Why Do We Do That: Vestments

As many of you know by now, I was raised in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Then, as an adult I spent a great deal of time “church shopping” my way through other Christian denominations before God brought me back into the LCMS.

One of the things I did not like about the LCMS was all of our traditions and rituals, which seemed to me overly formal, overly complicated, unfriendly, and devoid of emotion. My time in seminary changed that, however – I learned to see the beauty in our traditions, the purpose of ritual, and the sacrificial nature of corporate worship (meaning surrendering personal preference for the good of the Body of believers).

So, while I love and enjoy most modern worship music and a modern worship setting, I also enjoy much about traditional worship (including the beautiful sanctuary at my church). And it is my hope that by explaining why we do what we do, that you will understand it better – and if you already love traditional worship, maybe you will love it all the more; if you don’t love it, maybe you will at least understand why others do.

Because there are many valid and valuable ways to worship God, and none is any more or less valid or valuable than another (provided that worship is directed toward the one, true God: father, Son and Holy Spirit).

So! This week, I want to look at another “Why do we do that.” And this time, it’s the funny way that pastors dress…

Pastors tend to dress according to their philosophy of ministry.

One particular philosophy is to downplay the ‘status’ of the office (responsibility and authority). As a pastor, I may wish to convey to people that I am ‘just’ a regular guy, and nobody special, and as such I may dress just like everyone else.

And of course, pastors are people, too. And just like everyone else, we may be more or less fashionable than the average person, we may dress for comfort, or we may dress professionally. You can find pastors wearing anything from jeans and t-shirts to cargo pants and golf shirts to suits and ties.

On the other hand, many pastors dress in a way that draws attention to the office by wearing a clerical shirt and collar. A clerical is generally black (though other colors may be worn) with a white collar. The collar can be a simple tab (a square at the base of the throat) or a full “Roman” collar that goes around the entire neck. A clerical is a versatile shirt, and can be worn as part of a full suit (in place of dress shirt and tie), or with casual pants (clericals come in both short and long sleeves).

But the clerical conveys a pastor’s status as a healer of souls, a teacher of truth, and a professional minister of the Gospel, and is thus considered to be his ‘uniform’ when he is on duty. This is especially helpful when visiting people in the hospital or when conducting a funeral, where people are looking for a minister in order to find some comfort. The clerical makes him easy to identify.

Some pastors, like myself, adapt dress to context. I may wear a clerical when conducting a funeral, a suit and no tie when officiating a wedding, a simple sport coat on Sunday and casual business attire during the week. Or I may change it up. It really comes down to ministry context and personal preference.

During worship services, the pastor may again dress anywhere from casual to formal, depending on the culture at his congregation. He may dress, then, in any of the ways described above, or he may cover his clothing altogether by wearing vestments.

Vestments are special items of clothing worn by those who are conducting the worship services, and there is a reason for them. You may even be able to determine the role of the wearer by which vestments he is wearing.

Vestments may be very simple, or they may be very ornate. They may also be worn by anyone assisting with worship, including the acolyte (candle-lighter), reader, liturgist (service-conductor) and communion assistants, any of whom may be pastors or lay people. Vestments take the focus off of the person and place it on the office – you will not be distracted by the pastor’s bad taste in ties, for example, if you can’t see it behind the vestments!

The most basic vestment worn is an alb. An alb is a full-length white robe with long sleeves. The white symbolizes the purity of Christ, and the alb may be worn by anyone assisting with worship. The alb may be worn loose, or it may be gathered by a cincture, a rope which is worn around the waist and tied in such a way as to leave an excess hanging off to one side in an ornamental fashion.

A stole is worn over the alb by ordained clergy only, to signify their ordination. The stole is a narrow band of cloth worn draped around the neck and down the front of the alb on either side, like a long scarf. The stole may be simple or ornate, but its color is determined by the color of the liturgical season. The stole is generally tucked into the cincture. Additionally, a pectoral cross – or clergy cross – may be worn on a long chain around the neck. Some churches limit this cross only to pastors, others give them to all assisting with worship.

The alb, cincture and stole are the most common vestments worn by clergy in traditional worship settings, though there are several other vestments which may be seen. These include the long-sleeved, full-length, all black cassock, which is not technically a vestment in itself, but quite literally underwear for the surplice. The surplice is a white, wide-sleeved garment that is shorter than an alb, and used for non-communion services only. The cassock alone is sometimes worn (again depending on context) in order to symbolize mourning, such as during the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday.

A chasuble is a communion vestment only, and is like an ornamental poncho worn over the alb and stole. It is worn only by the presiding ordained minister, and its color is the color of the liturgical season. A cope is a long cape with a hood in the back that is fastened at the chest and worn for festivals and certain processions.

And that’s it! The pastor isn’t wearing fancy robes because he thinks he’s holier than you; he is in fact wearing it to demonstrate that he is not! The alb is meant to help you forget about the pastor and all of the things you like or dislike about him, in order to help you focus on God and His Word. But vestments are not necessary, and you shouldn’t be thinking of your pastor’s character when He is leading worship, regardless of what he is wearing. Worship is where God brings heaven down to us, and the pastor is there to help facilitate it by leading us into His presence together, as one Church, however he may be dressed.

So why do we do that? To give glory to God and not to ourselves. And now you know – so doesn’t understanding make it a whole lot less intimidating? Never stop asking questions, never stop learning!

~Ever, RevErik

11 thoughts on “Why Do We Do That: Vestments

  1. I loved this column because, ever since I was a young boy, I was brought up in a Lutheran Church that valued vestments and TRADITION and observing all the Holy Days, such as Trinity Sunday, where we always recited the Athanasian Creed (it takes 3 minutes — which is not a lot of time when we say it only once a year!). We came to Peace because our former congregation seemed to be leaving these things behind and singing “songs” (not hymns) that were completely foreign to our ears. I hope we never forget what Tevya kept telling us in “Fiddler On The Roof”: TRADITION!! And I hope, too, that we never abandon what we followers of Martin Luther said in Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession.


  2. I found it interesting when you explained that stoles are worn by members of the clergy to signify their ordination. If I had to guess, depending on rank or experience, members of a clergy probably wear stoles that have different symbols on them. It would be interesting to learn more about what the different symbols represent.


  3. In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, there are no ranks or experience markers. The varying symbols on stoles represent different things within the Christian faith, but do not signify anything about the wearer. We do not have Bishops, only Presidents of Districts and Synod, all of whom are Pastors elected by churches to those representative positions.


  4. Some Lutherans in this world have Bishops. Maybe the majority of them. Somehow, the LCMS seems to think they are the ONLY Lutherans that count.


  5. Well, THAT was unnecessarily critical of an entire group. I can’t argue that SOME in the LCMS think that, but I certainly do not.
    1. I AM LCMS.
    2. It is MY blog.
    3. I was responding to the question from the LCMS point of view from which the blog post was written. It’s a little tough to answer from every conceivable perspective.
    4. The LCMS holds Scripture in highest regard, and scripturally speaking, pastors are a part of the priesthood of all believers with a unique calling instituted by God but conveyed by the Church (the people). Bishops are part of a top-down governance that is not biblical, nor is adornment which conveys importance to the wearer, rather than to Christ.


  6. Sorry to have interfered with your blog. I should not have. But I lived through the “Lutheran Wars” in the 1960s and 1970s and it was not pretty. And we in the LCMS did not acquit ourselves very well. Sad days from which we never have really recovered. And a lot of pain remains. Again, my apologies for interjected where I should not have.


  7. You are completely forgiven. Having studied the “Walkout” extensively, I can only imagine how hard it must have been to live through it. And your insights and comments are always welcome – I only meant that because it is my blog, I had answered for me. Thank you, Gene.


  8. Why aren’t vestments worn during contemporary services? Doesn’t that down play the importance of the service and what is happening there?


  9. As I said in the post, there are different philosophies at work.

    Modern or contemporary worship services are substituting physical comfort for formality.

    In the same way that you share some meals in the formal dining room with the fine china and others at the kitchen table with the regular plates and bowls, there is a place for both – and neither is any more or less important than the other.

    Always keep in mind that just because something implies importance to you, it doesn’t mean it has to imply the same for someone else. Someone could easily say that vestments make the pastor seem distant or aloof.

    There is a place for many forms and styles of worship, provided they are centered on the Word and Sacrament of the triune God – and thank God for that, because there are many types of people with many kinds of needs.


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