These are my personal suggestions for Protestant ministers whose denominations don’t give them guidance on what to wear while they conduct worship. I am following the general ecumenical practice in the United States.
Presbyterians can use these suggestions; however, if they wish to wear the distinctive Presbyterian vestments that are based on medieval academic attire, they should consult their presbyteries. Roman Catholic clergy and especially Orthodox clergy should consult their bishops.
- Lay leaders
- Regular ordained clergy (presbyters)
- Ordained deacons
- When to wear which color
- Why the fancy clothes?
- For more information
In any church, there are people who can’t afford nice clothes, people who overdress, and others who just have poor taste. You can eliminate these problems if you vest the lay leaders. It won’t matter if they are dressed like a floozy, a beach bum, or a beauty queen, because no one can see what is underneath.
If you would like lay leaders to be vested, acquire a collection of albs in various sizes. Lay people can wear albs and cinctures. Albs are available in children’s sizes for acolytes who are children. If you are Anglican, you have the alternative of cassocks and surplices. In that case, acolytes can wear red cassocks with white surplices.
Only choir members should wear choir robes. It is possible to outfit the choir in cassocks and surplices, just like the choirs of angels on Christmas cards. There are specially designed vestments for organists and pianists. They match the vestments for the choir, except that the sleeves fall away at the elbows so that they don’t interfere with the keyboard.
It is inappropriate for a lay leader who is not a choir member to wear a choir robe or a Geneva gown. Only ordained clergy should wear a pulpit gown, and only ordained clergy with a doctorate degree should wear the pulpit gown with puffy sleeves that have three stripes. Unless you are Presbyterian, my personal taste runs against wearing academic attire to lead worship, because it makes you look like a judge in traffic court.
Regular Ordained Clergy (Presbyters)
If you are ordained clergy, and you would like to dress ecumenically for worship, I suggest the following wardrobe:
- One or two albs
At least one should be white to avoid a color clash with your white stole. The second alb can be white, ivory, or undyed. If you have two albs, you won’t feel any anxiety when one of them is in the laundry. Albs are inexpensive compared to other vestments and most are machine washable.
“Alb” is short for tunica alba; it is a white tunic; because that is the color of Jesus’ grave clothes,the color of the angels’ clothes, and thus the color of the resurrection. When Jesus sent out the seventy (Luke 10), He told them to take only one tunic. In the ancient church, when people came out of the waters of baptism, they were dressed in white tunics.
- Four stoles
You need one stole in each of the following colors: green, white, red, and purple. The type of stole that goes with an alb is sometimes called a broad stole. It is about 5 inches wide. You wear it around your neck with the ends hanging down in front to about your knees.
The stole is the work cloth that slaves wore around their necks. It is the yoke of Christ that you took on at ordination; it marks you as a slave of Christ and a servant to your congregation.
- At least one cincture
Cinctures are usually ropes. You can get a set in colors that match the stoles, if you like. Some albs are designed to be worn without cinctures, and others come with cloth cinctures, but in most cases, you’ll need the ropes. If you need help, Almy, a leading supplier of clergy vestments, has a web page with diagrams that shows how to tie a cincture.
Jesus told Peter than when he was old, someone would tie him with a belt and take him where he did not want to go (Luke 21:18). If you realize that the “belt” was a rope cincture, this makes a lot of sense.
- Four chasubles
For most Protestants, chasubles are optional and uncommon. Wear a chasuble only at a Eucharistic service, and only when you are the principal celebrant. You’ll need four chasubles, one in each of the four colors I just mentioned for the stoles. You need a second set of specially designed stoles to wear under the chasubles, but don’t worry, when you purchase a chasuble, it normally comes with the matching stole. There are cheap chasubles, but they look as cheap as they cost. Since you will be wearing them the rest of your life, invest in good ones. Chasubles can be very expensive, so if you want to economize by having only one, make sure it is ivory or white and of very high quality, so that you use it for weddings, funerals, Christmas, and Easter—services that include Communion.
Right before he was martyred, Paul told Timothy to bring him his chasuble, which he had left behind in Troas (2 Timothy 4:13). By wearing a chasuble, you show that you are willing to follow Jesus, even to martyrdom.
To get dressed, put on the alb and the cincture. Put the cincture on the level of your navel, not your waist, otherwise it will accentuate your belly and make you look like you have a bigger paunch than you do. Then put the stole over the alb. If you are wearing a chasuble, it goes on top.
You can also acquire a small “portable stole” that is purple on one side and white on the other. You wear it over your street clothes on certain occasions. The purple side is for hearing confessions or conducting counseling sessions (whichever your church calls it) and for ministering to people during sick visits. The white side is for funerals when full vestments aren’t practical, and for ministering to people in the presence of the deceased.
Ordained DeaconsIf you are an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church or in any of the Methodist denominations, or if you are a “licensed minister” in the Disciples of Christ, I suggest the following wardrobe:
- One or two albs
At least one should be white to avoid a color clash with your white stole. The second alb can be white, ivory, or natural colored. If you have two albs, you won’t feel any anxiety when you take one to the cleaners. Albs are inexpensive compared to other vestments and most are machine washable.
- Four deacon’s stoles
You need one stole in each of the following colors: green, white, red, and purple. A deacon’s stole is designed to hang only over the left shoulder to your knees, or more commonly, it hangs diagonally across your chest, is gathered at the waist on the right, and extends down your right leg to about your knees. Your church discipline probably prohibits you from wearing a presbyter’s stole.
- At least one cincture
Cinctures are usually ropes. You can get a set in colors that match the stoles, if you like. Some albs are designed to be worn without cinctures, and others come with cloth cinctures, but in most cases, you’ll need the ropes. If you need help, Almy, a leading supplier of clergy vestments, has a web page with diagrams that show how to tie a cincture.
- If you like, a dalmatic.
To get dressed, put on the alb and cincture. Put the cincture on the level of your navel, not your waist, otherwise it will accentuate your belly and make you look like you have a bigger paunch than you do. If you are wearing a dalmatic, put it on next. Finally, put the deacon’s stole on top.
When to Wear Which Color
Wear your red stole at Holy Week services, on Pentecost, at ordinations and installations, and on services that commemorate the death of a Christian martyr.
Wear your white stole during the twelve days of Christmas, during the fifty days of Easter, at funerals, and at weddings. Wear it at any service that celebrates a secular holiday, and on certain special days, such as Epiphany Day, the Baptism of our Lord (which is the Sunday after the Epiphany), on Trinity Sunday, All Saints Sunday, and Christ the King Sunday. You can wear a small, white “portable stole” over your regular clothes when ministering to people in the presence of the deceased, or when conducting a funeral when full vestments are not practical for some reason.
Wear your purple stole during Lent and Advent. You can wear a small, purple “portable stole” over your regular clothes when hearing confessions (in Lutheran and Anglican churches), when conducting a counseling session (which is the same thing for the rest of us), and when administering Communion in the hospital.
Wear your green stole whenever none of the above colors applies, mainly after Epiphany Day but before Ash Wednesday, and after Pentecost Sunday but before the first Sunday of Advent.
Use these color guidelines for chasubles, too.
Why the Fancy Clothes?
I live near the location of the first battle of the Civil War, which took place just on the other side of Bull Run. (In Virginia, creeks are called “runs.”) On occasion, men reenact the battle dressed in nineteenth-century clothing and armed with nineteenth-century weapons. I don’t think you’d get very far if you tried to convince these people that they should reenact the Civil War battle in modern business suits armed with briefcases. They would complain that it destroys the authenticity of what they are doing.
In view of all that, isn’t it anachronistic, not to mention inauthentic, or even disrespectful to celebrate Communion dressed in a modern business suit or a medieval academic gown? Is it more important to have an authentic Civil War reenactment than an authentic Communion?
In Communion, the celebrant plays the role of Jesus at the Last Supper, so to speak, so it is appropriate to wear vestments, which are modeled on first-century clothing. Since the celebrant also represents the glory of Christ, it’s appropriate to express that glory in their clothing. By dressing like Jesus, and not like themselves, it drives home the point to the congregation that the clergy are not acting on their own personal authority as if they were magicians, but on the authority delegated to them by Jesus Christ through the church.
Of course, this only applies to conducting worship. Jesus forbade wearing worship attire in the marketplace, so we don’t do that:
While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”
—Luke 20:45-46, NIV
Outside the context of worship, clergy must dress plainly, but in a way that makes them identifiable as clergy.
For More Information
You can find out more information in my glossary about vestments.
If you would like more detailed information about vestments, or about how to perform various acts of worship, you might want to add some of the books in my list of How-To Manuals for Clergy to your personal library.