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The Casual Pastor

I’m new to this pastoring thing, but already I’ve noticed a common question from people:  “What should I call you?”  I prefer just “John,” without any title, because that’s who I am.  I don’t think of myself as “Pastor John” or “Pastor Lemke” or anything else.  On the other hand, people from older generations still call me “Pastor John” and I never correct them – for them, it’s a sign of respect that they willingly give. 

Scot McKnight wonders if we pastors are getting too casual

I wonder sometimes, too, and truthfully I worry about it a little bit.  If I become too casual, perhaps I am not taking my vocation seriously.  Scot has this suggestion:

Occasional informalities and common realities are wonderful. But a church site with pages for pastors ought to reflect the sacred wisdom of the ages and sacredness of the vocation. Some of these folks need to wear the collar for a year, daily. (bold mine)

If I did that,  I’m not sure I would be the kind of pastor that I’m best at.  Is it possible to be casual and still take your call seriously?  I hope so, because that is what I am trying to do.  I’m interested, though, to know what other people think.  What do you prefer to call your pastor, and how casual is too casual?

  1. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 5, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    It sounds similar to the mindset of preaching. Some preachers will tell you you should be nervous before every time you speak. Others will say that they are most comfortable in front of others.

    I think if I were to err, I’d rather err on taking things too serious than not serious enough.

  2. mikewittmer
    January 6, 2009 at 11:42 am


    I understand why pastors do it, but I wonder about the wisdom of dressing casual to show that we are one of the guys and relational when the people who have positions of authority in our culture still wear suits. Can you imagine our president or newscaster addressing us in anything but a suit and tie? Even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert–the hippest of the hip–wear suits on every show.

  3. Brian D
    January 6, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I think for myself it is a matter of respect for a person that has been called or is in a position of authority. I do find however that in the building it is always Pastor Lemke, outside of the building I find myself more casual. As far as what should we do, or wear I think is not relevant. We look to our Pastors to teach us the truth and as long as what we are being taught is God’s truth then wear a speedo and flip flops (Please don’t though) for the message is what is important not the look or title of the messenger.

  4. jlemke
    January 6, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Mike – That’s part of my struggle. If I “dress the part” I seem to be a step above those I am trying to reach. If I don’t, I fear losing some of the sacredness and authority that comes with the job. So, can I project authority while still being casual with my congregation? I’m trying – but it’s hard. To do so, I think I need to project authority in a way that moves beyond how I dress. Thus, wisdom and knowledge in my teaching is part of it. So is leading with confidence (hopefully, though, without cockiness!).

    Brian D – If I wear a speedo and flip flops, that will be the end of my job anyway and no one will care how I dress!!

  5. Brian D
    January 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I guess I never noticed until last night that I tend to do the same thing as do some other deacons in the church. As I was getting ready to make sure my suit coat, tie, and shirt were ready for this Sunday it struck me as “why is Communion or Easter the only day I get extra dressy”? (I really don’t like to wear a tie) Perhaps our “Sunday Best” is becoming a “special occasion best”

  6. mikewittmer
    January 8, 2009 at 1:18 am

    John: I think that you have put your finger squarely on the tension, and I don’t think there is an easy, one size fits all answer. I think I have seen it work well both ways–formal and informal–it may depend on the person, the church, and where the pendulum seems to be swinging at the moment. But I do wonder whether the church has become more casual than the culture (see my Colbert and Stewart examples). When the coolest guys on TV are still wearing suits, then that tells me it can still be done.

  7. January 8, 2009 at 10:32 am

    I don’t think you can have it both ways, if you are set apart as a Pastor with special sacredness then you should dress the part and be different. If we are all equals, all called to the priesthood of believers and you are simply gifted to preach/teach I don’t think it matters.

    It is interesting though, that our Pastors don’t wear suits on Sunday, but always wear them when conducting funerals or weddings. Why is that?

  8. Brian McLaughlin
    January 8, 2009 at 11:59 am

    I think this is probably an issue of Christian liberty where the church can take a lead from the culture (I’m pretty sure God isn’t concerned about dress, unless it is indecent or immodest). But I think culture is going very casual. I see this on Sundays, weddings, funerals, work places, etc. (by the way Jeff, the reason I wear a suit when I’m officiating the wedding is because I ask the bride what she wants me to wear…I never wear a suit when attending). Colbert and Stewart are good examples, but it does seem that politics and media are some of the last “formal” places in popular culture. Not sure why…

  9. jlemke
    January 8, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Interesting point, Jeff. Do you think we should wear suits when we preach? I’m curious.

    Brian – I still wear a suit to weddings and funerals even when I’m not officiating, and I’m not out of place. Culturally, it still seems natural to do so.

    Mike – You mentioned that it might depend on the person. That’s why I tend not to be formal; I’m not a formal person by nature, and it’s more natural for me. But it wouldn’t work for some of the pastors I’ve been under.

  10. Brian McLaughlin
    January 8, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I agree that you would not be out of place with a suit, but I don’t wear them and I’m not out of place either. I imagine the older generation (who attends more funerals!) still prefers suits. But in the last couple of years, and this is no exaggeration, I think almost every funeral I’ve gone to people have commented that they are more casual.

    Again, I think this is an issue of Christian liberty. For some people suits are “natural,” for others they are not. We’ll only get into trouble if we begin to mandate.

  11. January 8, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    John – I honestly think we (GLBC) are still a culture that expects our pastors to not be so casual. That expectation comes from the fact that we view you as professionals and expect a more professional dress. Culture changes, but I do not believe our “community” has crossed that bridge yet.

    Personally, it does not bother me. The way you teach and attempt to live out that teaching allows me to submit to your authority regardless of what you are wearing. The same for Brian and Andrew.

  12. mikewittmer
    January 8, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Julie and I just returned from hearing John Ortberg at Calvin’s January Series, and he was wearing something that was one level above a sweatshirt, and he pulled it off. Sort of like what Steve Jobs wears.

    However, it hit me afterwards that most if not all of the male other presenters at the January Series this year (profs, scientists, presidential experts) will wear suits, and it made me sad that the preacher is the one who will look the least professional. Are we taking ourselves too lightly?

  13. January 8, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    But in the case of dress, isn’t beauty/professionality in the eye of the beholder? What is pretty/professional to one isn’t to another. Certainly there are cultural, generational, and geographical differences that all factor in. So isn’t this discussion a little futile because it is so context dependent? You almost have to take church by church, right?

  14. mikewittmer
    January 9, 2009 at 9:18 am


    Certainly it is a cultural question. But within our American culture, I would think that suit and tie still signify a more professional look than other forms (ask yourself how Americans–including the young ones–would respond if Barack showed up for the State of the Union without a suit and tie).

  15. jlemke
    January 9, 2009 at 10:08 am

    There’s another tension that’s lurking beneath the question of whether or not a suit is culturally appropriate. I could go either way on the cultural question. After all, I’ve been under pastors who wear suits and pastors who don’t. However, a bigger problem is whether we can become too professional. I want to have some authority, but not so much that people can’t relate to me. So the question “suit or no suit” is subservient to the deeper question – How do I want to be seen? As one of my congregation, or as someone above them? And, if the answer is “above them,” then how far above?

  16. Brian McLaughlin
    January 9, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Good point John. But still cultural…what people determine as “above” and “subservient” depends upon that particular context. But you’ve hit the correct point.

  17. Ryan Prudhomme
    January 9, 2009 at 11:01 am

    There a gentleman I look up to and admire as much or more than any other in my walk with the Lord. He were wranglers and a button up shirt and a cowboy hat almost every day. Don’t stereotype Brian and John, he is professionally dressed.

    However it is his maturity in Christ and evident walk with the Lord, not to mention the authority with which he speaks that commands respect from those around him. He is an executive director of a major national ministry.

    Yes our appearance plays a part of our perception, however John the baptist was in rags and still respected among his constituents.

  18. Brian D
    January 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

    So, I am curious, what you all wearing this Sunday. Suit or casual? If suit is that because it is Communion Sunday?

  19. jlemke
    January 9, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    Casual. I’m still me, after all.

  20. January 9, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    If it’s a cultural thing, how would you determine that you are not meeting the culture’s expectations? Complaints?

  21. jlemke
    January 9, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Actually, Jeff, that’s one way. Another is to blog about it and see what people say!!

    The final way is to wait until you’re fired. But that’s a little too final for me…

  22. mikewittmer
    January 9, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Does the question also depend on how we see our role in the worship service? For instance, when we preach are we, as Fred Craddock said, “As one without authority?”, or are we heralds of the King?

    Ultimately I think we agree that it depends on the culture of the church. Personally, I have preached in Sunday morning worship services in dockers and a short sleeved shirt (because that was the expectation of that church), though usually I wear a suit and tie (for the same reason).

    Of course, since you guys are the leaders of your church, you have a little more say in establishing the culture. And since John is a Steelers fan, I’d be a little apprehensive in allowing him to have too much say. The people in Steeler country are not exactly known for their developed taste.

  23. January 9, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    Am I still allowed to wear shorts to conduct our Family Meetings?

  24. jlemke
    January 9, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    Jeff, you can wear shorts if you wear them with a Steelers sweatshirt.

  25. Heather
    January 12, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    It is interesting to read how the original question of John’s (What do you prefer to call your pastor, and how casual is too casual?) has morphed in to a question of what is appropriate to wear to preach in.

    I prefer to call our pastor’s by their first name when in a one on one conversation with them. They are all three our friends and it seems appropriate to call them by their given name. However if I am talking to a group of people I will often use Pastor in reference to them as a sign of respect as well as authority. We have trained our kids to call them Pastor. It is a title of respect and so when we are talking to our kids about the pastors we always use that title.

    I freely admit that I am old school when it comes to dress and regardless of what the culture says and does I think that there are appropriate ways to dress for every situation. For instance, I never think it is appropriate for a man to go to a wedding without a coat and tie (sorry Brian- I could give on one or the other but not both). I don’t think it is appropriate to go to a Broadway Musical in cutoff jean shorts. I think a speaker (pastor or otherwise) can be too casual- like wearing shorts and a t-shirt to lead a family business meeting (sorry Jeff- not even if you wear a steelers shirt.)

    If it truly is like Brian mentioned, on a church by church by church basis then let’s look specifically at our church. Overall I do not think our church is a casual church. On a Sunday morning the majority of the congregation can be found in business casual with a tendency toward the business side over the casual side. The service itself (songs) tends to be a little more formal than casual though if compared to a more liturgical church we are more casual. So I think it is appropriate for our pastors to be in business casual (dress slacks/dress shirts- not suits and ties) but think it is too casual for them to be in cargo pants and t-shirts. An interesting side note is that our deacons are often more dressed up for serving communion than the pastors who are leading it.

    One thing that always catches me off guard is how casual our staff is in the office during the week. They are professionals and in my world that has a certain expectation of dress (business casual) I realize that does not hold true in all professional places but in a church office I think it does. I am always surprised when I see them during the week in very casual dress (jeans/tennis shoes.)

  26. jlemke
    January 13, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Got it, Heather. No cargo pants and t-shirts on Sundays!! Not promising what I might do the rest of the week, though. Some days it even depends on who I might be meeting (e.g. for college students and young marrieds, cargo pants would be appropriate. For visiting older members, khaki’s and a button-down are probably better). In other words, sometimes it’s not even contextual by congregation, but by day.

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