Over the next few weeks I will tackle different aspects about what it means to be a professional in the context of youth ministry. There are a lot of conflicting rules and expectations that people have of you, and I hope to provide a framework and some guidance that will allow you meet the unspoken but reasonable expectations that parents and pastors have of you, without impacting your effectiveness and personal style too greatly.
The first area I want to cover is appearance. I know you might think “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Well you can, and if you can’t, every one else can and does. The better rule here – if you want to quote things your mom would have said – would be this: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” or maybe “The clothes make the man (or woman).”
Think of what a parent or pastor would think in this scenario:
The youth worker Lyle stood up in the room of his fellow youth workers and parents and volunteers and said, “I’d like to talk about how we can make this youth ministry more respected in this church.” Lyle was not astute enough to realize the irony of this: he asked the roomful of people this question as he stood there – unshaven, dressed in a t-shirt, flip flops, shorts, ball cap.
As you can imagine, their first thought was, Yes, Lyle, let’s talk about making a professional impression. And whatever valuable thing he was about to say, is now a “lecture” from someone who has destroyed his own credibility.
Or consider this story:
A veteran youth worker met with her Senior Pastor who said during her annual review that she should work on dressing more professionally in the office. She was furious. “I work with youth! They don’t care that I’m wearing jeans, a t-shirt and tennis shoes – it makes me more approachable for the teens,” she argued.
Too many youth workers are starting their professional career without any thought or training on how to dress.
The truth is, you can bemoan the unfairness of being judged by what you wear as much as you want, but you will still be judged first by what you look like. The way you dress is the way you are perceived, and whether or not you appear to be professional on the outside will make a difference in how people respect both you and your work.
But it doesn’t have to be a chore, a professional look can be comfortable, current, and still convey a sense of organization and professionalism that helps you in your ministry. If you have ever watched “What Not to Wear,” there are generally a few simple rules that can help. Once you learn them they are not that hard to adopt.
Here are 7 Smart and Easy Tips to Make a More Professional Youth Ministry Impression:
Tip 1: Wear clothes that fit.
Ill-fitting clothes fall into two categories – too big or too small. Wearing clothes that are either too tight or too loose can look bad.
Too big: If your clothes are big and baggy, your impression is sloppy. Pants should fit and not hang or sag. (The song “Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground” comes to mind…) You should not be drowning in a tent of material that you call a shirt. It’s common for people to wear baggy clothes if they are trying to hide extra weight but the end result is looking heavier.
Too small: It’s possible that the steady youth ministry diet of pizza and soft drinks has caught up with you, and the clothes you have owned a while are getting a little snug. Current fashion trend of super skinny jeans can also fall into the category of too small – very few body types can pull this look off successfully.
Instead of clothes that are too big or two small, wear tailored clothes that fit your current body size. Wear a structured coat or jacket over a fitted shirt. Consider having clothes altered to fit you properly, usually just a few dollars at a tailor.
Tip 2: Dress your age – or even older.
Remember, you are in youth ministry to coach and minister to teens, not to be a new BFF who dresses just like them. Even though in youth ministry we primarily minister to teenagers, we don’t have to look like a teenager to be effective ministers. If you also want to make a more favorable impression on the parents and adults who can hire or fire you, or who you want to support your ministry, dress like an adult. This also means sticking to classic clothes and avoiding overly trendy styles.
When we were students ourselves, we dressed for comfort with our untucked shirts and comfortable clothes. Tired of not being taken seriously, a young youth worker friend of mine finally decided that it was “time to look like a grown up.” For her, that meant ditching the flip flops and Mickey Mouse sweatshirt for outfits that were a little more put together. For women, this may mean changing to coordinated outfits, adding a scarf or cardigan and wearing closed toe shoes (more on footwear below.)
For men, ditch the trendy super skinny or ripped up jeans for khakis or a clean dark wash jean that fits. Wear a blazer or jacket. Instead of the t-shirts you wore in college, opt for collared shirts and polos. It helps that flannel shirts with buttons and collars are hip right now.
If you are not sure, look on Pinterest and see if there are any models wearing what you are thinking of putting together. Here’s a pinboard just for Youth Ministry What Not to Wear ideas.
Tip 3: Save your t-shirts and sweats for working out in the gym or out in the yard.
We all have our favorite t-shirts. Maybe it is the shirt advertising your favorite soft drink that you got for free 10 years ago. It’s good to have favorite things, but save your t-shirts for working out, not for work. Instead, opt for collared shirts and khaki pants. If you must wear a t-shirt, consider shirts made out of quality fabric in solid colors that fit correctly.
Tip 4: Take care of your clothes.
Ripped jeans and ripped up t-shirts might work if you are Adam Levine, but the rest of us need to make a tidier impression. Go through your closet and ditch the shirts, shoes, jeans, anything with holes, rips and tears. Get rid of clothes that have stains, or save them for mission work, but do not wear them to the office.
Keep your clothes clean and looking fresh with regular laundering, folding and hanging them up. Having wrinkles in you clothes is something people will notice even if only on a subconscious level.
Tip 5: Mind what’s on your feet.
Professional dress begins from the ground up. A great rule of thumb is that professional looking shoes are rarely made out of plastic. If you are in the habit of wearing flip-flops or similar shoes, do you realize people are getting an unprofessional impression just from the flip flop sound as you come down the hall? Save the plastic shoes for the showers and swimming pools they were designed for originally.
I know that youth workers are historically underpaid, but a good pair of shoes is a sound way to spend your money. Wear clean footwear without holes, supportive shoes that make running and playing more comfortable.
Tip 6: Personal hygiene matters.
This advice is probably no different than something your mom might have told you as a kid: If you want to make a sharp impression, keep your hair clean, teeth brushed. Wash your hands and make sure your fingernails are well-groomed.
Men: If you are a male youthworker and feel compelled to have facial hair, that’s cool but keep it tidy.
Women: Hopefully you don’t feel compelled to have facial hair, but do take the time to fix your hair and put on a little makeup before you go to work.
Tip 7: Consider who you might see today and dress appropriately.
In youth ministry, you will have days when you are playing with teens. You may have plans to get messy – in these situations, wear clothes for playing and getting messy!
But on the days when you will also be speaking to the congregation, having office hours, talking to parents, or representing the church, make sure you choose to wear shoes and clothes that make a clean, professional image.
Every youth worker should have at least one professional suit or dress to wear for important occasions. Stick with classic, basic colors and quality fabrics to make a good impression.
They say that “clothes make the man/woman.” Is that really true? What matters most really is what is on the inside – your brilliant mind and love for serving God and teenagers – but we can raise the bar for professionalism in youth ministry if we also dress the part.
1. Does what you wear for ministry matter?
2. What other tips would you add to this list?
3. Have you struggled with not being taken seriously in youth ministry?
(Stay tuned for more tips on being a professional in youth ministry.)