On occasion, someone will ask me, “Why do you wear that clerical collar?”
The answer I give, “Because I’m a cleric,” is usually not enough, and we segue into a longer explanation.
The narrative history of my relationship to the clerical collar goes like this:
After finishing my undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, and working with people in urban settings of great need, I began visiting incarcerated parishioners or the incarcerated family members of parishioners. (Working with inner-city persons, this is sadly too common.)
Jails and Prisons are unique in many ways. (I dare not explore the contours of their complexity here.) I learned quite quickly that staff persons in “correctional” facilities are generally only kind to persons on staff, in uniform.
I remembered an inner city minister from my college years sharing with me that, in Hispanic neighborhoods (with a greater history connected to Catholicism), the clerical collar earns an immediate welcome.
I didn’t like the way I was being treated in the prison system, even as a minister, so I did some research, spent some money, and began to wear the clerical collar on my visits.
At that time, I read a (no doubt earlier version) of Ken Collin’s views on wearing the Clerical Collar. (Ken is one of the earliest Christian bloggers I know – blogging since the mid 1990s!) I wasn’t “convinced” that he was correct, but I did think his “positions” were reasonable. (I’ve since come to agree more with his perspectives, as my story will narrate here.)
More than needing to have a “position” on the collar, though, I found that I was treated differently by prison system staff. And, more curious and surprising to me, I was routinely stopped by more than one person in the parking lot of the correctional facility as I went in, and at least one as I came out, who wanted me to pray for them. And, in truth, I’ve never been asked for a hand-out when I’ve had on my collar. In fact, I just realized this as I type this! While I’ve never been asked for a hand-out, I have routinely been asked for prayer, or for offering a blessing!
These experiences shaped my “early” understanding of the dress of a cleric. Though, I still only “put on the collar” on unique days when I was headed to places of incarceration. I would normally put on the collar for entering the facility, and then take it back off after leaving.
In time, I started wearing the collar not just “in-and-out” of the facilities, but on the days that I would visit the facility. A new curious thing happened. People treated me with a small measure of what I would call “disdain.” With a minor tone in their voice, or a particular look on a face, people would say to me, “Why are you wearing that today?” Or, “What’s the deal with the collar?” What surprised me about this is the fact that I would often be asked this, on the University campus where I work. I might be, for example, in the cafeteria when someone would say this to me, and in the immediate vicinity were cafeteria employees with varying uniforms, students in nursing programs in nursing attire, and athletes of various kinds in certain athletic gear (not uniforms precisely, but nevertheless, a kind of specific uniformed attire for athletes) and no one asked these people why they were wearing “that” on this day. No one asks a police officer why he’s in Uniform or an M.D. why he’s in scrubs, or a technician at the Automotive Shop why they are wearing “that” today! They’re obviously wearing the recognized uniform of their industry and occupation. But, for clerical collars, it was perceived differently, and I always felt as though the questions asked of me were 80% out of disdain or somehow thinking I was “one-upping” someone somehow, trying to look pretentious or something.
Over the years, I had good reason to find other need to want to intentionally be present with people as a recognized cleric. I found it important to look clerical in some roles in ministry. The next place that I began to routinely plan for clerical attire was not in parish ministry, but in political advocacy work. As I began intentional advocacy work with State Senators, my congresswoman and then congressman, I wanted to be received as an advocate representing both the causes I was sharing, and I wanted to be recognized as a minister. I did this not to “stand out” in State and Federal offices (though it does that!), but to be received as a Christian Minister in a defined an identifiable way at the outset of the meeting, even before words would be shared. I do think it probably makes a difference, too, on how an administrative assistant “buzzed me through. I was not wearing the collar as a “gimmick.” I only wanted to be recognized as a Christian Minister, my identifiable dress demonstrating my ministerial calling.
I began to wear the collar more routinely, when I didn’t have “reason” to wear it. I did this, in large part to “normalize” people to it since within my tradition (Church of the Nazarene), very, very, very few ministers wear clerical attire, even in worship.
From the Ken Collins article (same as above), I knew that the collar was a protestant “innovation” and not from the Roman Catholic church. More than that, though, I took note that Aaronic priests in the early tradition of God’s work with a people wore unique clothing. This did not become for me “the” argument to justify clerical clothing, but I do think it is important that early persons in the Bible *all* dressed in marked ways according to the Torah, and the priests were set apart still differently.
Finally for me, in this long genesis over many years, about three years ago I went to a professional business lunch hosted by the University where I teach. I stood in front of the closet the morning of the lunch and debated back and forth, “Collar? Tie? Collar? Tie?” I decided it was a business lunch, so I’d better go with the tie. To make a long story short, for the first time, I felt like I didn’t fit – and I felt like an imposter even – with the tie on. At the table, as each new person sat before lunch to introduce themselves, I kept being introduced as being “from the University.” While that was true, the expectation that my clothing presented, included an assumption that I was from the Business department, and it was a business lunch, so the next question was something about teaching in the Business School. On this day, I realized quite profoundly, “I am not a businessman and I don’t want to be considered a businessman, I need to dress differently.”
Now, mind you! I can still wear a tie, or a t-shirt, or shorts, and I actually have business interests and even own and run a Limited Liability Company (LLC) so I am a business person, too! And yet, I am one of the very few who get to wear the clerical collar. I’m one of the few called-out-ones who get to serve in one of the most wonderful, unique and fulfilling roles in life, that of the Christian Ministry.
So, over years of “trying it on” in different contexts, I’ve realized the Clerical Collar is part of my life’s calling in many deliberate ways and in specific social contexts.
When I wear the clerical collar, it is nearly always the case that every-single-day I bear the “uniform” of ministry, both strangers and persons I know ask me for a prayer or a word of blessing.
And I’m always delighted to share in prayer and in blessing! (Memorizing the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6 is a great thing for any minister, by the way! It can be used in so many settings of congregational or personal ministry opportunities.)
The clerical collar marks me as one called out to service in the and for the Kingdom of God – and in some social settings of cultural value – this is urgently important.
And yet, ultimately, I wear the collar simply because it serves to remind me of my vocation to serve.
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