What to Wear to the Youth Retreat

Hello, Reverend. I’ve been offline for a couple of weeks. Why? Because we are in the thick of Youth Retreat Season and I’ve been busy.

If you have anything to do with youth ministry, and especially if you serve a big church, you know all about Youth Retreat Season. Here’s my six-weekend consecutive lineup:

  1. Sixth- and seventh-grade lock-in
  2. Eighth-grade pre-Confirmation retreat in the woods
  3. High school youth group lock-in
  4. Church school baking party (Saturday) and bake sale (Sunday), plus Scout Sunday, but I did get to sleep in my own bed so that was pretty great
  5. ANOTHER eighth-grade pre-Confirmation retreat in the woods (we have a giant class this year and half the class goes on each)
  6. Wait, why don’t I have to go on a retreat this weekend?! … Oh, it’s the Triduum.

I got off the hook for the (grown-up) parish women’s retreat this year, which is probably for the best. I am all retreated out.

However, while I’ve been busy pining for my bed and not blogging, I’ve also had abundant time to reflect on the perfect outfit for leading a winter/spring youth retreat. Have at it.

Graphic T-shirt. Crazy! No clergy collar in sight! Here’s your chance to show what a hip youth pastor you are. I usually waste the opportunity by wearing a youth group T-shirt from my church, though I have to say our youth group T-shirts are pretty cool. (We order from Ministry Gear, which has great customer service and will let you combine short- and long-sleeved shirts in your order. This year the kids voted for this design, though this one is my favorite.)

But if you are cooler than me, look at just a few of your thousands of options!

collage graphic tees

one | two | three
four | five | six
seven | eight | nine

I have to give a special shout-out to Out of Print Clothing (all T-shirts on the bottom row) because I love their literary shirts, socks, and baby onesies. They’re not sponsoring this post, I just think they’re cool.

A T-shirt is not a stole and it is perfectly acceptable to treat it as a blank canvas. Just remember to keep it church-appropriate, unless you enjoy unpacking sexual puns for middle-schoolers while you are struggling through a challenge course in the rain.

Flannel shirt. Because it gets cold on these things. Sometimes you’re at your own church, where you never realized that the heat automatically shuts off at 9:00 PM. Sometimes you’re in a “heated” cabin at a summer camp. Just trust me and bring your flannel. If it’s warmish you can wear it open over your rad graphic tee. Because you are cool like that.

Not all the shirts pictured below are technically flannel. If you live in a warmer climate or your retreat is in late May, options two, three, and five will keep you covered, but still nice and cool.

collage flannel shirt

one | two | three
four | five | six

Fleece jacket or puffer vest. I hate carrying a bag during these things. I always leave it in the kitchen or set it down for a rousing game of “The Great Wind Blows” and forget to pick it up again. So I always wear a sturdy layer with substantial pockets. What is in those pockets, you ask?

  • Driver’s license and phone
  • Janitor-sized bundle of keys
  • Some kid’s inhaler
  • Crumpled receipts that I plan to turn in someday
  • Grubby wad of paper that inevitably turns out to be my personal retreat medical information form (the kids’ forms are always in a neatly labeled folder)
  • Miniature Altoids tin containing one lonely Xanax, given to me by a parent with the ominous instruction, “You’ll know if he needs it”

Don’t take your chances on leaving this stuff in the kitchen. Pockets it is.

Here, we have a row of puffer vests, always my favorite; a row of utility jackets, on trend right now and a solid staple; and a row of athletic/performance-style options, including my not-so-stylish but can’t-live-without-it rain jacket, the Marmot PreCip. That thing is twelve years old and still waterproof after dozens of camping trips and hundreds of bike rides in the rain.

Why buy such a warm layer in April? I’ll tell you why: Number one, it is still cold as all get-out here in New England, and number two, a lot of this stuff is on sale right now.

collage jackets and vests

one | two | three
four | five | six
seven | eight | nine

Skinny jeans or cords. Not flares, which will drag on the ground and get muddy. Not chinos, which make it hard to sit on the floor. And definitely not leggings. Even if you have the glutes of a professional ballet dancer, your kids do not need to see them in full view while you lead evening prayer. Instead, wear your comfiest jeans or cords and enjoy the day.

Below, in the first row, we have some standard blue jeans; in the second row, a reminder that jeans don’t have to be blue (I know white jeans are in style right now, but remember what I said about sitting on the floor); and in the third row, a few choices for my fellow corduroy enthusiasts. Take it from me: Once you start wearing burgundy cords, you will never want to stop.

collage jeans and cords

one | two | three
four | five | six
seven | eight | nine

Comfortable shoes. Of course, your particular shoe needs will depend on the weather and terrain. Low-key overnighter in your church youth room? Wear light slip-on sneakers — you can run around in them while playing flashlight tag, then easily kick them off to watch a movie on the disgusting youth room couch. Spring adventure in the New Hampshire woods? You might need rain boots, snow boots, or hiking boots to keep your feet warm and dry. I swear by my knee-high Hunter boots in most muddy situations, but I don’t like them for youth retreats because I find they make it hard to sit comfortably on the floor. Hunter really has the rain-boot thing nailed, though. I’m currently trying to decide whether I can justify the heart-stopping cost of their new waterproof loafers, featured in the bottom row below.

collage retreat shoes

one | two | three
four | five | six
seven | eight | nine

I recognize that it is weird to want purple rubber penny loafers, but approved workers are never ashamed.

If it is Youth Retreat Season in your part of the world, my prayers are with you and all your kids. May they come to know the love of Jesus Christ, grow closer to each other and God, and not Snapchat any doubtful selfies from your church bathrooms.

Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe: Masculine Aesthetic Edition

clergy capsule wardrobe masculine

Good morning, Reverend. Perhaps you read my previous post on clergy capsule wardrobes and thought, “Sure, a pencil skirt would look adorable. On my cold dead body.”

Not everyone shares my love of teetering around in pencil skirts and heels. If you prefer a more masculine aesthetic in your style of dress, or have always quietly thought that your butt looks better in men’s pants, this post is for you.

If you are 5’11” with broad shoulders, you can probably shop for menswear wherever you want. If you aren’t, though, let’s take a look at how to help you rock that collar without looking like you borrowed all your clothes from your dad.

Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe: Masculine Edition

1. Black clergy shirt. I have two pieces of bad news for you in this department. The first is that if you ever get called “sir” when you are wearing normal layperson attire, you can expect this to happen 1,000 times more often when you are wearing a clergy shirt. One of these days I’ll write a post about why, which will feature a lot of Kate Bornstein quotes, but right now we need to focus on clothes.

The second piece of bad news is that men’s clergy shirts are ginormous. Scour the far corners of the Internet as I might, I couldn’t find an exception to this rule. The SMALLEST men’s shirt size from Almy assumes a 40-inch chest and a height of up to 6’3″. While Cokesbury is a slightly better bet, since they at least offer men’s shirts with a 14.5″ neck measurement (my collar size!), if you are short the sleeves are still going to be way too long. But never fear. You have several options:

Buy a men’s clergy shirt and tailor it down to fit you. Keep in mind that some alterations are much more costly than others. Getting the sides taken in will be cheap; getting the shoulders taken in will not.

Get a clergy shirt custom-made. Depending on your sizing needs, this may be a more cost-effective route than tailoring an off-the-rack shirt.

Buy a women’s clergy shirt that is cut like a men’s shirt. If you can tolerate wearing clothing designed for women, these are not hard to find. The long-sleeve button-down women’s clergy shirts from Almy are about as androgynous as women’s clothing gets — the website claims that they have darting, but I own several of these shirts and I am here to tell you it must be special secret darting that you can only see if you have a very specific gift of the Holy Spirit. WomenSpirit’s shirts are cut for a curvier body shape, but still fairly androgynous, if you ignore all the typo-laden web copy about the “stylish feminine shaped fit.”

Buy a black men’s dress shirt and sew on two buttons to make it work with a neckband collar. Collar This! offers a simple tutorial for this (more details here). If you are slim-built and/or wear a chest binder, try a slim fit shirt from Express or Banana Republic (both stores offer a variety of other cuts too). If you’re on a budget, pick up a shirt from Target or J. Crew Factory. If you wear this shirt a lot, you’ll want to take it to a tailor and have the original collar removed, but in a pinch you can just fold the original collar inside the shirt and hope for the best.

2. A second clergy shirt, black or in another color of your choosing. Blue and gray are solid choices that will go with everything. Remember, unless you get a lot of mail addressed to “The Right Reverend” you should stay away from purple.

3. Everyday pants. It’s hard to go wrong with khakis, so that’s what gets my vote. If you can afford two pairs of these, you can go for two different shades of khaki (a light sand color and a dark camel color, for example), or pick up a second pair in a medium gray. Old Navy, Dockers, Gap, J. Crew Factory, and Banana Republic all make durable khaki pants in a wide range of sizes. You might need to get them shortened, but hemming pants is cheap.

If you prefer the look of men’s pants but they just don’t fit you right, Dockers and Eddie Bauer both make women’s pants that are reasonably androgynous in style but cut to acccomodate a shape that is not straight-up-and-down. Results may vary — try them on and see what you think.

Unless you serve in a VERY casual setting, best to save the cords and cargo pants for your day off. I haven’t worn corduroys to work since that time when the church treasurer told me I looked like a cowboy.

4. Dress pants. So fancy! You can get away with dress pants made of cotton if you’re on a budget, although the best material for them is a light wool or wool/linen blend. No matter what the fabric, take extra good care of your dress pants. If they’re machine-washable, launder them in cold water and don’t put them in the dryer. Here are some mid-priced dress pants options from Banana Republic, J. Crew Factory and Express.

What if you already own a suit? Can you just wear the pants from that? It depends. Some suit pants look perfectly fine on their own and others will make you look like you have misplaced your suit jacket and are aimlessly wandering the halls of your church trying to find it. Ask a trusted friend if you’re not sure.

5. Sweater. Are you a giraffe? No? Then don’t wear a crew-neck sweater with a clerical collar, lest you appear to have no neck at all. You can get away with one of those baggy grandpa cardigans if you serve in a hip emergent dinner church, but most of us are best off sticking with V-necks.

Just about everyone looks good in a V-neck sweater, even while wearing a clerical collar. Always wear the collar while trying on sweaters so that you can see the overall effect. Good sources for men’s sweaters in small sizes include Express, Banana Republic and J. Crew Factory (you may be detecting a pattern here). Pick any color you like, remembering that solid colors look dressier than prints. No one will mind if you wear the same color sweater several days in a row, but there’s also no rule saying you can’t buy two.

6. Blazer. For when you need to step it up a notch. If you’re only going to own one blazer to wear with khakis and clergy shirts, I recommend a navy blue bright enough that it won’t totally clash with black. Navy will also look good with light blue shirts, gray shirts, and most colors of sweater.

It can take some doing to find a men’s blazer in a small size. J. Crew’s Ludlow blazer comes in a men’s 34 short (here in cotton or wool), plus a wool boys’ version for the shorter among us. Express makes slim-cut men’s blazers in tons of different colors and fabrics. If you like a menswear look but need a women’s cut, the J. Crew Factory women’s schoolboy blazer may get the job done.

A blazer should fit you impeccably, especially with respect to shoulders and sleeves. Take it to a tailor if you must.

7. Very comfortable everyday shoes. Oh, the shoe problem. Finding good men’s shoes is a pain in the neck if you wear anything below a size 40 (roughly a men’s size 7.5 or women’s size 9). Boys’ shoes are not a thrilling option, as they are usually not made to last like men’s shoes are. Let’s see what we can do here.

Boys’ shoes. There are a couple of companies that make quality boys’ casual shoes. The sizing usually goes up to about a boys’ size 6, or between a women’s 7 and 8. Here are some nice Sperry tan suede lace-ups, Dr. Martens black leather lace-ups, and Florsheim brown leather loafers.

Men’s shoes. Rockport makes these black or brown leather chukkas and these black, brown or tan lace-ups in a men’s size 6. Ecco is a bit pricey but known for comfort, and makes lots of shoes in men’s size 6, including this nice gray or brown lace-up.

Women’s shoes. If you just want some shoes that fit you already and men’s shoes aren’t cutting it, look for women’s chukkas, oxfords or brogues that won’t ruin your life with girly details. Born makes the most comfortable shoes on earth, and I like this tan, gray or blue lace-up. At a higher price point, Cole Haan makes these great wingtips in black or brown.

Tip: Your socks should be the same color as either your shoes or your pants. This applies unless you have a flashy sock collection, in which case, go to town. You will get only sock admiration from me.

8. Reasonably comfortable dress shoes. You thought everyday business casual shoes were a hassle? Try finding a small size in men’s dress shoes. But never fear, there are some good options out there. You might be a fan of the Cole Haan women’s wingtips mentioned above, or maybe these Ecco men’s lace-ups (which come in a million slight variations). Probably best to avoid kids’ dress shoes — you are aiming for quality here. If you invest in a good pair and treat them to some cedar shoe trees when they’re not on your feet, they will last you for years.

And, as ever, a couple of bonus suggestions in case somebody wants to buy you an ordination gift:

9. Cross pendant. Clergy of every gender presentation may choose to wear great big crosses if they wish. As mentioned before, I love this silver deacon’s cross, but other good options include this plain cross, this beveled-edge cross and this Celtic cross. And don’t forget about the bronze Tree of Life.

10. Grown-up briefcase or messenger bag. I’m not saying you have to retire your trusty nylon backpack, just that it’s nice to have another option when you want to look extra-good. This leather/canvas combo bag has a cool hipster vibe and is only $44, and this black leather Samsonite bag will last forever and will never go out of style.

If you serve in a more casual setting (oh hey college chaplains and clergy of the Pacific Northwest!), I really love Timbuk2 messenger bags, which come in all kinds of colors and sizes. You can even step up your game a bit with this Timbuk2 black leather briefcase. If you will need to haul your laptop around, make sure your bag’s dimensions are big enough to hold it.

Hey, check you out! You look awesome! Pretty soon all your male clergy colleagues will be asking you where you shop.

Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe

clergy-capsule-wardrobe-large

You get the phone call you’ve been waiting for. You sign the paperwork. You circle the start date on your calendar in bright red ink.

This is it! Your very first clergy job! Congrats, Reverend!

Then, still in the warm afterglow of that glorious call, you look in the mirror.

If you have been a full-time seminary student for the last several years, perhaps you are wearing your one pair of jeans, which are starting to wear through in that spot where your bike seat makes contact with your inner thigh.

Or you might be in your Study Pants. You know exactly which pants are your Study Pants: These are sweatpants, leggings, or yoga tights whose proper sphere is the home. Those Study Pants have helped you meet many a deadline and kept you cozy through many a late night. You know you’re not really supposed to wear them to class, but, uh, all the undergrads are doing it.

What’s that you’re wearing on top? Is it a hoodie from the campus bookstore? A long-sleeved T-shirt from a 5K race you ran last spring? Your favorite sweater, also hooded, which has gotten a little threadbare in the decade since you picked it up at a street market while studying abroad in Peru?

You sigh. You are going to need a serious wardrobe overhaul between now and your start date.

There’s just one problem: You have no money. Your first paycheck still glimmers in the future, and your final tuition payment is due in the uncomfortable here and now.

Enter the clergy capsule wardrobe.

Now, I am not a capsule fiend. My attitude toward minimalism is best summarized by the brilliant Mallory Ortberg. (“Replace your couch with a pile of the least frustrated lentils you can find. No more than seven lentils.”)

But compact wardrobes have their time and place. That time is the moment when you have to craft a whole new clergy ensemble on a budget of zero dollars, and that place is your new church.

If you find yourself in this situation, try starting with the list below. Even if you wear the same tab-collared shirt every day, these nine pieces will give you enough options to keep sniffy church ladies from asking you, “Didn’t I see you in those pants last Sunday?”

A note about shopping on a budget: If you most often wear a size Small, Medium, or Large and/or a very common shoe size (roughly sizes 6 to 9), it’s well worth your time to look for business casual staples at thrift stores — they often have barely-worn dress shoes, skirts, and blazers. If your clothing or shoe size runs smaller or larger, keep an eye on the clearance sections of your favorite stores. You can find some fabulous deals from retailers who are looking to unload that one last XXS sweater or pair of size 11 shoes.

Clergy Starter Capsule Wardrobe

clergy-capsule-wardrobe-large

1. Black clergy shirt. Clergy shirts come in two basic styles: tab collar (also called “Roman collar”) and neckband collar (“Anglican collar”). Before dropping any cash here, check in with your rector or senior pastor to find out whether they care which kind you wear. Having grown up Catholic, I think of tab-collared shirts as the “real” kind and wear them almost exclusively, but some Protestant clergy frown upon them.

neckband-vs-tab-collar

(Photo credit: WomenSpirit)

If you choose a neckband collar, be prepared for many laypeople to wonder why you are wearing a shirt with a plastic turtleneck. If you choose a tab collar, be prepared for many laypeople on the street to ask you questions about it: “Are you really a priest?” “Can women be Catholic priests now?” “Are you in a play?”

Clergy shirts are not cheap, so buy one that fits you properly and treat it well. I have three of these dress shirts from Almy and they still look new after countless washings, though I had to get the side seams taken in to make them fit right. If you want a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in, here are some options from Almy, Clergy Image, and WomenSpirit.

2. Clergy shirt in pretty much any color other than black. Again, check with your boss first. Some clergy are black-shirt purists, but most will not mind if you want to double your outfit options by picking up another color. If you’re only going to own two of these shirts, don’t go too wild. Navy, hunter green, or royal blue will serve you better than paisley print or Barbie pink.

DO NOT BUY A PURPLE CLERGY SHIRT. Many Christian traditions reserve purple for bishops. Even if bishops are not a thing in your denomination, a purple shirt will not win you any points at the next ecumenical clergy brunch.

3. Printed skirt. Why shop for this next? Because the colors in a print go together (that’s why somebody printed them all on the same skirt) and will give you a color scheme around which to build the rest of your wardrobe. The more conservative the cut of the skirt, the more bold you can be with the print, although unless you work in a Las Vegas wedding chapel you might want to steer clear of animal prints and sparkles. I love the zipper details on this blue-and-green skirt from M Missoni, but there are plenty of beautiful lower-cost options, like this dark floral pencil skirt or this maroon paisley print (both from LOFT).

While skirt shopping, allow yourself a moment of shoe truth. Do you wear flat shoes almost every day? Unless you are seven feet tall, a knee-length pencil skirt is gonna look weird with those. But ballet flats are beautiful with a straight skirt that hits an inch or two above the knee; clogs look great with a flared or A-line shape; and pretty much every skirt style is destined for success with knee-high leather boots. Do make sure your silhouette is structured enough for the sartorial norms of your church. Undertake the “boho chic pastor” look at your own risk.

If you don’t care for prints, try a bright color or an interesting texture. How about this yellow lace skirt, navy faux suede skirt, or simple pencil skirt in persimmon or bright green?

4. Skirt in a neutral color. Not black — you’re already wearing a black shirt and you are not planning to rob a bank. Pick another neutral light enough that it won’t clash, like camel (love that laser cutout detail!), light gray, or dark blue.

5. Pants. Now, I hate pants shopping (unless it is Study Pants shopping!), so my capsule has two skirts but one lonely pair of pants. Feel free to switch these ratios around to suit your style.

If you’re only going to own one pair of pants, however, make them a workhorse pair. They should be machine-washable and comfortable enough that you can kneel on the floor with the kindergartners in Sunday school, crouch to pick up a hymnal that has fallen behind the altar rail, and slump through an evening board meeting at the end of a long day. You can’t go wrong with khakis, but since you’re going to be wearing so much black, you might also consider a go-with-everything color like olive, burgundy, or hunter green. Find something that works with both of your shirts, the sweater, and the blazer. Gap chinos are a classic; if you want to look a bit more dressed up, try the Editor or Columnist pants from Express and the Marisa or Julie pants from LOFT. Decide which pair of shoes you want to wear them with and get them hemmed to the right length.

6. Sweater. This sweater should go with both your new shirts, as well as your new pants and skirts (we’ll get to that soon). Wear your clericals while trying on sweaters — some necklines that normally suit you will look kinda weird with the high collar of the shirt. Also, keep in mind that pastels and earth tones can look washed out against black. Jewel tones and other saturated colors are a good bet.

You’re going to get a lot of wear out of this sweater: Churches are hard to heat and your office will be cold. Go for a pullover, cardigan, solid color, Fair Isle, whatever makes your heart sing. J. Crew Factory is a nice place to pick up inexpensive, durable sweaters; my favorites are the V-neck (solid or striped) and the Caryn cardigan (solid in a million color options, striped, or polka-dotted).

7. Blazer. Nothing says “I may be only three weeks out of seminary but I sure do know what I’m doing” like a well-cut blazer. Think about what you will most often want to wear it with: Shorter blazers look better with skirts, longer ones with pants. You don’t have to spend a zillion dollars on a blazer, but if you’re buying a cheap one, consider sticking with gray or black — colorful blazers have a way of looking very polyester-y. J. Crew Factory makes a great basic wool blazer (also in petite!) and LOFT has this edgy fringe tweed jacket if you’re feeling adventurous.

Blazers tend to be dry-clean-only and that business is expensive. To maximize wears between trips to the cleaners, always wear sleeves under your blazer, and give the armpits a spritz with white vinegar if they start to get funky.

8. Very comfortable everyday shoes. I do mean VERY comfortable. If you cannot walk a mile in them, they fail the test.

But never fear: You can wear comfortable shoes without succumbing to Frumpy Priest syndrome. I swear by these White Mountain flats — I love the patent cap-toe detail, which dresses them up a bit, and they offer fabulous arch support that is hard to find in a ballet flat.

Other options include ankle boots (there are plenty of flat options, but these low-heeled Style & Co. booties also pass the comfort test), riding boots (I can walk for days in these b.o.c. boots), or wedges (these ultra-comfy Naturalizer wedges are marked down to $21). Dansko clogs are the shoe of choice for many clergy women and come in a variety of colors that are eye-catching but still professional. Just please, don’t wear them with a pencil skirt.

9. Reasonably comfortable dress shoes. Do you want to officiate a black-tie wedding in your Dansko clogs? No, you do not. If you ever wear heels, it’s worth investing in one well-made pair in real leather. I love the Cole Haan Juliana pumps (which come in two different heel heights), and these days you can find plenty of glamorous choices from comfort brands like Ecco and Clarks.

That’s it! These nine pieces are all you need for a full year of business-casual clergy life. Look at just a few of the outfits you can make:

clergy-capsule-outfit-1

It’s a chilly fall weekday. You’re going to attend some meetings, make a hospital visit, and then return to church, where you will inevitably plunge a toilet or move a bunch of folding chairs.

clergy-capsule-outfit-2

It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and you are going to tea with the altar guild! Look at that pretty skirt. Also, they will love your shoes.

clergy-capsule-outfit-3

You’re going to an evening board meeting. Why is it always so cold in this room at night? Good thing you remembered your cardigan.

clergy-capsule-outfit-4

You’re going to some boring denominational gathering for which you wish to look very serious. You forgot about the opening reception, where you will have to stand for hours on end. You probably should have gone with the flat shoes.

Meanwhile, if you’re getting ordained soon, people are going to want to buy you presents. Here are two bonus items you should put on that list.

10. Cross pendant. The cross itself should be between 1.5″ and 2.5″ long (any smaller will look weird with your collar; any larger says “Halloween costume”). Stay away from gold, which is reserved for bishops. I treasure this silver deacon’s cross, which was a gift from my dad for my diaconal ordination, and still wear it all the time now that I’m a priest. I am also a sucker for all Tree of Life variations, like this silver-finish one and this bronze cutout version.

cross-pendants

Sharpest-lookin’ pastor on the block.

11. Grown-up handbag or briefcase. The board members of your congregation may or may not appreciate the fashion statement you are making with your neon pleather hobo bag, so it’s time to start toting your prayer book around in something with a little more panache. This bag needn’t be expensive to get the job done. Here are some options under $30 from Forever 21 and Old Navy, and you can often find good deals at discount retailers like Marshalls and TJ Maxx.

Me? Almost every day, I carry the Lucky Brand April tote in black. It’s under $100, made of real leather, can fit my laptop, and has a zip-top closure to deter subway thieves. I am also a big fan of the pebbled texture and the tassel detail.

That’s it! If you are a seminarian or new minister trying to build a work wardrobe, I hope these suggestions come in handy. No matter what you buy or how you dress, at the end of the day, remember that the only real non-negligible item is your passion for building the kingdom of God. If you are fabulously dressed while doing it, well, that is only the icing on the cake.

… Oh, and hang onto those Study Pants. They will become Sermon Writing Pants soon enough.