My husband & my father-in-law were ministers. Both always dressed nice. One thing I noticed about church members and what they expected of their pastor (& his family) was they should always be dressed in very nice clothing. Regardless of whether they paid them enough to do so. =0)

    I had the blessing of working with young people in churches. Appropriate clothing often came up. One of them came to church wearing torn, tattered jeans. I commented on them. He mentioned that the gentleman* my husband & I had brought to church with us the week before had worn jeans that had holes in them …why was that any different? My reply was: This man owned two pairs of jeans. Those were his “best”. Were yours?”
    Point is…one persons “best” is not what another’s might be. Personally, I am more offended by the “lack of clothing”…especially by women… deemed to be appropriate …in church or other anywhere else.
    *he was someone who we saw holding a sign, looking for work. We took him home and he helped my husband with yard work. To make sure his pants looked neat, he would place them under his mattress so they would be pressed.

    • I wonder, because this guys dress was so limited, if he might have felt more comfortable and less self conscious if more people were dressed like the student.

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