Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Why Wear the Clerical Collar?

Since my ordination to the priesthood, I've occasionally noticed shades of ambivalence among my clergy colleagues about the appropriate times and places to wear the clerical collar. I've not heard anyone suggest that it's inappropriate to wear it on Sunday mornings or during the week's "working hours." But when it comes to social occasions - such as an after-hour's cookout with the men's group at the church or an engagement party or other festive event in a parishioner's home - the unspoken rule seems to be: "Don't be caught dead wearing a clerical collar!"

I can't quite put my finger on what's behind all of this.

Is it because some of us feel embarrassed to be seen out and about in a collar?

Are we worried that we're sending a negative message, that it's a turn-off, a party-pooper? And why would that be the case?

Are we making too sharp of a distinction between when we're "on the job" and when we're not, sort of like when the MacDonald's worker gets off work, he/she changes out of the uniform before hooking up with friends? (Of course, the ordination vows are always in effect, no matter what you're wearing.)

And are we losing opportunities to bear symbolic witness to the presence and concern of the Church in times and places that might otherwise miss that witness?

As these kinds of questions turn over in my mind, I find the following reflections by a Lutheran pastor relevant:

Wearing the collar reminds me of my calling.

For the first couple of years of my ministry, I didn't wear it, except on Sunday morning. Not that I would forget what I was doing, but when I wear my collar during the week, I am reminded of the seriousness of the office of the ministry.

The criticism is that those of us who wear their collars, all the time, take themselves too seriously. Some have even asked me if I have clerical pajamas. I would argue that those who don't wear theirs take themselves and the office that they hold too lightly.

The pastor who was here as the vacancy pastor reminded me of the symbolism behind the clerical collar. I think it fits; so I will share it. The pastor wears his black clerical collar for two reasons. First, the black shows to the world that the pastor too is a sinner, dead in his trespasses and sin. By himself, a pastor is nothing. But, secondly, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, the words that come out of his mouth should be as white as freshly fallen snow. When people see that collar, it reminds them that God is present and pastors are His representatives.

Yes, some people will feel uncomfortable with it. Pastors who wear their collars may make some people nervous. Others will be turned off because of the individual problems with the Roman Catholic Church. Most people would agree that our society, and our church has lost a sense of what it means to be reverent. So much in our society is dumbed-down. Pastors who wear their collars remind the world that there is nothing wrong with tradition as long as it leads people to Jesus. That is what the office of the Ministry is all about- leading people to Jesus.

Most people don't have a problem with a soldier or policeman who wears his uniform. When people see the officer in their uniform, it reminds them of what they are all about. Should not pastors stand out in the crowd? Should not a pastor remind those around that God is present? I believe that wearing a clerical collar does just that.

I'm inclined to agree.


thomas bushnell, bsg said...

one priest i know said he doesn't wear his collar lots of the time "because it creates a barrier."

the same priest also said, in a different conversation, that he would never wear his collar when travelling, because "it makes you a target."

thomas bushnell, bsg said...

Ken Collins is a very wise pastor, in my reading, and this one is dead on. And he's from the Disciples of Christ!

Anonymous said...

One a man is ordained as a priest, he is a priest 24/7/365, to the end of his life, other than defrocking. If he is ashamed of or embarrased by wearing the "yoke" of Jesus Christ, IMHO, he needs some serious reflection and a good spiritual director.

Anonymous said...

That should be "Once a man", not "One a man.

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for your comments, Thomas and Anonymous.

Thomas - I've heard similar reasons given for why priests don't wear their collars. I can understand the rationale about traveling (I'm not advocating wearing a collar all the time!), but it saddens me to hear our brother and sister clergy say that the collar "creates a barrier." My experience has been precisely the opposite - that it opens doors and possibilities for connection that might not otherwise happen.

Anonymous - I agree. If a priest is ashamed to wear the collar (perhaps the supreme mark of having been set apart), then he/she would do well to do some vocational discernment.

Bryan+ said...

And I forgot to thank you, Thomas, for the link to Ken Collins' essay. A very nice piece, indeed.

Rufus said...

One of my favorite stories is that of the Rabbi who was walking through a neighborhood one night and encountered a night watchman making his rounds. They stopped and spoke to each other, the rabbi asking? "And who do you work for?" The watchman replied that he worked for the people of the neighborhood and that it was his job to keep watch over the children. The watchman then turned to the Rabbi and asked: "And who do you work for Rabbi?"
The Rabbi was silent for a minute and then said, "sometimes I'm not sure." He then spoke to the watchman asking "will you come to work for me." The watchman asked what his duties would be and the Rabbi replied: "To remind me who it is that I work for."

Bryan+ said...

Thanks for sharing this story, Rufus. It goes to the point very well.

Anonymous said...

I am a deacon in the church and I normally wear my collar only when doing something "church" related such as on Sundays (even when on vacation), when visiting the sick or shut in, when visiting hospitals or when going to prison. I don't wear the collar at purely social functions (such as birthday parties or dinner with friends) primarily because my Rector normally does not wear a collar then and I tend to follow his lead (like a good deacon :) ).

Phil Snyder

Pastor Steve Monty said...

Dear Revd,

I was ordained a year ago into the Baptist faith, it is largly unheard of for our Pastors to wear the clerical collar. I am an English Pastor, living in my home town where there are several Church of England and Catholic churches, I have decided to wear the clerical collar despite the near outrage it has caused in certain circles. My main reason is because being English and living in Englang I understand that the clerical collar is a very familiar item to the English people. There are also a number of personal reasons, 1. I wish to look like an ordained minister, as someone rightly said, set apart for service to God, 2. I cannot understand the desire of ordained pastors to wear wordly clothing to do the most holiest thing a mortal man can do, to lead people in the worship of God!

Thankyou for your website, it is nice to see I am not alone in this, do you have any words of advice? Do you know the appropriate style of collar for a Baptist? I am going with the full wrap around.

Yours in His Service
Revd. Steve

Bryan Owen said...

Greetings Pastor Steve, and thank you for your comments.

You are right that it is very rare for Baptist pastors to wear a clerical collar, so I think the choice of style is really up to you.

If you're going to wear a clerical collar, I think it's probably a good idea to take many opportunities to teach about it. Talk about what the symbolism means (and what it doesn't), for instance. It's also an opportunity in teaching and preaching to talk about the distinction between lay and ordained orders of ministry. While there are clearly differences in theology on this topic across traditions, wearing distinctive clerical dress underscores that the ordained are set apart from (not set above) the laity. And it's not just Roman Catholics and Anglicans who wear clerical collars - many Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans do as well.

In my experience, wearing a clerical collar opens up opportunities for connecting with people and engaging in the work of evangelism that might otherwise be lost. (At the same time, I think it's only fair to note that, for some people who are hostile to the Church, a clerical collar can be a major turnoff!)

Connected to that are the pastoral doors that can open, sometimes with complete strangers. And, of course, when you go to the hospital to see a parishioner, you don't have to explain who you are or why you're trying to see someone in, say, intensive care after visiting hours. So the symbolism of the "uniform" has a helpful practical side as well.

A comment above mentioned an article by Ken Collins entitled "Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals." If you've not read it, I commend it to you.

I hope all of this is helpful, and I wish you every blessing in your ministry.

Christopher Maclean said...

Once, whilst travelling with a priest in a collar, I witnessed the mainline train from Dublin to Belfast held by the guard whist we got our tickets (wow!) then almost immediately my friend was interrupted from his g&t in the buffet car, to attend to a lady who was distressed. There are positives and negatives. It's the nature of our calling. We shouldn't just take the good....