In public speaking, presenters are encouraged to picture their venues, audience and themselves delivering their message. In addition to imagining these things, I also picture my accessories, shoes and what I’ll be wearing when I deliver a message. Actually, it’s the first thing I imagine when I’ve accepted a speaking invitation. Call me shallow, but knowing what to wear as a preacher who is also a woman can be tricky and fraught with criticism.
In two weeks I’ll be making the annual pilgrimage to Cedar Campus, InterVarsity’s training center in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Along the gorgeous shores of Lake Huron hundreds of students across the midwest come each Spring to meet with God at the end of their semester, receive training on how to lead Bible studies, share their faith, and make plans of how to engage the campus with the person of Jesus. In two weeks I’ll get to preach to about 300 of these students on ‘multi-ethnic witnessing communities’ out of Acts chapters 6-10. I’m looking forward to what God will do in and through me during these weeks; for me personally and the students I’ve worked with over the past 10 years God often works in amazingly transformative ways at Cedar.
In many ways I consider myself fortunate to work for an interdenominational student ministry- dress code is pretty much skinny jeans and a hoodie. Though being 7 months pregnant when I preach, there will be nothing skinny about me or the things I choose to wear. Which brings me to one of my minor anxieties about the week- I remember how judgmental I was as a student. I once completely tuned out a female speaker because she was wearing leggings, an embroidered sweatshirt, and flats- this was the mid-90’s and these trends hadn’t made the raging comeback they have today (save for the embroidered sweatshirt- those never go out of style!).
I also know how easily it is to evaluate a female speaker from the moment you see her before she’s even spoken a word- simply on what she’s wearing. Now, add to that being 7 months pregnant & feeling very much not like myself and you can see the dilemma I’m in. If you think I’m over-thinking this or being a bit narsissistic here are some real snippets of conversations I’ve had over the years with people on this topic:
- A female minister is told that she shouldn’t wear heels when she preaches because they are too seductive. Emails are sent to the head pastor when she wears pants, and when she wears a skirt because either way someone sees what she’s wearing as inappropriate.
- A male colleague argues with me after I offer to go shopping with another female colleague to help her decide what to wear when she presents at an international gathering of students. I am labeled ‘shallow’ and criticized for ‘conforming to this world.’ I am told that the content of what is preached is more important than what is worn & that content should be the only thing focused on.
- After reviewing a video of a talk with an older, male preacher who had a lot of influence in my life he comments on the poncho (another forgone trend!) that I was wearing during the speaking engagement- “was the poncho to hide your female form?” he asks. I am left wondering if my female form is something to hide or be ashamed of.
Seems a little crazy right? Whether we like it or not, this is simply the way things are for preachers who are women. Rather than ignoring the fact that God created us as visual people and not considering the implications for when I preach, I’ve preferred to try and be savvy about this issue rather than seeing it as being shallow. As PeaceBang- blogger of Beauty Tips for Ministers says “because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.”
Generally my philosophy on what to wear when preaching has been along these lines.
- God loves who he created me to be- Genesis 1 says that God created mankind in his image; male and female he created them. and he called them good. I shouldn’t need to hide the fact that God chose to make me a woman under a poncho- God delights in the fact that in my female form I reflect his image! Women deal with enough issues about being able to accept themselves without needing to wonder- “does God want me to hide the fact that he gave me hips, breasts or a Beyonce booty as a preacher?”
- Beauty is a gift from God. I’m not talking about nose, hip or unibrow size here- there is aesthetic enjoyment in seeing something well tended. Whether this is a garden, a home or a face- God has given these things to us to take care of. I don’t think applying mascara is damaging what God has made me in the same way that I don’t think painting a house ruins the natural wood.
- Creativity is inspired by God. I enjoy fashion in the same way people enjoy other hobbies. Putting together an outfit, considering the colors, accessories and tone of what I want to wear is enjoyable to me. I love seeing how designers use their God-given talents to as artists create clothing or apply makeup in strikingly beautiful and creative ways. It’s an inspiring challenge to see what is in fashion & figure out how I can make it work for me.
- Haters may hate, but I’m going to be me. All I can ever offer is who I am- this is true when I stand up to deliver a message to college students about the amazing love God has for them, or whether I’m sitting and playing with my son. Ultimately one needs to come to terms with what Paul wrote in Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Though I don’t think Paul was writing about whether I should wear heels or not when I preach, the point is that it’s about serving God with the gifts he’s given me rather than trying to please every person who has every stinkin’ opinion under the sun not only about what I’m wearing but what I actually have to say.
Which in the end- what I say is what I pray my audience will remember, long after they’ve forgotten the ponchos and embroidered sweatshirts. And hopefully, through the power of the Holy Spirit they won’t even remember who the messenger was, or what she was wearing but that through the message they experienced the love of Jesus.