LAY OFF THE LADIES
I still cringe a little bit inside, remembering. I was in my mid-twenties and single again. I’d dropped a few pounds, having lost my appetite for a while after my husband died. I went into my office and found a note that had been slipped under the door. As I opened it and began to understand its contents, I could feel a flush creep up my neck. It was from one of the young ladies in the church. She had written to express her disapproval of a pair of pants I’d worn to church recently. I knew the ones she was talking about. They were new, and I really liked them. They were a touch on the small side, but it was the last pair in the store. They were sort of the pants version of a mermaid dress—black, silky fabric, tight on the top, then flaring out just above the knees down to the floor. This girl thought these pants were too tight, and apparently, when I sat down, the top of my panties had been visible in the back. She informed me that as a pastor, I really should set a better example. I was horrified and deeply embarrassed. I had never intended to look seductive. I just liked the pants, but apparently my motives and my qualifications to be a pastor were somehow in question because of my choice. Needless to say, the pants bit the dust.
Over the years, I’ve chatted with a number of girls serving in church who have been rebuked so harshly over their clothes they almost quit. I have a beautiful young friend in her early twenties. She and her husband are youth pastors with an adorable little boy, and she is also her pastor’s daughter. I was surprised when she told me that for a while she considered not being in ministry at all. After some probing, I discovered that in her first year of ministry, she had endured three hours of harsh rebuking in a meeting with six of the women of her church. She is one of the most gentle, sweet and gracious people you will ever meet. She told me that she essentially was called a slut for wearing leggings on stage and showing the shape of her backside in a youth meeting. She was so embarrassed and hurt by the attack on her motives and the attack on her credibility that she almost called it quits before she even got started. I have beautiful friends in ministry who get fierce criticism for the way they look on their social media profiles. These women get picked on relentlessly, especially if they posted any modeling photos.
No one criticizes men about what they wear. I’ve never heard any man get seriously rebuked for immodesty, and some of the pants they wear these days are tighter than their wife’s. Weirdly enough, in every story I’ve heard, a woman did the rebuking. Men tend to get the blame for all this—we can’t cause our brothers to stumble—but it’s really the ladies that get most bothered by this, not men. The truth is that men don’t tend to even notice what we are wearing. They look at and admire a beautiful woman, regardless of what she wears. My husband doesn’t know the difference between a skirt and a dress any more than he knows the difference between leggings and skinny pants. It does not register in his brain what I’m wearing at all unless I call his attention to it to ask his opinion. Then he just gets really confused, stalls, and tries to leave the room as soon as he can safely escape. He has no idea!
Let’s call this for what it really is—a mean girls attack. This kind of criticism is rooted in a religious spirit and in jealousy. Religion starts wars—not helpful. God hasn’t called anyone to be the official humbler of other people. If you don’t feel good about yourself, making someone else feel small isn’t going to help anyone feel better. You just wind up feeling worse because now you feel like a jerk too. Girls, let’s just decide to be bigger than this kind of meanness. Chill out, and be kind to our pretty girls. They are going to be attractive in whatever they wear. They can’t help it! If you feel resentful of that, ask yourself why.
If you aren’t feeling confident about yourself, and feeling a little jealous of someone, pause for a moment. No one else’s beauty or talent diminishes how fabulous you are. Ask God to help you see yourself the way he sees you—the apple of his eye! Look at the right mirror, the word of God, for your true value as his prize. “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies sent me against the nations who plundered you. For he said, ‘Anyone who harms you harms my most precious possession.’” (Zechariah 2:8 NLT) The value that Christ places on you, just as you are, makes you infinitely valuable. You are a creation by the ultimate designer, amazing and fabulous at every season of life! Walk in that and extend grace and love. We become releasing and empowering chick leaders that way, not intimidated by the influence and beauty of other girls on our team. Let’s celebrate and find personal satisfaction in the successes of the girls we lead with. We are not competing!
I’m not suggesting that we should wear whatever we please or not have expectations for how our teams dress. Modesty absolutely matters. What we look like shapes people’s perception of who we are, so we have to pay close attention to it if we are being good stewards of our leadership influence. Modesty is certainly part of this equation.
Some of us carry roles where we do have to make sure that what the team is wearing is not offensive to people. If you do have to have to address a clothing malfunction, try this approach instead of a rebuke. Don’t make a big deal and pull them off into an office and close the door. Just make it light, and humor always helps. “Hey I know that you would want to know—when you bend over to pick up your water bottle on stage, the church is getting an eyeful of the girls. I’ve got some double-sided tape. It does wonders! I can help tape you up a bit.” This conversation comes from a place of support rather than an attack. Focus on a quick solution and skip the lecture about setting an example, or the evils of a temptress. It’s so much easier to receive when your motives and credibility aren’t being called into question.
Everyone, however, has their own opinions about what is modest. It’s 100% subjective.
I had a funny conversation with an American missionary friend of mine who recently married an Indian man. She had to think about modesty in her wedding photos from both the American perspective and the Indian perspective. In America, showing your arms is pretty much fair game just about universally, and showing your calves is also acceptable to most. In India, modesty means cover the arms and cover the legs to the ankle, but a bare midriff is totally cool. In western society, midriff is definitely off-limits for modesty! The definitions of modesty are cultural, not Biblical. In Bible times, showing your hair was immodest.
For me the bottom line is this: don’t show the line in your bottom. (I know, groan.) I don’t want my appearance to be a distraction to the message I am communicating. I want people to think about Jesus when they listen to me. A necklace or earrings that clank against my microphone, a flapping belt, running eye makeup, or exposed body parts all can be a distraction. The Bible says that God expects us to be modest. “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing” (1 Timothy 2:9 NLT) God doesn’t define what that is. He left that up to culture.
Not only are there societal expectations for modesty, but every church culture has different standards. Our ability to dress appropriately and decently is entirely hinged on our ability to read the culture we are in. I don’t normally wear a long skirt to church, but when I’m visiting some churches, I do. In those church cultures, to wear pants or a long skirt would be such a distraction that people couldn’t focus on Jesus. In those environments, I have to let go of my preferences about fashion to be received. I’m not more Godly by wearing a long skirt in those churches; I’m simply being respectful of culture.
You will not please everyone so don’t get panicky; just do your best. If you catch some criticism about an outfit, don’t take it to heart. Make sure you guard your heart about these things and don’t internalize the criticism. Roll with the punches and apologize, thanking them for bringing it to your attention. You didn’t mean to offend them in the first place, so there is no point to offending them further by getting defensive, but end the conversation quickly. You don’t owe them an explanation. Then deliberately forget about it. If you get this conversation frequently, chances are you aren’t reading your culture well enough.
After many awkward conversations and embarrassing moments, I’ve developed some basic modesty guidelines for myself in leadership environments. I’m not suggesting what works for me will work for everyone, but we do all need to think it through. Mine are something like this: If I wear tight bottoms, I wear a loose top. If I wear a tight top, I go loose on bottom. If I’m wearing leggings, then I always wear a long shirt. Keep all the important girl creases covered, especially on stage. I always wear sleeves on stage. I put a cami under delicate fabrics because what looks opaque in the bedroom light can suddenly be see-through under powerful stage lights. It’s safer to wear tights or leggings with an above the knee skirt. I keep the underwear covered as much as possible. I support the jiggly bits because great undergarments make us look our best.
FINDING YOUR LOOK IS NOT FINDING YOUR IDENTITY
American culture has had some had some traditional expectations about what pastors’ wives and female church leaders should wear. They aren’t especially cute. They tended to either cover every possible inch of skin in the least flattering way possible, or put us in a suit so we blend in with the dudes. If you like either of these two looks and feel like yourself wearing them, bravo! For you, dressing for church is officially easy. For most girls in leadership, finding our personal style is not so simple, and we usually feel quite a bit of pressure about getting it right. I like a variety of styles, and I wear all of them because I like the clothes, not because I’m trying to look like anyone in particular. We don’t have to stick to a fashion stereotype like urban, hipster, bohemian, or sporty because it’s our look. Personal style comes from knowing what we like and what we don’t.
Our identity is established through far more than what we look like. Our preferences determine our personal style, but our style is not our identity. Who we are primarily is the inward person. We don’t build our identity from the outside in, but from the inside out. When we build strong, healthy, confident souls, it shows up on our outsides. That’s why the Bible tells us that makeovers for the inside matter far more than the outside. “3 Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. 4 You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.” (1 Peter 3:3-4 NLT) This kind of loveliness does not decrease with age, just ripens! Our value does not come from our appearance, and the way we look does not change God’s love for us. If we don’t find our identity in our appearance, then it’s easy to change it to adapt to new cultures and new seasons in life. “I want women…in humility before God, not primping before a mirror or chasing the latest fashions but doing something beautiful for God and becoming beautiful doing it.” (I Timothy 2:10 MSG)
We all have days when we just feel dissatisfied with what’s in the mirror. Those are the days when we have to lean on our God identity, laugh a little bit, and throw our hands up in the air. A smile on our face is the most beauty-enhancing accessory we have!
DRESSING FOR LEADERSHIP & THE PLATFORM
God sees my heart and motives and judges me according to the real, inner me. People are different though. They can’t see my insides, so I have to make sure that my outsides reflect what is going on inside my heart. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV) What we look like matters when it comes to leadership.
We show respect to the people we serve when we put thought into what we look like. If you don’t feel comfortable putting outfits together, get a girlfriend who is good to help style you. Don’t be resistant, just do it so you can look your best! Even if you aren’t an onstage person, you meet people every week, making a first impression. People make decisions about whether you are followable literally in seconds. We attract people who look like us because the way we look makes them feel comfortable.
If you don’t have a strong sense of personal style, start by dressing like the people you want to attract. If your community is full of sharp professionals, then you should probably have a selection of professional and business casual clothes. If your community has lots of fashion-conscious young adults, then pay attention to the trends. Classic, tailored clothing is always in style if you aren’t confident wearing the trends or can’t afford to purchase new trends frequently. As much as our deal-hunting hearts love to buy cheap cute stuff, a few good pieces look better for much longer than a bunch of cheap trendy clothes. They look better on you too. Accessories can change up the look if you get bored wearing the same stuff.
When I pick an outfit for the platform I want to feel good about how I look. A good follow-up question is, will this outfit help me connect with people or cause them to disconnect? When it comes to the platform, we need to value people’s respect over their admiration. That’s a tough call for us girls to make, because we love to be admired. Leadership has a different goal. When ministry is self-centered, it needs admiration. We are more than entertainers. We want people to receive Jesus through what we say or do. We have to earn people’s respect for them to be willing to receive from us. Earning respect starts with the visual picture we create. If adapting your personal style for leadership is a hard ask, think about what Paul said. “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (I Corinthians 9:22 NIV) Paul was willing to change his style in different environments to make it easier for people to receive his ministry. He recognized that when people’s eternal salvation is at stake, it’s well worth the personal cost of adjusting.
Dressing to stand on a platform in church is different than dressing for an office or a night out with the girls or hubs. Being uncomfortable in your clothes on stage is the worst. You need to be able to move freely if you are talking or singing. A jacket that constricts your arm movement, or a skirt that restricts your leg movement becomes a nagging distraction. Heels help us look good, heels that are so high you can’t move without watching where you are putting your feet look awkward. You want to be thinking about the people you are talking to, not about staying upright or how badly your feet are hurting. Makeup helps people see the expressions on our face. There are factors on stage that you don’t have to deal with in normal life.
When you are comfortable and confident on stage, you make everyone in the room feel comfortable. That is ultimately the goal. We want people feel comfortable enough to receive us. Then we can connect them to Jesus.