Over at a blog I read often, there have been a couple of posts recently related to clerical collars. (See them here and here if you are interested.) These got me to thinking about why I wear a collar.
Some people think that wearing a collar is about authority and power. Needing it, getting it, loosing it, wanting it, etc., and this seems all the more an issue for women in professional ministry. Deep in the heart of Baptist country in the Southeast where I live, a collar is unfamiliar to many. Some have only seen priests in movies wearing clerics so they have no real connection to it. Others are unsure as to what to do with a woman as a pastor, much less wearing a cleric. Some feel they need to wear it to be identified as a pastor and some to receive the respect a pastor merits. Some feel that wearing it is too power-seeking, too old-fashioned or even a sign of professional weakness.
When I went to purchase my first cleric I was so excited because it meant I was on the path to becoming a pastor! The collar is not the sign of the office of pastor–that is the stole–but the collar is the uniform. Sometimes we get these two things confused, possibly because of the fading tradition of wearing the collar and because of the miseducation of many who think that white thing at the neck is what makes a pastor. The Holy Spirit and the church make a pastor and the sign of that having occurred is the yoke of Christ–the stole. The collar is like the chef’s jacket and hat, the policeman’s uniform, the nurse’s scrubs, the marching band uniform.
For me, the collar has a specific purpose: to be the uniform. The chef, policeman, nurse and musician do not cease to be these things when they take off their uniform and they can, in most cases, do their jobs just as well wearing something else. So, too, is the same true for the pastor. The uniform serves the purpose of identifying them as persons engaged in a certain vocation. A policeman’s authority to perform certain duties does not come from his or her uniform but from the authority vested in him by the state. The uniform merely marks him as one of those people called to that vocation. The same is true for the collar. If Luther is right about vocation, and I think he is, then we are all called by God to serve in our jobs. God calls us to be and do all kinds of honorable and needful things and one of those things is to be a professional proclaimer of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament; the vocation of the ordained ministry. Therefore, it is appropriate to compare the collar to the chef’s hat and nurse’s scrubs as all are uniforms and marks of the vocation God has called a person to fulfill.
In the time since I got my first collar, I’ve had some interesting things happen related to it. Once, early on in seminary, a grocery store cashier refused to check out my groceries because I was wearing a collar. During my internship year, the Hispanic woman at the McDonald’s drive through greeted me every Sunday morning with “God bless you, Sister” because she believed I was a nun and could never be convinced otherwise. But some of the most profound moments have been the opportunity to be a representative of the church and a God of grace and compassion to people who have been damaged by organized religion in some way or who have little to no actual experience with the Christian faith. The collar is symbolic of something beyond just the particular pastor who wears it. It symbolizes the whole of the ministry–the whole of the church–and it can be very healing for some to perceive loving, grace filled action coming from not just an individual but from one who represents the whole church at that moment. It is a deep and humbling honor to bear this uniform and be God’s instrument in those times.
You see, you cannot hide in a collar and that is, perhaps for me, the most important feature of this uniform: it is difficult for me to forget I am wearing it. It is easy to wear a cross around your neck or have a Christian fish sticker on your car and forget about it, perhaps even to the point of not being mindful of the effect your actions have on the understanding others have of what a Christian is like. However, a pastor does not have the luxury of anonymity. If there is one thing that pastors are surely called to be it is to be a public Christian. Not a perfect one, mind you, but a public one. The collar never lets you forget it. I wear the collar not so that people will look to me as an authority or so that I will be powerful but, ultimately, so that I will never forget what God has called me to do. I am certainly a pastor whether I wear the collar or not and there are many, many days I don’t wear it, but it is a part of my life and ministry so that I will remember who called me to this vocation.