Visit our new site at

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Fashion and the Female Minister

This week's question is a fun one, and one that I think a lot of you will have thoughts about. It's not a topic that seems to come up in seminary, and yet many female clergy will have to make some decisions at some point about how we deal with it. Our questioner writes:

I am a 32-year-old lawyer discerning a call to ordained Lutheran
ministry. It feels a little embarrassing to ask a question of this
magnitude, or lack thereof, but here goes. I am having trouble
deciding if the creature comforts I enjoy are compatible with being a
pastor... things like wearing make-up, wearing pretty clothes and
shoes, etc. Certainly these things are not central to my life. But I
think they are indicative of my greater question: can/should women
"like me" be pastors? I don't have a lot of female pastor role models,
and the ones there are don't seem to care much about the stuff I
mentioned. It's not that that's a bad thing. It's just that I'm
wondering if I belong. Can anyone relate? I would love to hear your
wisdom. Thanks!

Sue responds:
I began my ministry as a second career as well, at about the same age. At the time I worked in a hospital and wore a uniform to work. However, I also wondered about things such as hair, make-up and appropriate clothing, mostly because I had always worn some (not a lot) make-up and I always liked to look 'put together' when I was not working.

In my denomination, I had seen the whole gamut of "looks" (from no make-up and buzz cuts to looks requiring way more maintenance than I would ever have the time for), but for the most part, the model has been moderation. Yes, it is okay to wear make-up but not in excess. A good, natural, day-time look will always work regardless of where you work.

I have noticed at meetings of the larger church that many female clergy go with the simpler, low-maintenance look. My deep hope is that they do that because they WANT to, not because they've been given any impression that they MUST leave their femininity behind once the stole is over their shoulders. That, in my view, would be an unfortunate form of sexism. Yes we are pastors. Yes we are women. If it's a personal choice to go make-up free with a no-maintenance haircut - great - go with that and enjoy. But if it's imposed by any denomination or congregation - not good. Not good at all.

In my first pastorel charge, my team-mate in ministry (male) did not wear vestments for worship, so when we led worship together, I didn't either. Instead I would wear a nice, classic suit with a skirt at an appropriate length (below the knee), and low kitten heels. It was frustrating after worship to hear people say NOTHING about my colleague's tie and suit, but I could count on at least half a dozen people who would comment on my "outfit". Argh. SUCH a double standard.

So, when I started at my second charge, I began to wear my alb for every worship. It helps a lot. I want to hear about the congregation's opinion about the service and what is happening in their lives - I do NOT want to hear about their opinion on my 'outfit'. The alb has in essence become as much a disguise as a symbol of service, which is unfortunate - but it works.

So basically, in my experience - I don't hear anyone asking male clergy to "look" a certain way, so I believe that it would be wrong for any church to play dress up with a female clergy by telling her what she is allowed to wear. On the other hand, if either gender were dressing VERY inappropriately (use your imagination!), that of course creates a different situation. Go with natural, moderation (as in no mini-skirts or 4 inch heels), and authentic to who you are - and you can't go wrong. 

Jennifer writes:

Of course there’s a place for you in ministry! I would think that the same rules apply to those in ministry as they do to those in the field of law: your manner of dress is a reflection upon one’s own feelings of self-worth and self-confidence and your respect for the calling. Would “all things in moderation” apply to your current dress code? You don’t want to dress in a way that detracts from your message and work, right? Same with the ministry!

That said, whether the pastor is male or female, there will always be folks in congregations and parishes who find reason to critique a pastor’s attire (and other lifestyle choices, too). It’s good to be prepared for this, and this may prove to be the greater challenge. On the subject of appropriate attire/style for clergy, check out Beauty Tips for Ministers ( for lots of good advice.  

As you continue to discern a call to ministry, try to seek out some role models who can alert you to all of the joys and wrinkles of serving in the public eye as clergy.
You’ve come to a great place here, and you may also want to look for some mentors who’ve transitioned from a first career to a second in the ministry who can provide some good support about the whole calling as you sort out what feels right to you.

And Mompriest offers:

Absolutely! I had a wonderful role model (for me) when I was discerning and going through the ordination process. In addition to be articulate, and good preacher and leader, she always had well manicured nails, and not just in a buff colored polish, but red or coral. She also wore lip stick and nice clothing, even heels. I have done the same, BUT only because it's part of who I am. True, on a casual day off you will find me in jeans, flip flops and no make up. I'm comforable that way too, although I rarely show up for "work" that way. The point is, if this is organic to who you are and how you like to express yourself then it is who you will be as a pastor, and that's ok! 


Our matriarchs have all offered some great wisdom. I can't help but share my own experience as well, since this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm not sure why this issue never occurred to me along the way to ordination - maybe it was because I didn't have a lot of female minister role models (i.e., none when I was growing up, and only a handful once I was in seminary). But it was only when I was packing to move to my first parish that I suddenly realized that my personal style was nothing like the few female ministers I did know. I did not have the "clergywoman haircut" (a smooth, simple bob - which my long, unruly curls would have defied anyway). I wore makeup, multiple earrings, and had a tattoo. I've always loved clothes and fashion, and my personal style was not the conservative one I had come to notice other clergywomen had. It actually became a bit of a crisis for me, as I suddenly began to feel that on the basis of my style alone I was unsuitable for church ministry. And then I realized how ridiculous that was. God called me - not some generic stereotype of a clergywoman. God called me in my particularity, and that particularity includes all aspects of who I am, including my personal sense of style. 

Over the years, I have had to learn, by trial-and-error, how to navigate my style preferences in the context of my ministry. A casual evening out with young adults in the church allows for different style choices than an afternoon visiting shut-ins or representing the church at a public event. When in doubt, I ask myself what looks most professional. I would think that most of what you wear to practice law could be worn to practice ministry (unless you dress like Ally McBeal! - I'm pretty sure that the tiny skirts she wore would be as inappropriate in the law offices as they would be in the church office). For me professional always includes heels, makeup, jewelry, and fashionable clothes. I always wear a robe in the pulpit so that my clothing can be a non-issue, and I only wear one pair of earrings in the pulpit (as opposed to multiple). I cover my tattoos in work contexts (this wouldn't be necessary in "emerging church" contexts or certain other ministries).

I have many more thoughts, but this column is already getting quite long! I'm anxious to hear from the rest of you. What thoughts would you share? Please do so in the comment section. And, as always, if you have a question for the matriarchs, please send it to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.



  1. Just wanted to add that, of course a clothing budget should be governed by Christian principles (not spending beyond means, not owning more than necessary, etc.), but that should be the case for every Christian, not just for ministers. And of course each of us defines "what is necessary" differently (i.e., maybe some clergywomen have simpler more conservative styles as a matter of principle).

  2. And one more thing. (see, I can't stop!)

    I've really enjoyed the blog academichic , written by "three feminist PhD candidates at a Midwest university, on a crusade against the ill-fitting polyester suit of academic yore." I think female academics encounter some of the same issues female clergy might when it comes to fashion.

  3. I appreciate what you add, earthchick. For awhile I took on the responsibility of purchasing my clothing at a gently used store whose proceeds support a local battered women's shelter. That way I was able to afford a wardrobe that fit the congregation I was serving (more casual in a hot desert climate, a change from my midwest four season positions). This served three purposes - good for the environment, good for the shelter, and good for me.

  4. I'm second career as well, and went to seminary at age 35, toting my spouse and school age children with me. Like Sue, my previous career was spent wearing scrubs, so I had to navigate sartorial things on my own.

    When I finally landed in seminary--in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are many different styles represented--I found many women my own age who were Fierce and Fabulous for Jesus.

    I took advantage of those four years to observe carefully and to discern what was important to me in terms of being my honest authentic true self, right down to my cute shoes.

    I color my hair, I keep my nails in excellent shape, I choose thoughtfully in terms of wardrobe appropriateness, but those are things I do to be true to me.

    There are certain guidelines I developed over the years: no open toed shoes to hospitals or nursing homes, for example, but my congregation was casual enough that I wore sandals with my Geneva gown in the summer. (Dressy sandals, not flip-flops.)

    Most things are a matter of negotiation and discernment. There is no one right answer.

    I will say that no matter how tasteful your hair style, chances are somebody is going to comment on it. People just seem to have a fascination with "lady preacher" hair.

    Can I get a witness, RevGals?

  5. I'm a former lawyer. I'm about 20 or so years older than you, but I wear decent clothes and makeup. In the summer when no one's around I don't wear foundation, but I wear eyebrow pencil (lost part of my eyebrows to cancer and thyroid or lack thereof). I color my hair. I had to repierce my ears (long story) and am waiting until I can wear my long, dangly, outrageous earrings.

    I have a professional look: skirts or nice slacks, longish tops (look better on me cause I'm a bit overweight), for when I'm meeting people formally: prebyterian women, hospital visits, visitations, classes; a more informal look: black jeans (yes, jeans) in the winter for the office, informal skirts, dresses, cropped pants for when I'm at church but don't have a formal meeting (but I will see people at church). Sundays is Sunday clothes: generally black skirt or slacks, black dress T and a jacket of somesort, pearls, pearl earrings. I wear a Geneva gown in the winter and a white alb in the summer.

    We are doing informal, experiential worship in the fellowship hall in July and August. I don't plan to robe. We'll see how it goes. If I get too many comments, I may do something different.

    I have a large variety of stoles, some of which I've made. I always get comments on my stoles. I imagine men who wear interesting stoles don't get as many comments as women. I think people feel freer to comment on women's apparel than they do on men's.

  6. Great question.

    I am at a similar age as our question-er and have found that much of the advice here resonates with my experience as well.

    I distinctly remember making the decision in seminary that even on my meager budget I would shell out to have my hands regularly manicured. The she-devil in my thought "I will parse those Greek verbs AND look sassy doing it!" Or, as the early church Father, Ireneus said, "The glory of God is the human person FULLY ALIVE." (for women who enjoy their femininity, that falls under the "fully alive" category for sure.)

    Now, serving my church, I have a few suits (always with pants -- children's sermons and skirts scare me) but I am also growing a sweet collection of shoes in each color of the liturgical seasons! It amuses me AND when I get comments about it (which I do) it is an opportunity to point my
    not-high-church-congregation toward the meaning of the liturgical calendar.

    So, merciful heavens, if the only thing holding you back from jumping on board the ordination express is this concern, pack a steamer trunk full of your favorites, buy a ticket and hop on.

  7. I will echo Rev Irreverent's idea of shoes to match the liturgical seasons--Yes! I have done that as well. (My purple suede wedges are my favorites.)

  8. I think the others have addressed the "what (not) to wear" question really well--you can probably wear most of what you already do, or would want to, in a church role, varied depending on the congregation, the occasion, the part of the world.
    And yes, people will comment on it, sometimes--though when I get those comments ("I couldn't help looking at your shoes!" "you're so young" "I love those earrings" "it's nice to FINALLY see you in a skirt" "you don't look like a priest") I think they are (usually) more about those I work with negotiating their feelings about a woman pastor and priest, than that my clothing is particularly out of line.

    But a more personal comment--I haven't been ordained very long, but I started seminary in my VERY early twenties. I had always known women clergy growing up, but not that many, and none I was that close to. In my discernment and seminary career, I was CONSTANTLY haunted by the sense that "there's no room for someone who looks like me in the church"--in my case it wasn't about clothes, but about being a very young woman surrounded by lots of older women and mostly older men. I remember coming home from lots of clergy meetings and get togethers acutely aware that I was the only one under 35 (or 40, or 50), and often the only, or one of a small handful of, women. It can be lonely, feeling that you are called, yet that "people like me" aren't supposed to be priests/pastors/whatever I feel called to.
    Perhaps mentors will help--someone you identify with, no matter what their age/gender/fashion sense. I've found some of my favorite mentors in men of retirement age--they were ordained younger than me, many of them either were on the forefront of advocating for women's ordination, or have at least done a LOT of reflection on it in the last 35 years, and many of them have a ton of wisdom and grace--and they are helping out with my legitimate pastoral questions, not questioning my age or sex or shoes or whatever. You may find others.
    The lesson I had to learn--and still struggle to learn--is that God calls us to the ministries to which we are called as ourselves. If I am called to ordained ministry, I am called to grow in wisdom, in skills and in holiness--not to be a man, or be older, or cut my hair short and throw out my make up, or wear sensible pumps. It's a hard lesson for me, and maybe for others. Maybe it's not a lesson you need to learn--but if it is, I hope that you will find the confidence and grace you need, and the encouragement you need from others as you follow your call. And I hope you keep looking fabulous doing it!

  9. Non- pastor here. Two thoughts: I used to tell my daughters about makeup, etc, "When you walk into a room, do you want people to see you or see makeup?"

    I have foot issues, so I only wear about 2 or 3 pairs of shoes, ever, mostly good quality walking shoes, ie athletic type. I've often thought about what could I possibly wear if I HAD to wear suits or other more formal clothing? Sometimes we just have to give in to practicality.

  10. If you ever see me in a suit it means someone is dead. ;P

  11. Please check out The Young Clergy Women Project! You will find kindred spirits there.

    The online magazine is at:

    Information about the project can be found at:

  12. I think the context of your congregation is important too. For weekday office wear, I think about who will be joining me for the day. If folks are wearing jogging suits and jeans and t-shirts, I feel kind of silly all dressed up. I tend to stick to slacks/knee length skirts and simple tops.

    I dressed for sunday in a brown corduroy skirt, white shirt and a cardigan with kitten heels when I had some friends over. One of them is a minister in D.C. and she couldn't believe how "casual" I was... but then again, she is in D.C. - the land of suits, and I'm in a small town in the midwest.

    I tend to shop at thrift stores, consignment shops and outlet malls. I like to be fashionable - it makes me feel more confident and professional.

    All of that being said - when you minister in a small town, people are also going to see you in what you wear to run, what you wear to the grocery store, what you answer the door in on a day when you were supposed to be sleeping in/having off.

    People have seen me sweaty, in sweats, covered in mud, and in my pajamas. You are a person. As much as you are a pastor, you are also a normal person who likes to do normal things.

  13. YES! to what Katie Z just wrote, esp. regarding small town ministry. That was such a hurdle for me in my first call - because really everywhere I went was still my "work context." It was a real struggle for me sometimes to figure out if something was appropriate to wear out and about, even if I wasn't going to be specifically doing church work. Because no matter where I went, I was still the pastor and everyone knew it (plus, as the only female clergy in a small southern town, I was already suspicious to some; I didn't want to add fuel to the fire if I could avoid it). It was a challenge!

  14. LOL Liz! I have a funeral suit as well. I seriously save it for those occasions only.

    I meant to add that I do wear a clergy collar for funerals and for visiting at hospital and long-term care homes. The clergy shirt is fine on its own with dress pants in the summer. In the winter I tend to add either a nice cardigan (not the beat up sweater I wear to watch tv in the evenings, rather a simple one or two button cardigan to add warmth) or a hip-length light jacket.

    In other words, sometimes the clergy shirt and collar add another element to that "morning closet-search" some days. Even so, that doesn't stop me from wearing nice-but-appropriate earrings,good shoes and my usual make-up.

  15. I had a friend (female clergywoman in the Church of the Brethren) a generation older than me who was told in seminary that women shouldn't wear red in the pulpit as it "invoked the spirit of Mary Magdalene."

    I, therefore, make it a habit to own a few red preaching dresses.

  16. I always like to hear what PeaceBang has to say about this subject - Beauty Tips for Ministers:

  17. peacebang totally rocks... I love her humor and her ideas.

    I am not into a lot of the "girlier" things of life, but I have to confess that budgeting for a good mani/pedi and hair cut every month is essential for me. I feel better about myself, and I project a more positive image in the pulpit, in the hospital, or wherever I am.

    When I'm home, yeah, the tshirts and jeans are my mainstay. But that's home. Not work.

    My spiritual director pointed out to me that when I do not maintain my self care, I am showing that I do not think I am worth caring for myself. I have taken her words to heart and am working on remembering that as God's child created in the Divine image, I am not junk, and can freely invest in myself. Small steps towards wholeness after earlier (and very negative) self messages.

  18. I wear make-up ( not loads) and do my nails when they are not suffering from sailing or gardening. I also wear smart trousers and skirts and have a number of tailored jackets which dress up clerical shirts. I wear earrings and have smart shoes too.

    I don't have a huge budget but looking good is important.

    I too colour my hair and keep it styled.

    I am also a is important to me to look good, so I do. Is that part of my worship and accepting myself as loved? Yes I think it is!

  19. "can/should women
    "like me" be pastors? "

    Absolutely! We had a great discussion about this in seminary and it was fascinating to hear all the opinions. But as others have said here, each person needs to develop his or her own style taking the social context into consideration. I choose to wear make up and jewelry just as I would any other time. I wear sandals in the summer. I do take care to look "professional" but there is a fair amount of latitude in how I do that (and I've never owned a suit, even when I was in academia).

    No one has mentioned tattoos or piercings here...but people joked that my seminary class was the most pierced and tattooed class ever. Most of the tats were inconspicuous...but not all of them. (The fact Episcopalians tend to wear clericals most of the time and vest for services no doubt makes it easier to have tats be inconspicuous.)

    And did y'all see the episode of What Not to Wear featuring an Episcopal priest?

  20. I did actually mention tats in the post itself, because I have a couple and one of them has been a problem. It's on my shoulder, and when I was first ordained I thought it would be no problem to have it covered, always. But then styles changed and now sleeveless dresses and tops are way more common than they used to be. I often find it very difficult to find stylish spring/summer dresses that have sleeves, but I really don't feel comfortable flashing my tat in work contexts. It rules out a lot of clothing options.

  21. Earthchick, before I read your comment I had just reread your posting--sorry I missed your mention of tattoos.

    I love this comment from Anon. "God calls us to the ministries to which we are called as ourselves" and I hope as clergy we in all our glorious diversity can be representative of the wonderful diversity of God's creation rather than having to fit ourselves to one staid mold.

  22. It's all about authenticity for me,too.

    I adore makeup. Heels. Fashionable clothes. I colour my hair. I don't overspend on all of these things, but having such a public job I want to put my best foot forward. I wear jeans to the office but do dress up for Sundays. Although that might be changing, as I'm planting an evening congregation that will be a lot more laid back. (Hooray!)

    Godly =/= Dumpy. There are lots of fashionable women in our congregation and I want to help them feel right at home. ;)

    I'd be a complete fraud if I got a buzz cut, navy blue pantsuit and turfed my makeup. That's just so not me. Never has been never will be.

    Do people comment on what I wear? Yes. But the comments are positive and I thank them for their compliments. Why not?

  23. It's all about authenticity for me,too.

    I adore makeup. Heels. Fashionable clothes. I colour my hair. I don't overspend on all of these things, but having such a public job I want to put my best foot forward. I wear jeans to the office but do dress up for Sundays. Although that might be changing, as I'm planting an evening congregation that will be a lot more laid back. (Hooray!)

    Godly =/= Dumpy. There are lots of fashionable women in our congregation and I want to help them feel right at home. ;)

    I'd be a complete fraud if I got a buzz cut, navy blue pantsuit and turfed my makeup. That's just so not me. Never has been never will be.

    Do people comment on what I wear? Yes. But the comments are positive and I thank them for their compliments. Why not?

  24. Right before I was ordained I went and had my ear pierced, high up on the right side.

    Right before my 30th birthday I had a spiral (celtic symbol for resurrection) put on my foot.

    For my 40th birthday I'll have the celtic triple mother symbol added to my other foot.

    My big confession to the search committee that recently hired me was the revelation of my tattoo (I'd worn a band-aid over it for the two trial sermons). I knew it was a good match for both of us when they were not only okay with it but interested in the story of its origins.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.