Monday, March 12, 2007

Hiding Our Lights Under a Bushel

[Lovely readers, in our earlier conversation about dressing for GA, Rev. Sean contributed a critical comment to which I wrote a fairly lengthy reply. I liked our exchange enough to lift it out of the comments and publish it as its own entry -- PB]

Rev Sean wrote,
I agree that a lack of concern for appearance can communicate a certain smugness and I totally agree about the darwin fish, but I don't think dressing casually (think shorts and sandals) is "a lack of concern for appearance." I have a friend who carefully irons his tshirts and shorts. He cares about how he looks, he just wants to be cool and comfortable as well. There are so many assumptions going on under this conversation. That people don't care about how they look or are purposefully sloppy and slothful may sometimes be true. But isn't it a stereotype to see someone who truly loves how it feels to wear their hippy skirt and assume it's either cluelessness or selfishness that they'd wear something you think is inappropriate for clergy?
And oh, the regional differences. I minister in the West. Here, showing up in a suit and tie communicates that you are probably an outsider to our culture. An assumption of arrogance may be made as well. People here dress practically. I'm not sure they even think of clothes as a means of communicating how much or little they value something. Clothes are like tools--you wear what's going to be useful and comfortable.I'm not trying to be argumentative, but ever since you started this blog, I've been slightly troubled by it. (At the same time I love it b/c your wit and humor just right.) I guess I just keep feeling like there is a fine line between judging people's "style" and judging--well--people. I guess I'll just keep being uncomfortable and keep reading too.

Then I said:

Sean my dove, no prob.

I don't mind your pushing back, and I know you've been slightly uneasy but that you keep having fun here nonetheless. I do try to be clear, though.

When I say "wrinkled khaki shorts and teeshirts" I really do mean that, not hippie skirts. Hippie skirts are fine, too, when paired with neat and put-together tops.

I exaggerate disapproval for certain garments to make a point and to be outrageous. No one pays attention to the gal who writes thoughtful little suggestions about clothing. You gotta grab people, get 'em thinking, get 'em laughing and occasionally ticked off. Then we're getting somewhere.

As you know, I'm against drab and thoughtless and sloppy outfits that project either, "Don't notice me" or "I'm too spiritual to bother with grooming details" -- all of which I still see so much of in the clergy gatherings I attend that I'm going to keep 'Banging away about it.

There's nothing wrong with being clueless: most of us aren't super confident about our appearance in the first place.

But here's the thing: no one has ever suggested to clergy what's appropriate to wear. So I'm making it up as I go along based on pretty serious thought and analysis, and so far a good number of readers have validated that I'm doing an okay job of it.
Certainly everyone understands that this is all being offered in good faith.

Some people have critiqued me for setting out "elitist" standards but I'm simply taking my cues from careful observation of other leaders in positions of public trust and respect that are roughly commensurate with that of the clergy.

For us to blithely thumb our noses at that in favor of what's most comfortable is not just missing an opportunity, it is actively misrepresenting ourselves. I know clergypeople to be charismatic, sharp, dynamic, funny, deeply alive people and dammit, our attire too often projects another reality entirely!

I deeply believe it will be a GOOD thing (thank you, Martha Stewart) if more of us align our exterior image with our interior vitality. I'm tired of clergypeople's charisma, brilliance and contemporary savvy being one of the most well-kept secrets in American society. That's why I'm putting myself out there publicly to do this work. It's a risk, I know it, and I'm ridiculed by many. But honey, here's where we have to cue up the big showstopper about how I won't quit,

because..."EVERYTHING's comin' up ROSES for YOU and for MEEEEEE!"

Or, if you prefer,"I... AM... what... I AM.. and what I AM needs no excuses..."
11:25 PM



Blogger Rev. D said...

I read with interest Sean's comments and wondered why he appears to be resistant to wearing professional attire to work. I believe, like most who read this post, that it is important to look our best when we are working. The thought that kept returning to my mind and why I had to post is when we plan liturgy, Bible study or any parish event we take the time to make sure it is done right and that it reflects the glory we are giving to God. We too whether or not we want to admit it are also a reflection of how we view ourselves and our vocation.
I used to be afraid to admit that I like clothes and fashion because I am a priest and my thoughts should be on higher things-not heels! But part of our job is to be human and in the world-but not of the world. If all I can talk about is the latest fashion by Prada that is a problem; but to look good and talk about deeper things is a blessing--and a curse.
Just my thoughts but I won't change who I am anytime soon and my parishoners don't seem to find that a problem.

3:16 PM  
Anonymous Anna K said...

Amen, PeaceBang! Clothing inspires trust. I have a lot of family and friends in the medical field -- nurses, doctors, physical therapists, etc. I worked at a teaching hospital where a medical resident was given warnings by the program director, because her clothing was considered "unprofessional" and sent the wrong message to the clinic's patients.

In medicine, if you are going to have contact with patients, you soon find out it's important (if you're not already wearing a uniform or scrubs that day) to wear clothing at work that shows people (who are coming to you with serious concerns!) that you are a knowledgeable professional with good judgment and good sense. It is important, in or out of a uniform, to "look right" -- that is, to look like someone patients and their families can literally trust with their lives.

And maybe Sean's point is about establishing trust through clothing -- maybe in his part of the country, suits signal someone who is untrustworthy, or in his words, "arrogant."

But it IS about trust, and it is about the fact that clothes and grooming signal to people who you are, how you think about yourself and how you think about the people you are serving. Unfair, but true, as any medical residency director will tell you.

Unless you're John the Baptist using your wardrobe to make a prophetic point, why should I trust the state of my soul to a clergyperson who dresses like they're heading out to clean the garage?

5:35 PM  
Blogger ms. kitty said...

Gosh, Rev. D, I didn't read Sean's comments that way at all. I doubt he wears his shorts and shirts to worship, but the West is really different from the East in its approach to attire.

I always dress up for church, whether I'm in the pulpit or not, and I tend to wear slacks, nice top, and a vest or blazer on pastoral calls or to meetings.

But here on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, very few people dress up much, whether for church or other occasions. We aren't sloppy when we go out, but style tends to be more casual.

If I wore a suit or other similar attire for a meeting or anything but worship, I would look more out of touch than well-dressed.

I think geography and culture are important to consider when we dress professionally.

Anna K. mentions trust and I agree.

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a lot of it is about culture, the culture of a country, an area, or a particular church. my mother grew up in christian churches in the south and used to berate me for wearing sandels to church (as a teenager, not a minister) she felt anything less than proper footwear was disrespectfull. I spent many, many hours a week at the church for choir, musicals, youth groups, teaching sunday school, going to meetings etc. and never wore shoes at all for any of those things (no one did) come sunday mornings I felt disrespectful wearing shoes at all there, like brining the street grime into a sanctuary. it all depends on what is appropriate to an individual place.

1:24 AM  
Blogger PeaceBang said...

Anonymous, if I had a teenager who was singing in the choir at church, going to youth group, attending meetings and showing up for Sunday morning worship, I would not only not complain about their sandals, I would go out and buy them a PAIR OF CROCS WITH MY OWN MONEY.
And you know how I feel about Crocs.

And yet I love that your mama was fierce in her way, because that probably had a lot to do with you becoming the woman you are today.

8:14 AM  

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