by Kris Konsowitz
The discussion on appropriate dress can be taken to extremes by both youth ministers and churches. I was recently told of such an extreme experience by a young youth minister who was taken shopping by an older church member. The student was measured for a serviceable blue blazer, khakis and, surprisingly, a classic white turtle neck—talk about fashion! In contrast, I also know of youth ministers who take it as a personal challenge to dress down as much as possible by wearing the holiest jeans, duct-taped flip flops and paint-stained t-shirts. One youth minister had an ongoing battle with his congregation: he would dress well in khakis and a dress shirt…and flip flops. The church continually requested the youth minister wear closed toe shoes. Is battling over our shoes worth losing the respect and support of some of our church members?
There has to be a happy medium, lost between these extreme ends of youth ministry style. In the search for your place along the fashion spectrum, there are several things that you should consider, and as a veteran youth worker, I have a few suggestions. As a youth minister, you are first and foremost an employee of God. In your words, actions, and clothing you are a representative of the Lord. Additionally, knowing your environment is an important consideration. What might be acceptable in one community might not be acceptable in another. Respecting your church’s opinion is important as you are employed by the church and serving its members. Too many years ago to count, I remember my very first Sunday at our new church, moving from Florida (where worship attire was beach casual) to a church in the mid-south (where even on a hot, August Sunday morning, my husband was the only man without a suit jacket on and I was the only woman in a sundress and sandals); it was a major culture shock. As I learned my environment, I found a balance between my personal comfort and my community environment.
Throughout my ministry experience, I have been a part of numerous discussions on appropriate attire. I have noticed that as a female in ministry, our fashion choices are under more scrutiny. My friend Rev. Angela Harris told me that she has even had her shoes mentioned on Facebook! As Angela came on staff as a young female associate pastor, she found if she wanted to be taken seriously she needed to dress in business attire, even more than her male counterparts. Several female clergy have agreed with this assumption; dressing in business attire is important. Specific events call for different clothing choices. When meeting with your senior pastor, business attire is the wise choice; when challenging your students to a basketball game, it is only appropriate to wear shorts and a t-shirt.
I recently surveyed several young professionals, who upon leaving college and joining the work force needed to purchase work clothing. For respect and confidence in the work environment, the younger professionals felt the need to dress up more than their more mature work counter parts. Most new hires are given a dress code or suggestions for appropriate attire; however, in youth ministry some individuals find out what the expected dress code is only when we get in trouble for what they are wearing. As youth ministers many of us have dress codes for our students, yet we do not adhere to the dress code ourselves. If you are unsure what your dress code, your senior pastor will be more than happy to have that conversation with you!
There are ways to ensure your individuality while still being respectful of your church and community. Rev. Harris had a wonderful suggestion: remember you represent your church wherever you are. Whether you are attending a football game, visiting a church member at a hospital, attending a staff meeting, meeting with parents, or eating out with students, you are known to be an employee of your church. You are no longer a college student, you are a young professional. Although we have the best profession (who else gets to play an epic game of laser tag and then led students in a deep discussion about living and serving as Christ lived and served?), we are still professionals. You may be the biggest influence on your students, from the way you pray to the way you dress.
Remember, just because something is in style does not mean it is appropriate.
Especially in a world that promotes a variety of unhealthy standards for both males and females, it is our job to show them how to respect themselves and others. You can show your students how we as Christians are to be both relevant and set-apart.
Kris Konsowitz has been the Director of Youth Ministries and Young Adults at Collierville United Methodist Church in Collierville, Tenn. for more than two decades. Kris serves the Memphis region for CYMT coaching, supervising coaches, and partnering with churches to build foundations for effective youth ministry.