Ministerial Vestments and Being a “Marked People”

Seth - August 22, 2006

Touchstone Magazine’s blog Mere Comments has always been a little hit-or-miss with me. Sometimes I disagree with them. But every so often, I come across a piece I really enjoy. Yesterday, the piece was entitled “Man of God” and basically makes the case for the wearing of the standard uniform among the professional clergy. I found it quite moving and I’d encourage you to read it.

Despite Mormonism’s lack of a professional clergy, the article seems relevant in several areas of Mormon practice.

First, it seems to speak directly to the standard Mormon missionary uniform. I have heard some suggest that missionaries ought to be allowed to “blend in more,” and that the current dress code simply looks dorky. Like the author of the Touchstone article, I have long considered such sentiments, at worst, downright selfish (although I am willing to countenance that they may simply be benignly-wrong-headed). But rather than banging on those notes, I’d like to share an experience from my own mission.

The fourth area I served in during my mission in Japan was the mid-sized port city of Sasebo. The city was different than any other I had served in. This was due primarily to the presence of a small U.S. Naval base at the heart of the downtown. American servicemen and women were a common sight on the central downtown shoten – a sort of open-air mall, which you will find in almost any sizeable Japanese town or city. I found the city a nice change of pace. I enjoyed talking with Americans (besides my fellow missionaries) for a change, and the small military branch was full of good people.

But after a couple months in the city, I noticed a different social dynamic than in other Japanese communities I’d lived in. In all my previous assignments, I had found that Caucasian-appearing individuals were generally met, by the locals, with a strange mixture of nervous friendliness combined with intense interest and scrutiny. Being a “tall fair-haired American” in those places was somewhat akin to minor celebrity status. I had grown accustomed to generating a “positive vibe” wherever I went. But after serving in Sasebo for a couple months, I noticed a very different vibe.

It came out while I was doing a bit of shopping in the downtown. My watch had lost a screw and I needed it repaired. I entered a watch store to ask about repairs and, to my surprise, I was met with openly hostile looks and a flat refusal of service. I left the store thinking “that’s odd.” Then it hit me.

I wasn’t “in uniform.”

It was “preparation day,” essentially a missionary’s day-off. On preparation day, we weren’t required to wear the standard white-shirt-tie package that usually typifies LDS missionaries everywhere. I had been taking advantage of the opportunity to wear something else for a change and was wearing a rather nondescript sweatshirt and jeans. I looked no different than any of the numerous Americans who frequented the downtown. I remembered something I had heard from one of the other missionaries about locals having problems with drunken, rowdy, sex-starved sailors every time the miniature aircraft carrier that was based out of Sasebo pulled into port.

Come to think of it, I had been noticing for some time, that I tended to get a much chillier response from the locals when I didn’t “look like a missionary.” When I was sporting the white shirt and the nametag, most people were all friendliness and politeness. Not so when I looked like any other off-duty sailor wandering the streets looking for “a good time.”

I didn’t like being the object of such negativity, and eventually I put away my street clothes for the duration of my stay in Sasebo.

I think sometimes, whether we like it or not, we can never simply blend-in. For better or worse, we are different from our neighbors. We have different expectations from life and additional obligations that others don’t have. At a certain point, I think we have to acknowledge that our natural desires to be liked and accepted are simply no longer realistic. You can find good neighbors, good friends, good business associates, and good political and social allies… anywhere you live.

But you cannot find Zion just anywhere. Because Zion has never been about simply being “nice people.” Anthony Esolen’s post on Mere Comments concludes well and I think it speaks directly to all of us:

Ministers who want to be jus’ folks should take heed. God has singled you out, you men of God. I accept the priesthood of all believers; but I think that God has marked you with the sign of Melchizedek in a way that he has not marked me. Then do not try to efface that sign. I suppose it is a burden to you. Does it leave splinters in your shoulder? Does it bow your back and make your legs tremble for weariness? You cannot have expected otherwise. But it does not matter whether you would prefer to be my pal, the buddy at the card table, somebody just like me. You are no longer just like me. Pals I already have, and plenty. I don’t need any more of them. I need you: the spiritual father, the minister, the man of God.

16 Comments »

  1. I think this idea is more important than most active members understand. Once heard Boyd K. Packer say that he visited a stake and after the 2 day conference he was being driven back to the airport by the stake president. On the way the president said “Elder Packer, we aren’t doing very well are we. What do we need to do better?” Elder Packer’s response: “Here’s your problem. When I got off the airplane yesterday I did not recognize the stake presidency as a stake presidency. That is the problem.” He went on to explain that they had undertaken the practice to dress in slacks and sport coats, thinking the youth would relate to them better. He said that they had it all wrong. He said that the way we dress shows what we have reverence for. That reverence doesn’t just mean being quiet in church. He said that one of the priesthood leaders jobs is to teach their congregation to have reverence toward meaningful things and dress is a major way we do that. I have thought about that a lot and have noticed that reverence is deteriorating in the church. I have written enough and won’t ‘count the ways’ here, but I think it is a very worthy topic to discuss.

    Comment by Hal H. — August 22, 2006 @ 12:10 pm

  2. White shirts and ties don’t make missionaries look like dorks. Wearing backpacks over suit coat does.

    Also, a short-sleeved shirt and a tie works for Detective Sipowicz, and no one else.

    Comment by gst — August 22, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

  3. This is perhaps one of the more persuasive (for me) posts on dressing up for your church duty. Thanks for the insights, it’s certainly something to think about.

    Comment by Rusty — August 22, 2006 @ 3:09 pm

  4. I mentioned before somewhere that I’ve never seen my own father at church without a conservative, but well thought-out suit and tie with a white shirt. In fact, he never removed the clothing (except for the suit of course) for the entirety of the Sabbath. By contrast, his wife and children couldn’t wait to get home and ditch “church clothes.” I don’t remember a single Sunday, growing up where I didn’t receive a somewhat acid comment from dad on my “big rush” to don my casual clothing.

    Nitpicky perhaps. My siblings and I still talk about my dad’s individualities with affectionate humor and a slight roll of the eyes.

    But I never doubted that my dad took the Sabbath very seriously. It was a much more potent lesson than any I received in Sunday School on reverence.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 22, 2006 @ 5:10 pm

  5. Re. 2

    You go wear anything other than a short-sleeved white shirt as a missionary anywhere south of the U.S. I’dve died within two hours if my suit didn’t get retired at the welcome dinner at the mission home in northern Brazil.

    Comment by Jon in Austin — August 22, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

  6. Great post, Seth! A couple different thoughts…

    I think you hit it right on. The last decade or so we’ve spent so much effort trying to be neighborly and more inclusive that we’ve turned it into “lets fit in all we can and not be pushy with our beliefs.” It’s a hard balance to find between being inclusive and neighborly and still be forward enough to stand up for our beliefs and missionary mindset.

    Second in response to your last comment, I find myself becoming like your father. I used to wear my most outrageous ties to church when I knew I’d be in the limelight at church somehow. (singing in sacrament, teaching a lesson, etc. In HS once I even wore a Charlie Brown look-a-like sweater when I blessed the sacrament) Now I try to do the opposite. Take the attention off of me and onto the messege I’m trying to express. Nitpicky? Sure, but it makes a difference; at least for me:)

    Comment by Bret — August 22, 2006 @ 10:16 pm

  7. Putting aside the fashion faux pas of backpack/suits/ties/short sleeves, the current uniform combined with bike riding is period clothing last seen in the 1920′s in the western countries. And religions that practice period clothing are indeed weird and typically not involved in serious outreach/missionary efforts. As I’ve commented elsewhere, most teaching opportunities on my mission a generation ago were found when I was out of uniform on the golf course. And we are so much more casual today, the situation is much worse. There are many reasons the church is shrinking and this is one of them.

    It all comes down to first impressions, and what works in one time or country usually won’t work in another time or place. Most of our bike riding missionaries today, at least in western countries, are utterly wasting their’s and the Lord’s time out there. I clean polo shirt, cotton slacks and casual shoes would go much better with the bike and helmet (we didn’t have the helmets nor backpacks on my mission).

    For the record, I have a son on a mission now, and I don’t share these views with him so as not to undermine his motivation, not encourage disobedience to his Pres and let him find his own way. But I am very sad for him that he hasn’t found nearly as many receptive people as I did, and I served in what many LDS feel is a mission hell hole.

    I also found the old book How to Win Friends and Influence People was by far the most useful book on my mission, better than anything on the approved list, but that’s a whole other story.

    Comment by Steve EM — August 24, 2006 @ 12:04 pm

  8. Steve EM,
    The gospel has little to do with ‘first impressions’, but rather, impressions that come after time and effort. One of my frustrations seems to be the opposite of what your are saying. Mine is the occassional mission president who treats baptisms like selling widgits: the more the better and it doesn’t matter how they come. Training meetings turn into salesmanship meetings. Missionaries talk about being ‘pumped up’ and ‘on fire’. Often ‘fantastic’ programs are involved with unfounded promises attached to them. My inner bells start ringing when I run across this. Gratefully, most presidents don’t seem to take this approach anymore. I think PREACH MY GOSPEL has had a good influence. Steve, when did the church start to shrink?

    Comment by Hal H. — August 24, 2006 @ 3:08 pm

  9. Hal,
    They never get to hear the gospel if their first impression is “cultish dork”. It’s like dating, the first step is superficial attraction; without that first step, you never get to a relationship, let alone marriage. A good first impression leads some people to listen. That leads to teaching, and some people we teach progress and join. I feel baptismal goals were bad becuase it’s supposed to be a free unpressured choice. But intermediate goals like contact and teaching numbers are good. On my mission casual hard working missionaries taught the most, and the key was first impression. In time, things may swing back to more formality, but right now, in western countries, our missionary uniform is hurting us.

    Comment by Steve EM — August 24, 2006 @ 4:02 pm

  10. I agree with you about baptismal goals. We don’t control that – its between them and the Lord. When missionaries feel pressure to produce baptismal numbers they become contrived and manipulative. I disagree with your characterization of missionary dress as ‘cultish geek’. They do stand out but I don’t think most people interpret it as a geeky thing. Apparently some do.

    Comment by Hal H. — August 24, 2006 @ 4:31 pm

  11. I’d be careful about generalizing your own personalized style of proselyting to everyone else Steve. Knowing very little about you personally, I would venture to say that I knew several missionaries who had something resembling the approach you’ve described. It worked well for them. But my general experience was that it didn’t always work out for everyone else in the mission (or even for most of the missionaries).

    And while I wouldn’t argue that there are many “outsiders” who would have the sort of “first impression” you describe, I would be a little more skeptical about making the claim that such reactions are typical of all, or even most Americans.

    Comment by Seth R. — August 24, 2006 @ 9:31 pm

  12. I like the missionary uniform and being able to easily identify a church member or missionary in an unfamiliar place. It makes me feel safe. I love seeing missionaries in airports and on the streets in a city. I don’t know how non-members feel, but as a member, it’s a way to quickly and fairly accurately spot a priesthood holder. You never know when you’ll need one!

    Comment by meems — August 24, 2006 @ 9:42 pm

  13. Seth,
    You make a good point that what worked for me may not work for everyone, which is part of the reason I’ve just let my son to find his own way. He serves in a mission near you and is having a much tougher time than I did in Western Europe, even though there is a solid church foundation chez vous. Moreover, his Pres is a real winner and missionaries go or are sent home at the drop of a hat in his mission. In my mission, if you went home it was because you were dying. He has 8 months to go, and I’m proud he’s stuck it out this long but, honestly, I doubt I could serve in his mission. Given that many of my post mission difficulties came about because my mission ended on a sour note (another story), I worry for my son as he’s had far fewer positive experiences than I did.

    Back to uniform, if you don’t think a guy wearing a dress shirt and tie riding a bike isn’t cultish and not something a person trying to make a good impression would do, we live on different planets. I’m all for bike riding missionaries to keep transportation expenses down, but the uniform should match the task and the times.

    Comment by Steve EM — August 25, 2006 @ 10:20 am

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