When I was in high school, I sang in our youth choir. It was the midwest and the early nineties and our youth choir numbered 50 youth (give or take). I haven’t seen something like that in awhile. Much of the success of the choir was connected (in my opinion) with our very talented and dynamic director, Mrs. N. She was both kind and stern, and had a way of exciting us about singing for worship that was welcoming as well as challenging. She also picked great music. She died of cancer while I was in seminary, and her legacy still lives on at my home church. I for one hear many of her words of advice as I continue on in ministry, and mostly those words are part of what inspires and leads me in my day to day pastoring.
One thing Mrs. N demanded of us had to do with appearance. When singing in worship we had to wear black shoes, and no earrings were allowed. Her reasoning was that those things are distractions, and our presence up front in a traditional worship service was very visible. Our job, she suggested, was to help others worship, and anything that prevented us from doing that should be avoided. So, often when I am getting ready on Sunday morning, I think of her and these words of advice: what distracts people from worshipping? How can I best lead others toward worship? Is something I am wearing (or saying or doing) going to prevent others from focusing on God?
The problem is, though, that as a woman my choices as to what to wear on Sunday morning are endless, compared to that of a man. My colleague almost always shows up in a blue or black suit, white shirt and a tie. On the other hand, I tend to feel more self-conscious if I wear the same two outfits week after week. The other issue I’ve found, is that almost anything can be distracting. I joke that I get more comments about my hair on any given Sunday than on my prayers or sermons. I wonder about nail polish and lipstick (thanks to our beloved biblical Jezebel), about how to wear my hair, about glasses or contacts, about shoes…. Really, the possibilities of my ability to distract someone else are endless. And the real question is – is it my job to keep worshippers from being distracted, or it it their job to pay attention to what’s important?
I realize that these questions are somewhat particular to our type of church, which has a traditional Presbyterian worship, with organ music, hymns and high liturgy. And I know clergy in other settings who have made all kinds of different decisions about this issue – some women who have bought shoes that correspond with the liturgical colors. “It’s a great way to start a conversation about why we have those different colors in worship!” She said. But she was careful to point out she never wears anything “too sexy.” I know others in emergent church settings who may never even think about this – after all they’re worshipping in a bar in jeans. Others are constantly on the look-out for the “perfect black worship shoes” and always wear pearls. Who is to say that there is a “right choice?” Perhaps it is a matter of making choices that help the leaders to feel confident to lead, and the distraction is more about affect and attention than clothing and makeup?
So – what do you think? Does what your worship leader wears affect your ability to worship? Is this an antiquated concern or important to the worshipping body? How does the gender of your worship leader affect what you expect from them in terms of presentation? I’d love to hear what you think…