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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ask The Matriarch: wardrobe malfunction edition

Dear Matriarchs:

We've recently re instituted taking communion each Sunday to parishioners who are homebound. This is a specialized lay ministry, licensed and structured by guidelines of our denomination. One of our licensed "Eucharistic Visitors," is a long-time faithful and dedicated member of our church. He also comes to church "looking like Saturday," as another member describes the wardrobe. This member was scheduled as a Eucharistic Visitor today, and this morning he was in a T-shirt, jeans with ripped knees, and crocs. Two voices echo in my head: "Oh that's just Lee," is what one of them says, not caring in the least what he wears. The other voice says, "I'd really like him to be better dressed--he is representing the church when he visits a parishioner at home (or at a hospital...)."

What guidelines, if any, do the matriarchs use regarding the matter of dress when serving in worship, in or outside the congregation? If there is a recommended dress code, how can it be implemented gracefully?

A variety of answers from our Matriarchs this week and we are not short on opinions of all sorts! Take your pick:

Kristin opts for a group discussion and consensus:
Sounds like a good time to have a discussion with both groups the Visitors and the Homebound. What are their expectations? What would they want to see if they were the one being visited. What do clothes say about the lay minster? Personally, I would expect that Lay Eucharistic Visitors would dress up for such visits in 'professional' looking clothing unless you come from a really laid-back denomination. At a minimum this would mean dress slacks, a nice shirt (not a tee-shirt), and tidy closed-toe shoes (could be clean tennis shoes, even). I live in the pacific northwest and wear (clean!) hiking boots to the opera, but wear them with skirts and dressy, well-fitting shirts.

Clothes that are stained, ripped, or ratty looking would put me off-- unless the person had made arrangements in advance to help me with my garden as part of the visit. What does your congregation expect of its ministers (both lay and ordained)? What makes them feel like they are being ministered to? Care in dressing is a part of serving the needs of others.

As for implementing a dress code gracefully, you'll have the best chance if you include the folks who are invested in the program in the decision making process. It helps that this is a new program for you-- you shouldn't have any "we've always done it that way" issues to fight against.

Revabi thinks it depends on the congregation's expectations and also thinks some discussion with the team is needed:
What a dilemma? Here you have a person willing to serve, yet represents what we see in the church and the everyday world. It sounds like you don't have a written dress policy for the church, but does the denomination have one? I am not sure even from your note how old this person is either. I hate to say it I have seen some preachers come in shorts to do their hospital visits. And I have come in wearing them when caught in an emergency and couldn't go home.

I think you would be switching in midstream to all of a sudden say something to him. But what if you got the whole team together and discussed their experiences and what they are learning. Perhaps raise the issue of whether there is a need for a dress policy or not? If this really important to you or the representation of the church.

And I don't even know what your church is like, is it more traditional, dress-up? If so, then perhaps dressing accordingly is important. But if you have a contemporary service or what you wear doesn't matter, then what should it matter?

SingingOwl writes:
Our church is very casual. Jeans and tee shirts are common attire on Sundays (in warm weather anyway) along with a range of other outfits. Suits and ties are rare. We did have occasional problems, like the Sunday the keyboard player wore a pair of florescent orange sandals that looked like fluffy bedroom slippers. Whenever I glanced her way all I saw was bright orange fuzzy shoes. We did implement a dress code for those who were serving on the platform, or in other situations where they were representing the church. It was by no means a strict one. The “guidelines” were presented at a team meeting so no one was singled out. Emphasis was placed on the concept that when we are ministering to others it is not about US, and we want to minimize distractions. A low cut blouse, very short skirt, ratty jeans, and so on are a potential distraction from the ministry that is taking place. Jeans were okay, but not holey jeans. Shorts were out. We cautioned about tight clothing, etc. but it is not like someone was the “clothes police.” As for the orange fuzzy sandals, I was honest and told her that I was thinking about her shoes and not about God. The dress code worked well for us, and as far as I know no one took offense. I’m sure I’d like Lee, by the way.

Jan has some questions to be answered first:
#1 Issue Here: who is this really for? Assuming worship leaders and hospital visitors are serving to bring spiritual comfort and care to others, I would let that be the Eucharistic Visitors' guide. For example, if serving a parishioner who even mows his lawn in a suit, the Eucharistic Visitor would be wise to dress accordingly. If serving a person who is always in sweats, then a more casual EV uniform would be fine IMHO.

A member of our staff is known to dress down on Sunday mornings which concerns those who believe that dressing up glorifies God. But M. dresses for those visitors who will not be dressed up. His thinking: he dresses like the "worst dressed" person who might come through our door as an act of hospitality so that person won't be uncomfortable. A dressed-down worshiper might be a visitor who doesn't know how most worshipers dress on Sundays or it might be a mentally ill member whom many assume is homeless. He's not, but he dresses like he is which is fine with us because it's a miracle when he can get his shoes on in the morning.

The point of "good manners" is to make others comfortable. And dress - whether it's "proper" or "improper" - is not meant to get in the way when a person is representing the church. A too-formal hierarchical choice might stifle heart-to-heart conversation. A sloppy demeanor might also offend. Maybe the EVs could simply be trained in the art of including what they wear as preparation for serving those they are visiting. If it's really about caring for your people, they clearly will want to be as caring as possible.

That could happen in ripped jeans or an expensive suit. I think God only cares when we get that it's not about us.

Jacquelyn thinks addressing the question as a group is helpful:
The congregation I serve welcomes folks to worship in a relaxed environment in which people feel welcome to "come as you are." What this means is that some are in suits and dresses and some are in jeans and shorts. We have not had the problem of people making home visits when they are inappropriately dressed. However there have been other concerns regarding how a particular elder or deacon carried out the responsibilities of his or her lay ministry. I have found is that it usually works best to address these issues in the context of the whole group so that no one person is singled out. If I were in your situation, I would have gathering of the Eucharistic Visitors for the purpose of training or talking about their ministry. I would not approach it as a "dress code" at all. I would talk about -- and facilitate the Eucharistic Ministers themselves to talk about -- what they are doing when they take communion to those who are at home or ill. It can be helpful to tell stories that reveal what this means to those who receive it and, in particular, how much the relationship with the Eucharist Visitor means to the person they are visiting. I would talk about them representing the church and therefore Christ when they make their visits. Then talk about how they prepare to go 1) calling ahead of time (when appropriate 2) the communion kit 3) the service they prepare to lead when they are there and any tips on sharing communion with the person 3) dressing neatly - in a way that will help make the person they visit feel good (you might note that it is important for the Eucharistic Visitor to be aware of dress expectations of persons of different generations) 3) making their visits in pairs rather than alone. This, of course, has to do with "Safe Church" as well as the simple fact that conversation is easier with 3 rather than 2, but it also is the case that the person you are concerned about is less likely to do the visit in jeans and t-shirt if they are doing it with someone else who is dressed more neatly.

That's a long way of saying that I would address the issue as a part of a wholistic look at the ministry of the Eucharistic Visitor.

Kay has another point of view:
I say don't sweat the small stuff - if Lee shows up looking like Saturday and shares the Eucharist with love, then I bet he is dressed just right.

My opinion: The dress code can be divisive. If my personal style is more the jeans and crocs look, then I am excluded from sharing the Eucharist with others.

RevHoney also recommends gathering the Visitors to discuss this:
Our congregation has been morphing into a more casually-dressed group over the last few years, but I am not sure we would have any Eucharistic Visitors "looking like Saturday". Among our EV's, there does seem to be a sensitivity to choosing what will make the person receiving the sacrament most comfortable. We have worked to cultivate that attitude through quarterly gatherings of the EV's. We haven't ever spoken about appropriate "dress" on visits; but we have talked at some length about the ways that EV's can help people truly feel a part of the community through thse brief encounters.

Another step we have taken has been to assign EV's the same persons to visit over a span of time. Relationships are established and deepened that way. Perhaps there are members receiving the Eucharist who know and love Lee just the way he is, and those are the people whom he should visit.

I hear similar voices in my head from time to time as I look out at our changing way of being community. And when they clash, I try to remind myself that it isn't about me or about is about authentic community gathered around the crucified and risen Christ and dispersed to be Christ's hands and feet in the world.

Rector in Hawai’i comments:
Hard to answer this one since Hawaii is so casual. But ripped pants and t-shirts are really unacceptable -- especially if the homebound folks are older and have different expectations and standards. The idea of an EV is that it's all about sharing the sacrament. If the homebound are focused on poor dress, they will be distracted from the reason for the visit. Kind of like one of the reasons clergy and altar assistants are vested --- so as not to distract from the reason for coming together....

I'd have a discussion among the EVs about appropriate dress since they don't wear their albs out there. In my own congregation, I'd approach with some humor -- perhaps opening up a discussion about how the time with a person is spent, if their age makes any difference with the way EVs talk with them, and try to move it around to appropriate attire. I'd use myself as an example because I rarely wear a collar during the week, but also am very aware of how I dress and when I do wear a collar depending on who I visit. Although my daily dress is usually jeans and polo shirts, I will change quickly if I'll be visiting someone for the first or second time. It's really so situational and cultural.

On the other hand, I might just say -- 'Hey George, got a minute?' After I close the door, I'd say, 'Okay. Let's talk about whether or not less-than-casual clothes for EV visits help or hinder the visit.' Or if I knew him well, I'd say, 'How about if we make a dress code for EV visits since you're representing the church and are working with an older generation. If we do it now, we won't have to deal with cranky homebound folks who expect your best Sunday clothes."

No lack of advice among our Matriarchs --- what would you tell this pastor on this subject?


  1. I go with the being all things to all people argument. Being a community means putting the good of your community above your own personal likes and dislikes. It's not about any one person's sense of style or propriety. People who want to wear jeans and cut offs need to learn to respect those of another culture who believe you show reverence in how you dress. People who judge others by sloppy dress need to learn to look beyond the trappings of clothes. I think the deeper spiritual lesson here is learning that very hard lesson of community --"It's not about ME"

  2. I'm neither a pastor nor an EV. But I would think that some one could dress up just a bit when visiting others in the name of the church. That said, I've had these things withing my family: My daughter had a "top" on for graduation pictures that she thought was wonderful, but to my mother-in-law it looked like "underwear." And DH doesn't like to buy clothing and wears what he has until I insist that it needs to be just used for gardening. He just doesn't see the holes and thin spots. He doesn't believe in judging by clothing either, but OTHERS do judge by clothing. Lastly, some people have only one kind of clothing, even people who can afford otherwise. Even within the church, we've had youth doing some part of the service who wear something that I've wondered about. Surely their mothers could have said, "Hey, you have other pants that won't fall down while you are lighting the candles."

    Conclusion: Have some gentle discussion among the group to discern the "culture" of your church community.

  3. Dorcas is SingingOwl in case anyone wondered. :-)

  4. Hmmm, I wonder what reception John the Baptizer would get. Long ago, I learned that someone else's dress was not mine and the sneakers that the acolyte was wearing was, indeed, his best footwear. I was reminded as to what was most important.

  5. The heart of this issue is about one person visiting another in the name of the church. The person who is being visited is homebound and at the mercy of the one visiting. It seems to me that his or her needs should be considered. It is the whole package not just the contents. If the person finds it offensive to have the visitor arrive dirty and ragged - it seems a small thing to send a different EV or for "Lee" shape up as a gift to the homebound. In many cultures until today it was seen as a lack of respect and care to arrive in such a state for a planned visit.

  6. It is a question of culture, money and taste.

    Culture is what you see as "normal" dress. My parents would roll their eyes at the phrase "dressy jeans" but as long as we were clothed, I think they were happy.
    Money is sometimes the issue (i.e. truly you don't have it to spend) but most of the time, when it comes to clothes it is a discretionary issue. Even my kids in middle school had to have ONE pair of non-jeans for music concerts. It's the only time they wore them (LOL) but it was a dress code.
    Taste is a little harder. You don't want to tell them "don't wear your nose ring" or something, but you do want them to consider how it could be perceived.

    In the case of home ministry, you are serving God and the person, not your preferences. So you go by that.

    who can wear jeans on Sundays, but tries not to :)

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  8. [re-posted to fix terrible spelling]

    Generational and relationship differences are very important to consider. I would dress very differently to hang out with my my friends than for visiting a stranger or an elderly person.

    The flip side is a story I heard back in my mediation days, when a mediator showed up dressed to the nines and dripping diamonds only to find that the disputants she was working with were low income. Her mode of dress created a barrier that made it difficult for the mediation to proceed-- the clients felt that the mediator would have no understanding of their situation because she was so obviously 'rich.'

    So I would amend my answer a bit to say that LEM's should aim for a happy medium-- no rips tears or stains, but also leave the contents of the jewelery box at home :)


  9. When I was a volunteer coordinator for an aging-services agency, I would broach this subject this way: "If your grandmother were getting meals on wheels, how would you want her volunteer to dress?"

    I think in terms of one-on-one ministry it comes down to cases. An elderly homebound parishoner has different expectations of how someone visiting to commune her should look than, say, a teenager stuck in the hospital after a motorcycle accident.

    In diverse groups things get more complex. But if the "dressed like Saturday" people would maybe clean up enough to not look like they'd just come in from fixing the lawn mower, and the "Sunday best" people dressed down so that we didn't think they were on their way to a royal tea party after church, we might find a happy medium that is welcoming to more casual visitors while respecting the scruples of persons whose generation or culture has taught them that dressing up for worship is a sign of respect for God and for others.

  10. I have a gentleman in my church who would likely be the first to raise his hand to visit folks and share the Eucharist with them. He would either show up in overalls or drawstring pants, though. And it isn't about money or fashion sense or disrespect...he simply doesn't have abdominal muscles because of a serious illness 2 years ago and can't wear regular pants.

    Now, that's a pretty specific example but...I know when I have visited homebound persons, they often can't dress up --many times wear "house coat" type clothing--and I find myself wondering if my "nicer" attire makes them uncomfortable.

    I think most of our homebound folks really appreciate the time people share with them more than the clothing they wear.

    Of course, I may be projecting a bit here. We are a fairly casual (blue jeans, shorts, flip flops) congregation. But, my son got fussed at on Easter for wearing a ball cap (he plays the drums). The person doing the fussing is not exactly my biggest fan...yeah, I may have some other issues going here so take my comments with that in mind!


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