7 Quick Tips to Look Like A Youth Ministry Professional

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“You Never Get a Second Chance to Make a First Impression.” -Mom

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.

Be blessed,

Erin

 

Questions:

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.)

 

 


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Comments

  1. Eric S says

    I think the only tips on here that are really universally applicable are 6 and 7. Hygeine is always important, and who you may be seeing that day should probably dictate what I wear.

    But, in my experience, judgments about appearance don’t usually come in isolation from judgments connected to someone’s behavior or reputation. Considering the story you tell about the youth worker standing up and asking how to make the youth ministry more successful. If that individual has a track record of reliability, respectfulness, supportiveness, responsiveness to students and parents, biblical teaching, etc… do you think parents would be rolling their eyes at him?

    I agree that people may develop an initial impression based on dress. But, youth workers, or people in general will be judged more by the reputation they develop over time, than by what their particular fashion sense is. I rarely find a youth worker who is being criticized about his dress, when there aren’t some other deeper problems with his reputation and his ministry. By contrast, I know youth workers that are loved and respected who wear ripped jeans, t-shirts, and flip flops or sneakers every day. They are respected because they have earned that respect by their actions over time.

    • says

      Eric,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that once reputation is established, what you wear shouldn’t matter. I would also add how you dress depends somewhat on your church culture and context as well – I imagine if some of my colleagues showed up at their inner-city churches completely following my advice, it would actually hinder their effectiveness at reaching their audience. A little thought into what kind of impression you are trying to make doesn’t hurt. Thanks again. Blessings, Erin

  2. Kala says

    HA! I know you are speaking directly to me when you say T-Shirt! lol I hear you and I agree. Now just to get the wardrobe suitable. :) It may be a slow process but it will happen. Thanks for sharing!

    I would also add, do not wear a ton of perfume… – Gag, I can not stand being in a room with someone who smells… well, if your eyes burn its BAD!

  3. says

    I read your article with interest, and agree that what you wear is important.
    I was disappointed to read your advice to women was to wear a little make up, isn’t that actually just conforming to stereotypes of what society want women to do. Shouldn’t the advice, be clean, be tidy, remember that youth work is a profession and be yourself?

    • says

      Bianca – great point! I would say as female youth workers it is especially important as we minister to young women that we are positive role models in self-acceptance, self-care and modesty. After all, don’t we desire for youth to accept themselves as the beautiful beings God made them to be? Make up or no make up isn’t the big issue. I think the bigger point would be to give some thought/care to your appearance. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Blessings, E

  4. irishmama7 says

    It was sad to me as a youth leader/worker (not a pastor) to read this. I do agree to some extent and you do state that it depend on the church, however in my experience if we followed all your advice I would come off as every other adult who is not involved in youth ministry. Much of youth ministry is on the fly and spontaneous and while I agree Sunday attire should be more professional-ish If I dressed this way it would not only be not me, but I would come off as trying to be something I am not to the kids. Sure there is a time and place, but if I am uncomfortable in what I am wearing how am I supposed to encourage teens to love themselves for who God made them and encourage them to be comfortable in their own skin. Church should be a safe place where you not only feel comfortable but yourself.

    • says

      Hi irishmama7. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your heart for young people. The article was inspired by a real youth worker’s comment about how to go about raising the level of professionalism and respect for people in youth ministry. Looking like professionals is one part of that process of raising the bar, but what you look like or wear doesn’t matter at all if you fail to be professional in your job. (More on what I mean by that in future articles.)
      I don’t necessarily equate professional dress with being uncomfortable, but everyone is different. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I wonder if there is a middle ground of attire where we are still comfortable/true to ourselves but also look like a grownup/put together? I hope we can still teach students to love themselves as God made them no matter what we’re wearing. :)
      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Blessings, Erin

      • Nicole says

        I do find this whole article a little bit ironic. While you mention that more casual is okay on a Sunday Night with the youth, it might not be appropriate on Sunday morning or in the office. I personally love to wear dresses, which always fall in the professional to business-casual area. But I don’t think it should be necessary to be taken seriously. Hygiene is important and wearing clean age-appropriate clothes are also important. But what you wear shouldn’t matter. When I worked with a campus ministry, we would go to local churches and lead the Sunday Morning worship service. One of the students would normally preach. I got so much flack from a Pastor when the student who preached wore our ministry’s tshirt, khaki shorts, and flip flops. His sermon was AMAZING, and so many people in this small church complimented him on it afterwards. If what he was doing was so good, why would his clothes matter? Jesus didn’t look at outward appearance, so as the church, why should we?

  5. Tina Itson says

    Erin, thanks for this article! I remember in my early youth ministry days consistently struggling with being taken seriously as a youth minister (and clergy) because I was young (and unfortunately, because I was female), and found I had to work harder at my professionalism to be taken seriously. While people respected the work that I did with the students regardless of what I wore, I found that when dealing with adults in the church, especially when I needed to advocate for the needs of my students and the youth ministry, being professional (and even overly so), was necessary. It didn’t mean I had to be boring or ‘old’ looking, but it did mean that I saved the jeans and flip flops for Sunday Nights and wore dress pants in the office and on Sunday mornings.

    • says

      Tina, you’re welcome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I would also add that being a female in youth ministry carries its own challenges about being taken seriously as a ministry professional…maybe that will be an article in the future too.
      Blessings, Erin

  6. Kevin Patterson says

    So glad I work for a church who are less concerned with how I dress and more concerned with the quality of our ministry. As a youth pastor (yes I’m even actually an ordained minister too) I dress how I normally dress. If I’m wearing a tshirt and blue jeans that day then so be it. My normal dress for church on Sunday is blue jeans and a dress shirt. Normal for youth group is blue jeans and a plaid button down “skater” shirt. Why? Because that’s who I am. If I came in in a suit and tie my kids and my parents would know I’m “faking it”. Now that’s not to say that, if your church requires you to dress up you shouldn’t. That’s a different thing all together. What I would say is that if some one is treating you like your a kid, and your the youth worker, then it has less to do with your dress and more to do with the fact that you are “all around” acting unprofessionally. I’m not bashing the author, she makes great “fashion” tips but just the fact that this conversation exists is silly! I doubt Paul and Peter were ever concerned with what they wore when they were spreading the gospel.

  7. says

    I think as mentors and role models for our youth we should dress as grown-ups and not like the kids. You don’t have to look like your grandmother wearing sensible shoes, you can look cool and modern. We need to help our youth to become young adults and move forward. Give them a role model to look up to and want to become like. I’ve been in youth ministry over 21 years, I have learned you have to apeal to not only the youth but to their parents as well. Parents don’t want to see a “kid” who looks like a high school drop out leading their kids. Look like you have it all together, your confident, relevant and care about yourself and others. Visitors don’t know your track record, they only know what they see. Your laid back apperance may give the impression your lazy and uncaring. I’m not talking suits, but there is a happy place in the middle between that and skinny, torn jeans, t-shirt that you wore in Jr. high and flip flops made of duck tape. You’ll know what is right for you. Look in the mirror and decide what does your clothes tell someone about you!

  8. James says

    The bible says in one of the books of Timothy to dress modestly. What is the definition of modest? It varies from person to person. Sometimes appearances aren’t everything. The only thing we are permitted to judge biblically is on character. The bible says by our fruits we are known. Hygiene is very important, they way we dress can be important, but the most important thing is salvation.

Trackbacks

  1. […] It’s all contextual, your wardrobe will look different in Pasadena, California than it does in Montgomery, Al.  Take your cues from the adults in your church and try your hardest to look more like them than an oversized one of their kids when you enter the room.  Click here for more quick tips on how to dress like a youth ministry professional. […]

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