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How to Get Dressed to Lead Worship

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

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:

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 Deacons

If 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:

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

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.