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A Pastor’s Reflections: Judging a book by its cover

February 4, 2014


The old cliché tells us never to judge a book by its cover, but the truth of the matter is we do it all the time. Publishers spend a lot of money trying to convince you to pick up their book, or click on the cover of the link to their book, so that you’ll make a purchase and part company with your hard-earned money. The same goes for a person’s dress and appearance. What a lot of freshly minted ministers don’t realize is, they are being judged, rightly or wrongly, all by their appearance.

The moment a ministerial candidate steps before an ordaining body, before he opens his mouth, the elders begin to make an assessment of him by the way he is dressed. The same goes for visitors to a church. The moment they walk in the door of the church they begin to make value judgments based upon the way things look, and especially about the way the minister is dressed. If the minister is dressed like a slob, it will likely be difficult for the visitors to look past the disheveled appearance. But this scenario can also go a number of different ways—it’s not just about having an unkempt appearance. If you dress too nicely, you can send a message that you’re unapproachable. If you dress too trendily, then people might think you care too much about your appearance and fashion—that you’re more concerned with the cut of your trousers than with the intricacies of the biblical text. So with pitfalls all around you, what are you supposed to do?

I’m sure people have a number of different opinions on this. I suspect some might say, dress how you want and who cares what people think? If they’re shallow enough to judge a book by its cover, then let them go. The problem with this type of response is that it’s a bit self-centered. It addresses the question from the perspective of doing what you want rather than asking a more fundamental question, namely, “What are you trying to accomplish?” And, “To whom are you trying to minister?” As a minister of the gospel, your first and primary task is to promote the gospel of Christ—that is your mission and goal. You shouldn’t let anything get in your way, especially the clothing you wear. This fundamental commitment, therefore, should dictate several things.

First, it’s not about you—it’s about Christ and his gospel. This means that you may have a certain fashion sense that you have every right to pursue, say, for example, your penchant for wearing leather pants (yikes) or skinny jeans. You might want to wear your leather pants on Sunday morning, but they might be a distraction, so much so, that people will pay attention to your pants more than they will your preaching. As much as you may want to make a fashion statement, fashion neutrality is your goal. A simple pair of slacks, coat, and tie with a nice dress shirt may say “stiff” but chances are it won’t look out of place and won’t call too much attention. It’s transparent enough that people won’t see it, per se.

Second, dress well. Dressing well doesn’t mean you have spend a lot of money. You can dress well for a modest financial investment. If you show up looking like a sack of worms (i.e., your clothes are wrinkled, stained, or ill-fitting), people will, rightly or wrongly, treat you with less respect. Why? You will convey to people, whether you mean to or not, that you don’t care about your appearance and that you don’t care what impression you send to others. As a minister, you are an authority figure, like it or not. Dress like one. Dress responsibly. Think about it in this way—if you were pulled over by a police officer and he got out of the car wearing a swimsuit and a Hawaiian shirt, would you question his authority? If you went to see your doctor and he was wearing a tank top with spaghetti stains on it, would you begin to question what he told you?

Third, maintain proper hygiene. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen too many seminarians who seem like they’re trying to pull off their best impression of an urban outdoorsman (homeless man). I’ve seen too many with a bad case of bed-head and three-days of stubble on their face. Nothing says “slacker” and “I just woke up five minutes ago even though it’s almost noon” like failing to be groomed. Too many people in your church will likely be up early and off to work. The last thing you want to do is give the impression that you just rolled out of bed for a lunch appointment because you failed to be properly groomed.

Fourth, remember your context. Notice, thus far, I have not given a specific type of wardrobe. In some contexts, business casual may be necessary, in other cases, coat and tie, and in others, a business suit, and sometimes a superhero t-shirt, khakis, and flip-flops is the precise thing you need to wear. Know your context! For example, an elderly gentleman rebuked one of my colleagues for wearing a blue dress shirt in the pulpit. In that congregation the pulpit was a formal place and a white dress shirt was the only proper attire. Such things might seem silly, but ask yourself, are you willing to become all things to all men in order that you might win some to Christ?

In other words, there are a number of reasons why people will be critical of you—don’t give them a silly reason to ignore you. Groom and dress yourself in such a manner that you become transparent and the gospel, not your fashion (or lack thereof), stands out most. If people are going to get upset with you, make it worthwhile—make sure it’s for the gospel and not your leather pants.