Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A seminarian's wardrobe

A classmate of mine gave me an interesting compliment the other day. “You've challenged me,” he said. “I realize that I need to begin to look [dress] less like this [indicating his own garb] and more like you.”

My friend was wearing blue-jeans, an old, well-worn golf shirt, and athletic shoes (also, by the way, well-worn). I was wearing a pressed and starched oxford shirt with a tie, khaki pants, and brown casual-dress shoes. The contrast was, by all rights, quite stark.

Now, my teaching job basically forces me wear a somewhat dressier style of clothing than most of my classmates-- for the longest time, I would regularly get asked, “Are you preaching today?” because the only time most seminarians wear a tie or sport-coat is when they must for homiletics classes. But my fellow student brings up a good point that is worth considering, at least for the seminary student preparing for the transition.

Some churches have fairly low expectations in this regard; there are PCA churches in St. Louis where, if you were to wear blue jeans to worship, you would be right at home. The daily dress of the pastor is insignificant, or at least a low priority.

On the other hand, most churches-- especially PCA churches-- still expect their pastor to dress to a certain standard. The PCA is, to be sure, a mostly white-collar, middle-class institution, and its members are often employed in the business sector. They generally believe their pastor should wear daily something close to what they wear to work. And when it comes to preaching on Sundays, the standard (in the PCA) is a conservative two-piece suit; even the more casual churches usually expect a tie and jacket.

But seminarians, as a population, don't seem to be the kind of guys whose closets are filled with starched shirts, dress slacks, blazers, and suits. Unless they are second-career folks-- and it seems like few of my classmates are-- they will not have had any reason to come to seminary with this sort of clothes collection on hand. And they are not usually in the financial position to develop that sort of wardrobe out of their regular budgets. But that doesn't change the fact that they will, as my classmate astutely recognized, be expected to have, and wear, clothes appropriate to the context of their church.

This can present a peculiar challenge to students. How might an individual (let alone a family) on a seminary budget (read: extremely tight) begin to gather this kind of material resource for their future ministry?

I have three suggestions for this. First, be aware that good clothes don't have to be custom-tailored or cut from the finest Italian cloth. While this sort of quality can be very comfortable and even satisfying to wear, it also costs as much as my monthly rent to get even one item (such as a sport coat). Look to places like Men's Wearhouse for a good balance of high-quality and low-cost; they even offer extended service on their garments long after you've bought them. (Don't miss their great “Guy'd Lines” section on how to dress for different circumstances.)

Another idea is to find the funding for it in non-standard ways. Maybe you (and your wife) could decide to devote all of the income from honorariums-- the pay churches offer if you supply preaching for their pulpit-- to developing your future work wardrobe. (What? You mean you haven't been seeking preaching opportunities through a “pulpit supply” ministry the seminary offers? More on this later...)

Finally-- and I've never heard of this being done before, but-- why not ask for some help with this as you're negotiating your terms of call? Usually (and hopefully), churches are willing to devote some funds toward a “book budget” or something like that to provide academic resources for your ministry. Why shouldn't an appropriate level of dress be considered an important “resource” for ministry-- especially if there will be expectations, real or perceived, for how you will dress? Ask them for some seed-money to get your wardrobe jump-started. You might even agree to take this in lieu of a full book budget for the first year or two, since you will have collected a healthy library during seminary. (What? You mean you haven't been building your library while in seminary? More on this later, also!)


Megan said...

Okay, Ed, how in the world do you manage to get your shirts pressed and starched? Does Marci do it? If so, I need to come over for some motivation because ironing anything is at the very bottom of my things I have to do/tolerate doing heap.

I took a whole pile of Craig's shirts to the cleaners last month (first time in 8 years of marriage) and thought I could easily become addicted to that if we had it in our budget (we don't).

Just one of my many deficiencies...

Ed said...

Marcie hates doing it, and with two kids she doesn't have the time to, either. We finally decided that this was a necessary and legitimate expense for us, and budgeted enough to get my shirts to the Dry Cleaners. We've found that, if you're dilligent about watching for them, you can save a few dollars with coupons that are pretty regularly available. It costs us about $25-$30 a month, but since it saves us several hours of work, that's just a decent wage.

I'm not sure we'll always be able to afford this, but I think this question/issue fits into the same category as the more general wardrobe idea: if there are going to be expectations, there should be a reciprocal provision for them. If we are expected to wear pressed shirts, we should get paid enough that we can have our shirts pressed.

Adam Tisdale said...


I appreciate the post...not something I thought about a lot, but I usually dressed (and do now) business casual (ie. slacks and a polo or button down). A suit when I preached. That's not really the point.

Being on a budget. I bought my first two suits from Scholar Shop (across from the Galleria in St. Louis). Scholar Shop is a very nice Thrift Shop. One suit was a perfect fit and the other needed a little tailoring. Finally, my most recent and nicest suit was given to me as a graduation gift.

Those suits must have worked cause I will be ordained in the PCA next week. I suppose it could be something else, but it's probably the suits!

Ed said...

Adam, thanks for checking in. I forgot about the Scholar Shop; what a great opportunity! CTS students have a great resource there. I'm sure there are good thrift/resale/consignment stores in most seminary towns, and they (along with seminary "free stores") do represent a good source for clothes, especially for students of fairly common sizes. (Alas, I have had precious little success in these types of places.)

Congratulations on ordination! I wish I could be there. I'm sure it was more than the suits...

We miss y'all here in the Gulf.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying there. I really hope you're not advocating the idea that Seminarians and pulpit-people have to wear that odd looking western monkey garb. I couldn't imagine going to class EVERY day (I could stop the sentence there) wearing a useless cloth around my neck that does nothing more than increase the probability of my death at the hand of a paper shredder. That is by FAR the oddest western cultural nugget I've seen in my entire life. The most appropriate western attire I've seen is the concept of blue-jeans and a plain shirt [keyword: plain]. Simple, to the point, humble, and pragmatic. When the Master's Seminary recants of their position requiring seminary students to wear nooses, I'll be the first to bang down the doors.

Summary: Don't impose your culture on me. Worst, don't use your culture to keep me away from getting closer to the Lord (who would never be caught RISEN with a tie on).