What to Wear to a Clergy Job Interview When You Are Not Yet Ordained

Oooooh it is your last semester of seminary! The graduation gown has been rented! The denominational exams have been passed! And the long-awaited job interview is finally on the calendar. Nice work, proto-Reverend.

But wait. The job you want is a clergy job … so normally you would wear a clergy collar to the interview? Except you don’t have a clergy collar because you won’t get ordained until June.

Fear not. I am here to help.

For most any job interview but definitely for a clergy job, and especially if you are interviewing in a large, well-heeled suburban parish (where a lot of us start out because that’s who can afford to hire assistant pastors, natch), it is a great big pain in the neck to decide what to wear because you are expected to look both

1) stylish; and
2) extremely conservative.

How conservative are we talking? Pretend that you will be wearing your outfit to a campaign fundraiser for your husband, who is a Republican running for local office. That is how the search committee will expect you to look.

Is this fair? Of course not. Church job interviews are not some kind of secret decontamination zone, shielded from the putrescent stench of sexism that pervades everything else in this broken world. The thing is, to start fixing the system from the inside, first you have to get the job.

The trick, then, is to find an outfit that fits these crappy parameters but still makes you feel awesome. Your approach will of course be shaped by many factors, not least your age, gender presentation and personal style, but here’s the tried-and-true formula that works for me:

What to Wear to a Clergy Job Interview When You Are Not Yet Ordained

collage clergy job interview outfit

shop the look: dress | blazer | shoes | pantyhose (ugh) | earrings

Comfy stretchy sheath dress. I love sheath dresses generally. One piece and bam! you’re dressed! And no need to fuss around with a blouse that will inevitably come untucked from your slacks or pencil skirt. Besides, if you are trying to assemble an interview outfit at the Goodwill twelve hours before your interview, choosing a dress means you only have to dig through one rack of clothes instead of two.

The perfect dress for a job interview is comfortable to sit in and gently skims your body shape — fit-and-flare dresses, although they are cute as can be, are not interview attire. Get whatever color you want, but stick with a solid color or a very subtle print. Length should be within an inch of your kneecap, and neckline should be high enough that there’s no cleavage exposure when you bend forward. Use a mirror to check.

The good news here is that, if there is no thrift store handy, you can buy yourself a cheap dress and still look pretty good. If you’re on a serious budget, get yourself to Target. If you can afford to spend $50, the world is your dress-oyster. LOFT makes tons of interview-appropriate dresses and always seems to be having a sale; try this mixed-media sheath or plum sheath WITH POCKETS, or these polka dots if that’s your style, or this gorgeous coral cutout-neck dress. If the LOFT dress you really want isn’t on sale right now, wait twenty minutes and then look again.

Blazer. To look good with a sheath dress, a blazer should have a hem that hits you between navel and mid-hip. Keep the color and cut simple and the fit perfect. If you can’t button it or it feels tight across the back when you cross your arms, it is too small. If you can button it and comfortably fit your laptop inside it with you, it is too big. If the sleeves cover any part of your thumbs when your arms are at your sides, they are too long — zip over to a tailor and get them shortened.

A wool blazer is a great investment if you can afford it, but my favorite interview blazer came from a thrift store by way of Body by Victoria and it fits me pretty well so it looks fine. If you prefer to shop for blazers at a store best known for selling something other than lingerie, hit up Express, LOFT, J. Crew Factory, Nordstrom, or a mid-range department store of your choosing.

Pantyhose. Ugh, I know. But remember your imaginary Republican husband. His constituents will be shocked if you are bare-legged at the fundraiser. They are the worst.

Fortunately for you, Kate Middleton has brought pantyhose back into style! To look as good in them as she does, don’t buy them in a plastic egg at the drugstore, and match them to your skin tone as closely as possible. If you’re between sizes, size up so that you can breathe. For darker skin tones, Nubian Skin (available at Nordstrom) draws good reviews. For lighter skin tones, I like Nordstrom Rack’s in-house Shimera brand, which is fairly durable and will only set you back $6.

Uncomfortable shoes. Unless you will have to spend several hours walking and standing (e.g., your interview includes leading worship or teaching sample lessons), now is the time to dust off a pair of shoes that are achy but stunning.

“Stunning” in a professional context is best achieved by pointed toes, slender heels, and minimal frippery. I love wearing loud shoes in the pulpit, especially red patent (for Pentecost!) or snakeskin (for … the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit?), but save those for when you already have the job. Stick with shoes in one color and pick a heel height you can walk in. Here are some good choices from Cole Haan (lower heel and higher heel), Clarks (lower heel and higher heel), and Jessica Simpson (slender heel, block heel and wedge). More expensive shoes, as a rule, are going to be more tolerable for your feet. Too bad your student loans don’t know that.

If you can’t walk in heels or refuse to wear them on principle, what you need are a pair of stylish professional flats, which — I hate to be the one to break this to you — will probably also be uncomfortable. Here are a few options to try from BP at Nordstrom, Rockport, Sam Edelman, and Nine West.

What if you have health concerns that force you to prioritize comfort over style? No worries. First, make sure the comfy shoes you plan to wear are in sparkling shape — clean, freshly polished, not worn down at the heel. Second, do consider checking out the offerings from brands that specialize in shoes for difficult feet. Vionic (Orthaheel) makes some darn cute dress shoes, and is an especially popular brand for people with plantar fasciitis. Some of my favorites among their many styles are the Sterling ankle boot, the Upton ankle boot, and the Minna ballet flat. They’re pricey for sure, but if other shoes cause you blinding pain, the investment is worth it.

Simple, elegant hair, nails, and makeup. While my preferred daily hairstyle is the Wet Hair Ponytail, for job interviews I always break out the blow dryer. Your hair doesn’t have to be fancy, but if you wear it long, it should look at least a little bit like you tried.

I keep my fingernails very short, so I never polish them, but I do always make sure they are clean with no ragged edges. If you are the manicure type, your nail polish should be boring in color and free of chips.

If you wear makeup, keep it natural and go easy on the eyeliner. If you don’t wear makeup, at least get in the habit of applying a daily moisturizer with SPF (here’s the one I like, usually cheapest at Target). That’s not an interview tip, just a life tip, brought to you by our rapidly depleting ozone layer.

Understated jewelry. Again, think of your campaign-fundraiser alter ego. Some jewelry she would wear includes:

Some jewelry she would probably leave in the car includes:

  • Dangly or hoop earrings
  • Novelty stud earrings, e.g. those shaped like bees
  • Those thumbnail-sized sparkly stud earrings popularized by Kate Spade
  • Piercings of anything other than the earlobes
  • Silver jewelry that is not freshly polished
  • Gigantic cross necklace
  • Blinged-out plastic statement necklace
  • Long boho tassel necklace
  • Pearl earrings plus pearl necklace plus pearl bracelet (not even the wife of a Republican congressman wants to look THAT much like the wife of a Republican congressman)
  • Plastic digital watch or smart watch
  • Pile of bangle bracelets that jingle continuously
  • Silicone bracelet from charity bike ride
  • Leather wristband from college boyfriend
  • Friendship bracelet from summer camp chaplain gig
  • Enormous fake cocktail ring

Speaking of which, here are a few other items of clothing to save for a different day:

  • Clothing that doesn’t fit you quite right
  • Clothing that is even a teeny little bit damaged or stained
  • Clothing that you can’t comfortably sit down in
  • Shoes that you can’t comfortably walk in
  • Dress or skirt you have to tug to keep it in place
  • Baggy polyester suit purchased at T.J. Maxx in 2008
  • Bra whose function is purely symbolic
  • Underwear whose outline is visible from the next county
  • Pantyhose with runs or snags (carry a backup pair in your purse if you’re worried)
  • Opaque tights (MAYBE I will give you a pass if you wear them with ankle boots)
  • Bare legs (sorry, yo)
  • Loafers
  • Mary Janes
  • Open-toed shoes

What do you think? Am I way off or did I hit it right on the head? And what are your favorite tips for church-gig interview attire?

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.