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changing context, changing clothes – miriam bier

Is it just me, or does anyone else worry about what they wear when they get up to preach?

Perhaps it comes of being only a sporadic preacher – and so not having a reliable “uniform” for preaching days. Perhaps worrying unduly about what to wear is simply a nervous divergence of energy that would otherwise go into worrying about the content of a sermon. Or perhaps it is (and I know I’m potentially just participating in my own stereo-typification here) because I’m a woman. But somehow, no matter how thoroughly and carefully and prayerfully I have put together a sermon, I tend to worry disproportionately about putting together an outfit.

When I took Paul Windsor’s preaching course a few years back he introduced an approach to preaching presentation with the acronym “Lucis” – laid back, understated, conversational, informal, and self-deprecating. This chilled-out model seems to work particularly well in the Kiwi context, and as I recall, much of our class discussion on the model centred around whether it was appropriate to preach in shorts/t-shirts/jandals/sandals. The conclusion was, well, probably, particularly during a long hot summer!

I was reminded of this discussion when, as a new faculty member at London School of Theology, I was scheduled to preach at our regular Tuesday chapel service quite early on in the academic year. In fact, I was the only female speaker scheduled at all in the entire first semester. And so I had a sudden dilemma when it dawned on me that all my male colleagues seemed to preach in shirt and tie; even besuited, most of the time – and I’d have no opportunity to see other women upon which to model myself before it was my turn. T-shirts and jandals somehow didn’t quite seem the thing anymore – ok for a beach-side Kiwi summer Sunday, yes, but not so much on a grey winter’s day in the UK!

So I consulted my trusty on-campus cross-cultural advisor (I confess, an Australian) and sure enough, “it’s best if you wear a suit” was her response.

Seriously? A suit? How many of you, male or female, if I may ask, have ever preached, in New Zealand, in a SUIT?

But here’s the thing: it became apparent that a simple matter of clothing was actually quite an important question of cross-cultural contextualisation. How was I to communicate best in this context, without putting up barriers or switching people off before I even open my mouth, simply by the way I dress? How could I present myself in a way that says to this audience “preacher with a message,” someone to be taken seriously?

Of course this contextualisation can only go to a certain extent. Preaching must still be truth through personality. I can’t stop being a Kiwi, or, for that matter, a woman. I can’t not preach out of the passion that’s in me – to do otherwise would be to lose all sense of authenticity.

But I can cautiously and generously test the waters of what is deemed appropriate here, to try and avoid obvious faux pas that could distract an audience from listening to the content of what I have to say. And so the grey suit – worn only once, for a job interview – came out of the wardrobe. I’ll save the jandals for another day.

11 Comments

  1. Ben Carswell says:

    Love it Miriam! Thankyou for writing on this. As someone who has moved the other direction (UK-NZ), it’s good to read a Kiwi perspective on this. I’ll never forget some years ago, the shock I had when told by some of female members of the church I was a member of that, the tie/socks/shoes the preacher wore made a significant impression on the impact of the sermon.

    As someone committed to clarity of our message, I vowed then, never to let the particular choice of clothing get in the way of the communication of the message.

    I have preached in shorts (in the UK) in a particularly long and hot summer (they had one once), and have never worn a tie in NZ. Preaching is about far more than the clothes we wear, but why would we ever let those choices impede the message for anyone?

    I’m all in favour of being yourself, contextualising (both locally & nationally), remembering the privilege and honour of preaching the Word and then dressing accordingly. For what it’s worth, it sounds like you should wear jandals at some point – just make sure you call them Flip Flops!

  2. Roger Driver-Burgess says:

    Hi, Miriam
    When I began to preach on a regular basis in my home church as a pastoral student, some 17 years ago, one of the first things I did was cut my hair off. I’d had long hair since I was a teenager, and felt it was an important part of my identity – but I was also aware that it prevented some of the older people in the congregation from hearing what I was saying; they couldn’t hear me through the sight of the hair. I’ve never regretted that decision. My truer identity is as a preacher of the gospel than as a long-hair from the communes of the Coromandel.

  3. Kris says:

    Hi Miriam,
    I’ve heard someone else suggest that (for male preachers) having a beard may create unnecessary barriers in some states in the US. Would you see that as the same as changing clothes to suit the context?
    Kris

  4. Such a good post! Thank you.

    When I was a pastor preaching most weeks, I found it as difficult as you describe, most weeks.

    I agree with what you’re all saying about distracting and contextualising, though I think I see my choice of appearance (particularly when it comes to things like how much time and money one spends on grooming and formal clothing) as a little more connected to my authenticity than some of you, especially as a pastor-preacher.

    The other thing I’d add is that preaching accessories are often not made with women in mind (or women’s clothes are not made with preaching in mind).

    At my church we had a radio lapel mic. It was designed to be clipped to a buttoned shirt and the battery pack was designed to fit in your trouser pockets or clip to your belt. Perfect if you’re a man wearing a shirt and trousers. Countless Sundays I got to church and realised that this neckline was hard to clip the mic to or this waistband didn’t comfortably hold the battery pack. I also had to wrap the cord an extra half-turn around my waist to make sure it wasn’t so long that I would trip on it after bending down 🙂

    Add to that the question of seeing over the pulpit… 🙂

  5. As someone who has preached both barefoot (yes not even in jandals) and also in a cassock (yes CofE style), I have generally tried to be all things to all people so that at least some might listen to my sermon, but I would have to draw the line at shaving. I can take off what I am wearing after the service (and frequently do – at my present church I wear jeans and shoes on a Sunday morning (the only time my lower legs get covered in the week), but my beard wouldn’t grow back for a couple of weeks. Mind you when people come to things in NZ wearing a suit (usually visiting Americans) I think they look stuffy and uncomfortable but I still do the courtesy of listening to them. Are we too quick to assume people won’t cope with our eccentricity?

  6. Miriam says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, everyone. The beard one is a good question, Kris, and I’m not sure of the reasons why it might be a barrier in the States, so I’m not sure quite how to answer that. I think Jonathan’s comments are helpful, and in general, I think, like Thalia said, it’s a matter of determining what aspects of your appearance are essential to maintaining your own identity and communicating that intentionally, and what can be negotiated with respect to a particular audience.
    And yes, Jonathan, I think probably we are too quick to make snap judgements of a speaker based on their appearance – “oh, it’s a hippy/pentecostal/youth/C of E/totally irrelevant to me preacher” – but this, of course, is precisely my point!
    As an aside, I’m guessing you’ve all seen the beards of ministry by now?
    http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://ichilly.com/wp-content/uploads/beards-of-ministry.jpg&imgrefurl=http://ichilly.com/face-improvement/beards-of-ministry&h=960&w=960&sz=274&tbnid=0LkYHUvZAHaCCM:&tbnh=90&tbnw=90&zoom=1&usg=__1eeEz_kRBgq6tdx2UMegAXE90VU=&docid=XD9Yfh0OF-YPqM&sa=X&ei=6e5bUaq5AcWsPZOKgMgB&ved=0CEkQ9QEwBA&dur=791

  7. Thanks, Miriam, for a really interesting post. Last year I was in Seoul for work and took the underground on a Sunday morning and was amazed at the women in long dresses and the men in suits and ties. Only after a few minutes did I realize these were not people going to work on a weekend, but going to church on a Sunday. Outside a funeral, I would struggle to think of the last time I saw someone wear a suit in church on a Sunday. When I have preached though in different churches I have tried to take account of some churches being more conservative (in every respect) than others and also what I would be comfortable wearing. For me preaching is as important (well, more important) than a business meeting. I probably wouldn’t wear a tie, but I might well wear a jacket. Unless it were at a camp, or possibly more informal evening service, I wouldn’t wear clothes that I would go see a movie in, for example. But I guess this comes back to the thread of these comments – context and comfort.

  8. Tony PLEWS says:

    Well done Miriam. I’m sure your preaching attire suited the occasion. I’ve got many stories about dress being an aid or inhibitor to being heard. My late mother-in-law (USA, circa late 1980) went stone deaf if the preacher wasn’t wearing a tie. An Assoc. Pastor (also USA circa 1980) told me in seriously and in no uncertain terms that if I ever walked onto a church platform wearing jeans he would walk off.
    Here in NZ since 83 I’ve always been a visiting preacher (even at my home church?), and have asking about the dress code one of my essential questions – for the very reason you give. Why give somebody an excuse to time out my message by the distraction of something as trivial as my dress?

  9. Cyndi says:

    I have been criticized as much or more on what I wear than what I say at some churches. One woman told me she couldn’t hear a word I said, she was so distracted by my high heels. I do worry about what I wear but only to the extent that I don’t want people more focused on clothing than message. I also worry about the tattoos I have being visible and the ones I want being even more visible. When I insist on being me and dressing like me, tattoos and gauged ears included, I think I’m more authentic but for some it just makes me someone they can’t hear.

    Have you seen the blog Stilettos and Steeples? ( http://steeplesandstilettos.com/ ) it’s very good!

  10. As a student Bruce Patrick marked me down once for my standard of dress. Given that I was preaching about the poor I had figured that being smartly dressed wouldn’t have helped my message!

  11. Sue Wayman says:

    Good ponderings Miriam.
    I would consider myself a novice preacher, and have been in the unfortunate position of “being spoken to” by a pastor for not dressing smartly enough for preaching. I was pretty upset because I had actually put a lot of thought into what I was wearing! It’s just that we were on separate pages. He had different expectations to mine. In addition I have never been a woman to spend hours on my appearance (in my opinion NOT necessarily a bad thing!).
    Yes, contextualisation is important. One should not cause offence or distraction from the message if at all possible. So, I try to dress more smart than casual, and I would never wear anything too revealing or figure-hugging. As preachers the message should be our main focus. However, as we know, delivery of that message is also important.
    Practically, as women, we need to be mindful that large earrings, necklaces or bracelets can cause a lot of noise when amplified by a microphone…extremely distracting to the listener. I had the misfortune of hearing a message containing frequent “clanking” sounds, and no-one willing to ask her to remove the offending piece of jewelry!
    Sue

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