I was not a popular kid in junior high. If being in the school concert band wasn’t uncool enough, I also chose to play the flute and was the only boy in that section. I was the kid that even the band geeks picked on! Making matters worse, I was overweight, often wore pink clothes (my then-favorite color) and had a jean jacket with my favorite wrestlers spray-painted on it. They don’t even write characters this socially incompetent in the movies! I recently shared this with a friend of mine, to which he remarked: “Oh man, you must have been like a wounded gazelle in the Serengeti!” Yep, that about sums it up. Of course nothing is inherently wrong with any of the above; it just so happens that in the early 1990’s, those things weren’t popular in middle-class suburban Chicago. In another time and place, I might have been king!
While my social competence has improved somewhat as an adult (thanks mostly to my wife), I’ve often found that wearing clergy attire has elicited a social persecution not unlike what I experienced in junior high—at least in middle to upper-class (predominantly white) suburbs. My vicarage took place at a large, “successful” church in a suburb of Detroit. While many of the people at that church were respectful of my position, there were some who mocked me for dressing like a pastor (or pastor-in-training). When I would wear the collar, I would get comments like, “You know it isn’t Halloween, right?” or “Greetings, your eminence.” As a result, I made it my practice to only wear the collar when I was on hospital duty and on Sunday mornings.
Just last week I attended a fall festival at a large community church in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. These days I wear my collar most of the time, and I wasn’t about to change my clothes near the end of the day simply because I was going to a social event with my family. You might think that the collar would be welcome in a church of all places, but I found this not to be the case. One man began to mock me rather intensely, insisting that I “hear his confession.” I also received a number of scornful looks (mothers, hide your children!), and one woman asked me, “Do you have to dress that way?” The assumption underlying her question was that obviously nobody in their right mind would actually choose to wear a collar!
As I reflect on my junior high experience, it actually turned out to be decent preparation for some of the ridicule I would face as an ordained pastor. I have often found comfort in our Lord’s words, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you,” (John 15:10). While some of the elite within the church (socio-economically speaking) may ridicule those of us who wear the uniform of the Office, I’ve rarely experienced it from the “tax collectors and sinners”, the poor and those outside the church.
There are several meet, right, and salutary aspects of the clerical collar. For starters, while wearing it may not identify one’s denomination, it does identify one as being among the ranks of the clergy. More often than not, women “pastors” dress in clergy attire, perhaps seeking to give the appearance of legitimacy to their claim to the pastoral office. CM Almy, a major supplier of clerical clothing, has even found it the production of a brand-new women’s collection to be a lucrative endeavor (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/fashion/making-over-clergy-fashion.html?_r=0).
I have found it helpful to “look the part” while I’m out and about, particularly when I’m wandering around the community or at the hospital. Here’s a recent photo of me in Racine, WI with Jerome, a recovering addict and a former gang member. I happened to be in Racine for a pastor’s conference, and when I overslept and missed dinner, I decided to walk to a nearby pizza place to get some food. On the way, Jerome spotted me walking around in my collar, which afforded me the opportunity to get to know him and share the Gospel with him over dinner. This would not have happened had I not been wearing my collar. In my current setting (urban, mostly Hispanic), it’s rare for me to be out in the community and not have a positive conversation prompted by someone identifying me as clergy. It is also for this reason that I’ve often been asked to visit and/or pray for total strangers while at the hospital. In short, wearing the collar has given me countless opportunities to share the Gospel, opportunities I would not have had otherwise.
As an added bonus, the collar is a good visual reminder of the invisible realities against which we contend in this life (Ephesians 6:12). The black is a constant reminder of the pastor’s ongoing need for contrition and repentance, and the white near the throat is a reminder of the pure Gospel that raises us up from death to life. Since we can’t see Satan and the forces of hell, it’s easy for us to forget about them. The clerical collar is a constant reminder of sin, death, and the devil on the one hand, and forgiveness, life, and salvation on the other.
There’s also comfort in the collar. As Pastor Anthony Voltattorni has written: “While the clerical collar may be old-fashioned, I find it comforting that, for the most part, it doesn’t depend on fashion or fads or hipness. While the clerical collar may be plain, I find it comforting that it covers the individuality of the man wearing it. While the clerical collar may be stuffy, I find it comforting that it is not my job as a Pastor to entertain. Very simply, the uniform represents the Office of the Pastor well,” (http://allbeggars.blogspot.com/2011/02/pay-attention-to-white.html; emphasis original). There’s certainly nothing magical about putting on a collar, nor does wearing it make one any holier. Quite the opposite: it identifies the pastor as a sinner, covers up his individuality (as all uniforms are apt to do), and directs us to the holiness that is only found in Christ.