Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Ministry of Denim

Act One

I don’t know exactly when I started doing this. When I first began attending the Episcopal church in this town, I “dressed up.” Dress. Hose. Heels. The whole nine yards.

Maybe it was when I was involved deeply in “congregational development” conversations – about how we could be more welcoming to visitors and seekers.

But at some point, I started mostly wearing jeans to church in cold weather and shorts in warm weather. It was an intentional decision on my part. If visitors came into our parish wearing nice suits or dresses, they would find plenty of people who would just like them. But I worried about the people who might come in wearing jeans or dirty khakis or even rags. I wanted them to find someone who might look a little like them So I started wearing jeans.

Image (at right) from here.

I recognize I am often the worst-dressed member of the parish. But I decided I was dressing for visitors – not for God and certainly not for my fellow parishioners. In a weird way, wearing jeans and shorts became something like a nonverbal ministry in my mind.

Act Two

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m traveling and will be out of town on a Sunday, I check the Web to find a parish where I might feel comfortable. This has led me to some truly marvelous parish visits where I have been made to feel truly at home.

Recently, I figured out what parish one of the StandFirm leaders attends. I went to that parish website. As is my wont, I searched mostly for photographs, to see what the parish “looks like.” Two things struck me from the photographs that the parish has chosen to post.

First, I was struck that it is an incredibly white congregation. That was jarring to me, given the large percentage of my parish that is African or African American.

Second, I was struck by how people dress … at least as depicted on the parish website. All the men in suits. All the women in lovely dresses … which they could have worn to a lovely garden party. And almost every woman with a pearl necklace. I recoiled. I knew – just by looking at the images – that I would never be comfortable or welcome in that parish. Way too uptight, hide-bound, and “proper” [in all the worst senses of that term] for my taste.

I wonder: What do the photos on your parish website say about your congregation?

Act Three

On Ash Wednesday, when I served as crucifer, a new (3-generation) family appeared in our parish. The grandmother was a born and baptized Episcopalian who had somehow fallen out of the habit of attending church. The daughter was baptized, but lapsed after confirmation. The granddaughter had never been baptized and never attended church. They were drawn back to church on Ash Wednesday. What a blessing! I met them before the service and had some good conversation afterwards. [As it happens, the granddaughter is now in instruction with our rector and may be baptized soon.] I like this family!

A couple of Sundays later, I saw and talked with them again, when I was just a “butt in the pew.” The grandmother took a look at me and said to the teenage granddaughter: “See! She’s wearing jeans!” So was the granddaughter, but she had thought she wouldn’t be accepted in her denim … though her grandmother had told her she would. They had seen me in my vestments in a couple of services, but then saw me in jeans. I could see the relief in that teenager’s face: If someone who is a leader in the parish [as I suppose she perceived me] could wear jeans on Sunday, then it really was ok for her to do so, too.

I have a hunch that if we want people to feel welcome, we need to look like them. Mind you, when I’m serving at the altar, I’ll wear the obligatory black slacks, black socks, and black shoes. But when sitting in the pew, I’m going to dress for comfort and dress so that the down-and-out might find someone who looks like them.

I consider it a non-verbal ministry. That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.


Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

"...and I'm borrowing it!" says the worst dressed member of Trinity-Kirksville (who, in the summer is known to wear Big Dog Hawaiian print shorts.)

4/13/2010 9:18 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

this guy probably says you're doing the right thing. I wear Hawaiian shirts almost all the time (winter is tough!) and Birkies. It's a sign that being comfortable is what matters. We have some "suits", but the new people come in wearing anything but suits. But then we're an unusual parish for our area, I think. I reject the Emergent label and instead just call us New Church, which is the opposite of Old Church. The take-away, for me, from that article, is to examine everything, because everything represents Christ and the Church... I'm the web guy, so I'm acutely aware that we are representing what our church is like. I think you should keep on doing your denim ministry! Good for you!

4/13/2010 9:29 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

In Wyoming jeans are always appropriate no matter the venue. But it is also okay to wear a dress too -- whatever you are comfortable wearing is okay by us.

4/13/2010 9:31 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I'm truly honored, KirkE.

Of course, I bow to your liturgical sense ... since I don't have liturgically appropriate cowboy boots.

I didn't know about your Hawaiian print shorts!

Frivolity aside, I suspect you and I have a similar sense of hospitality.

4/13/2010 9:32 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Deep thanks, Clumber. I agree: Being comfortable is what matters.

Yes, I agree: We need to evaluate everything to determine how we are doing and whether we are really being welcoming.

I'm intrigued by your comment about "Emergent Church." I really don't like that whole discussion. I think if we can be open and welcoming, it won't matter whether whether we're "Emerging" or traditional or anything else.

Not to worry. I'm not going to abandon my ministry of denim. The thought never occurred to me. I just wanted to talk about how we look and how that affects our welcome.

4/13/2010 9:37 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Lucky you in Wyoming, Ann. It's not quite so true here. And it's apparently NOT AT ALL TRUE in the StandFirmer's site I visited.

4/13/2010 9:39 PM  
Blogger PseudoPiskie said...

I don't/can't wear sweats too church. Waaay too old. But I gave up wearing dresses several years ago. (The only denim item I own is my RFDTV cap.) People wear all sorts of stuff to mass at Christ Church. I doubt anyone would feel underdressed. That is probably a good thing. But there is that bit about bringing your best to worship...

4/13/2010 9:42 PM  
Blogger Caminante said...

As priest, however, I have always felt, out of respect for the office and also for the congregation, to dress nicely - not for myself but really to say yes, I care. And I never wear sandals, not even in El Salvador. Black shoes. I am just too old school here.

When it is not Sunday or hospital visits, you'll find me in turtlenecks in the winter and oxford button downs in the spring.

Now, as a pew sitter, it's a wholly different matter. :)

4/13/2010 9:44 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Piskie, I can't imagine wearing sweats to church ... nor for my weekend errands ... or even for dumping my recycling. Even this denim-clad broad has her standards.

If folks are wearing all sorts of garb to Christ Church, I bet you all are doing ok. You've already got the "all sorts and conditions of dress" thing going ... which should let visitors feel comfortable. ... That was not the case when I began my "ministry of denim" here in my parish. ... I hope you can here the difference.

4/13/2010 9:50 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, I had no doubt that you were going to continue in your MofD! It's the right thing. I draw the Old Church/New Church line because it denotes something about how comfortable your church is with change. At least in my mind. Does everything in your church have a plaque? Do you want crying children to be "taken out" because they are disturbing the perfect service? Is laughter in your church rare, or frowned upon? How about applause (and I will admit, it's taken me a while to be comfy with that!). I liked your "denim report". But more importantly, your talking to newcomers makes huge difference, especially in talking to them not as "new blood" but as new people, who you want to know better.

But seasonal colored cowboy boots work fine for me as well! I love Maria's wardrobe!

Bless you all! The PB was here for Easter Vigil and said to me "I love your shirt" - Birds of Paradise on black background... and what better statement of Easter is there? And me, a dog!!!!

4/13/2010 9:51 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Caminante, I hope you saw my parenthetical statement: When I am serving at the altar, it's black slacks, black socks, black shoes. I "dress up" for that service ... for exactly the kind of reason you mention: out of respect for the ministry.

My "ministry of denim" is strictly for when I'm sitting in the pew.

4/13/2010 9:54 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, and I don't serve at the altar... I 'm just an old dog in the pew. I'd have to re-think wardrobe if I did something radical like that! I love sitting back in the section with new moms and dads and babies. It's the hot spot of church! There is much insight to be gained staring into the eyes of a baby!

4/13/2010 10:03 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for the clarification, Clumber.

I like how you put it. It's not so much "old church" or "emerging church" as about how welcoming and open to change we are.

You wrote: "Do you want crying children to be "taken out" because they are disturbing the perfect service?" I remember my first priest, who pointedly said that the gurgling of babies and even the rants of little children was a sign that the church is growing. That has remained a core belief for me.

I can't say we laugh a lot, be we do chuckle tastefully quite often. Does that count?

And thanks for clarifying. I really do love to meet new folks who come to our parish.

Yes, Maria is sine qua non. Surely we all envy her.

I'm delighted to hear your story of the PB's visit. Wow!

One more thing for you or others who wonder about my parish. When our rector of 30+ years retired, and I was on vestry, and we intentionally decided on a 2+ year "interim period" ... Early in that period, the bishop visited and he described us [in full compliment] as being "disgustingly healthy." It's true. This is a truly healthy parish. There are ways in which we need to grow. But, all in all, we are "disgustingly healthy." And we wear that as a badge of honor.

Clumber, you are remarkably articulate and have remarkable style for a canine bishop. I am impressed!

4/13/2010 10:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


4/13/2010 10:13 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Clumber, I can appreciate what you say about your times as an old dog in the pew. But I bet you put on the dog (so to speak) when you are serving as canine bishop of your diocese!

Yes, I agree with what you say about looking into the eyes of our babies and other youngsters in our church.

But me? I sit in the very front row of our nave. That's another story for another blog -- probably not unlike the African Americans who moved to the front of the bus.

4/13/2010 10:18 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Clumber: "Woof" indeed. You're smarter than the average canine. And we all know it.

4/13/2010 10:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

No, +Airedale, +Rowan, and +Maya are the smart ones! I try to listen to what they say as often as I can! They all bring gifts of wisdom to their ministry that I admire and wish I had thought of! I'm a "back pew" guy, because that's where babies and newcomers generally sit. Oh, gotta go, I'm way overdue for nighty-night!

Consider doing some laughing right out loud in church! It'll do you all some good! Of course, I'd advise you to wait for a joke before you begin laughing!

4/13/2010 10:29 PM  
Blogger Ann said...

Dog becomes Verger

4/13/2010 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if you're talking about the same Christ Church, but if it's the cathedral in StL, I was visiting over the weekend and sat in a row of guys in Hawaiian print shirts and bermuda shorts plus one gent in a kilt. As is my habit I wore a dress (working with preschoolers five days a week I rarely get to wear them), but I wasn't the only one - I'm pretty sure there was a dude wearing a dress. And I am glad that all were welcome to dress as each was comfortable, including the altar server wearing what appeared from afar to be a robin egg blue leisure suit.

4/13/2010 10:40 PM  
Blogger Catherine said...

Super piece Lisa. If you were to check out the photos on my parish's website you would see people in all manner of dress; the older generation [75+] are usually the suit and tie, fancy dress and pearls crowd. Most everyone else is where very relaxed casual clothes, including lots of denim and Teva sandals in the summer and hiking boots in the winter.

I believe in the accessibility mode of dress as you do: clean jeans of various earth tones, appropriate shirt or sweater, comfortable shoes, the whole deal. I love seeing a lector stand up, walk up the aisle in shorts and read the lesson right after a gentleman in a suit has read the first lesson.

It does minister to the diverse group that attends Sunday morning. Just as serving communion bread to a homeless man at an evening service and saying "My brother, the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven" and meaning it.

Of course when I am vested we become Switzerland and what we wear has no bearing on how people perceive us; it's the outer garment, cincture and what we become wearing it and serving the altar that people see...servants of Christ.

Thanks for writing this. Gives us all that moment of reflection on how we are Christ to others.

4/14/2010 12:23 AM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

I always figure what God sees in us, good or bad, clothes can't cover.

If +clumber likes my liturigically correct cowboy boots, I'm sure he'd also wear my hoodie with the Episcopal shield that says "Resisting fundamentalism since 1789" on it.

4/14/2010 6:27 AM  
Blogger Andy Pierce said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/14/2010 10:34 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh... Maria - it's not good to have "Hoodie Envy"!!! But I like it!

4/14/2010 10:35 AM  
Blogger susan s. said...

Singing in the choir requires black close-toed shoes, black sox and black pants. We wear black cassocks and white surplices. It is always interesting to see what some folks here in laid back Berkeley consider to be meeting that dress code. If I am in the congregation, I wear loud, loose schmatas over usually black{sometimes denim ;-)} because I feel comfortable that way. I haven't worn a dress since my son's wedding in 2000. We have all kinds of folks with all kinds of clothes coming in the doors here at St. Marks.

4/14/2010 11:30 AM  
Blogger JimB said...

I generally go with slacks and a polo shirt, sometimes jeans and often denim shorts in the summer. A 1920's vintage stone cruciform church is incredibly hot in July and August.

The rector usually goes with sandals and so black, black, black is not standard here. We care that you come, not how you dress!


4/14/2010 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I came across this article. I have been going to church my whole life and I've always dressed up. my husband, on the other hand, never went to church until he met me and was saved. he has no problem wearing jeans and at first, I was appalled. now I agree, we Christians want everyone to feel at home in church not just the folks that look like us.

2/16/2020 9:13 AM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

I am pleased and deeply humbled that this ten-year-old essay can even be found, much less be found to be meaningful or helpful. Thank you so much for your comment.

2/16/2020 4:23 PM  

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