God's Word for today

Friday, 15 February 2008

What wearing a clerical collar means

Living and working in the South of Johannesburg means that I generally try to avoid the North - especially with that traffic! But last week I had an appointment in Fourways, so I took the opportunity of popping into the Methodist Bookshop (or Christian Connexion Resource Centre as they are known nowadays) at the Bryanston Methodist Church.

But it was not only books that were on my shopping list this particular day. Although at that stage I was still to go through candidate screening, and there is still the essay and Synod to come, I decided to start stocking up on clerical wear so that I had sufficient quantities for when I enter Phase 1.

"Why so soon", you may ask. It's a simple matter of availability and economics. Unlike ordinary work shirts, clerical wear is not available at your nearest Woolies or Edgars. Also, a clerical shirt does not go for R69.99 like the ones I wear as a Local Preacher - these things cost over 200 bucks apiece! So the thinking is that if I buy one each month between now and the end of the year, I should have a reasonable stock of shirts to see me through the initial years of probation.

Being a "virgin" clergy shirt shopper, I had to try one on for size, since this particular make of shirt does not go by collar size but comes in small, medium, large, etc. When I tried the shirt on for size, the collar was a little tight. It's not that the collar was too small, but that there was a HUGE lump in my throat as I saw myself in "minister's garb" for the first time.

This got me thinking about what it means to wear clericals. One of the questions that was posed to me during candidature screening was whether I truly felt called to minister, or whether I just fancied the idea of putting a plastic insert into my shirt and being called "Reverend".

Thankfully I had given this matter some thought beforehand, largely as a result of a piece that I had read on Rev Ken Collins' website. One of his articles entitled "Why clergy should wear clericals" makes a case in favour of clergy wearing such clothing, and provides insight into what wearing clericals should symbolise to the world at large.

Why Clergy Should Wear Clericals
(Copyright ©1995-2008 by the Rev. Kenneth W. Collins. Reprinted with permission.)

There are situations in which clothing is very important. I found this out by accident once, when I walked into a furniture store, coincidentally wearing the same sort of shirt as the employees. I had to leave because the other customers expected me to wait on them.

Clothing conveys a message. A business suit says, “Money!” A police uniform says, “Law!” A tuxedo says, “Wedding!” Casual clothing says, “Me!” Clericals say, “Church!” Any of those messages might be valid in different contexts, so you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes for the occasion. If you wear a business suit in a department store, people will mistake you for the manager. If you wear a tuxedo to a ball game, they won’t ask you to play. If you wear a jogging outfit to a fancy restaurant, your clothing says, “I wandered in here by mistake,” and the staff will treat you accordingly.

The word clericals refers to the special clothing that clergy wear outside of worship services, usually consisting of a white collar on a black shirt (for male clergy) or on a black blouse (for female clergy), combined with other clothing that is either black or grey.

If you are a pastor and you think you are aggrandizing yourself when you wear clericals, you’ll be disappointed. The congregation quickly gets used to the clericals and they see them as badges of service, not honour. Clericals put you in the same functional category as bellhops, waiters, police officers, airline pilots, and so on. We do not dress to please ourselves, or anyone else for that matter; our manner of dress facilitates our service. It makes our function obvious to strangers. It makes our duties inescapable, and it constrains our personal conduct, because we can’t disappear into the crowd when we are wearing clericals.

Clericals mean that visitors don’t have to ask, “Where is the pastor?” They know just by looking.

Clericals also have other advantages. They communicate to the congregation that you are not a proxy child, a potential date, a worldly expert, or a bosom buddy. It allows you to focus on the job of pastoring, without slipping and sliding into those role conflicts and boundary issues your denomination keeps warning you about.

A friend of mine, who was ordained in the United Church of Christ, was required by his ministerial association to wear a clergy shirt with a tab collar while he was travelling. He thought it was a huge imposition on his personal liberty, until he obeyed. On the aeroplane, he heard a confession, reassured a frightened traveller, and calmed a terrified child. He was delighted that a routine air flight had turned into pastoral ministry.

If you are clergy and you’ve never worn a clergy shirt to visit people in the hospital, you should try it. The clergy shirt means you don’t have to explain what you are or why you are there. The staff extends you all necessary courtesies, and even delirious patients know right off what you are. You can get in after visiting hours and quite often you don’t have to pay for parking, even if you’ve never been to that particular hospital before. Of course the catch is, you have to be on your best ministerial behaviour the entire time you are there, so this is not something you should try if your self-discipline is weak.

If I called the police because of a burglary in my house, I would not be reassured if the police showed up driving a sports car with his kids in the back, and wearing jeans and loafers. If I am in distress because of a crime, I want the police to arrive in a police car and I want them to be wearing freshly pressed uniforms. If I have just been through a burglary, I don’t need a buddy, I don’t need a narcissist expressing himself in his clothing, I need a policeman. I need a policeman who will carry out the law, not his self-expression. I could care less about who he is personally; I called him as a representative of a greater force.

Similarly, if I am on my deathbed, facing the greatest spiritual crisis in my life, I don’t want a buddy to come express himself. I want a properly uniformed and equipped minister of God who subordinates himself to his ministry, and who confidently and authoritatively represents God.

Our parishioners deserve nothing less.

When you visit people in the hospital or in jail, for example, what sort of message do you convey with your clothing? If you show up in casual clothes, you are trying to say, “I’m just one of the gang,” but they hear the message, “I’m not taking this seriously.” If you show up in a business suit, you are trying to say, “I’m a well-dressed capable person,” but they hear the message, “I’m a man of the world.”

When you are watching television, you can tell right off what sort of character has just appeared on the screen, because script writers take advantage of our cultural stereotypes to dress the characters to give us the right first impression. For example, if the character is supposed to be an inhibited secretary, they pull her hair back in a bun, put glasses on her face, and give her plain make up. When she loses her inhibitions, they signal the change by removing the glasses, letting her hair down, and improving her make up. Very few actresses play romantic scenes with their hair up in a bun.

So have you been paying attention to the way they dress the characters who are supposed to be clergy? Because women are relatively new to ministry, they almost invariably appear in clericals or tab-collar blouses. However, the men tell us what sort of ministers they are by the way they are dressed:
- If the minister is a shyster who is fleecing his flock for their money, he is most often wearing a sports coat and tie.
- If the minister is the manipulative type who is gradually transforming his congregation into a mind-control cult, he is most often wearing a well-tailored business suit.
- If the minister is an activist who is crusading against the establishment, he is most often wearing casual clothing, with a tab-collar shirt under his sweater or leather jacket.
- If the minister is competent and respectable, and if he is performing a valuable spiritual service (such as a wedding, funeral, or exorcism) in a dignified setting, he is most often wearing clericals on the street and vestments in church.

Objection: But Jesus Didn’t Wear Clericals!
Now of course there is the objection that Jesus allegedly wore the clothing of the working man, not special clothes of the clergy. The assertion doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny in Scripture. In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as “teacher,” which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word “rabbi.”

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?” They said, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”—John 1:38, NIV

Without knowing who He was (that is, Jesus), they knew what He was (that is, a rabbi), because they asked him to do rabbinical things: to heal the sick, cast out demons, settle disputes, probate wills, and decide religious issues:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”—Mark 10:17, NIV

If they thought He was a rabbi, these were reasonable expectations, because those were the duties of rabbis. However, in John 7, Jesus attends a festival at the Temple and even though everyone is talking about Him, they are unaware that He is among them in the crowd. Since there was no photography in those days, we can understand that strangers would not recognize Him by His face. There was no television newscaster to say, “Galilean rabbi draws large crowds with His controversial miracles—film at eleven.”

However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the Temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?”—John 7:10-15, NIV

So we have to ask: how could they know He was a rabbi in one circumstance, but not in another? Why were people surprised by His expertise at the Feast in John 7:10-15, when they took it for granted in situations such as Mark 10:17? The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed. When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi; the surprise was not that He was a rabbi, but how He handled their requests. In John 7, they did not recognize Him as a rabbi, so they were surprised that He knew rabbinical things. He must not have been dressed as a rabbi. The only way He could attend the Feast “in secret” was to go without wearing rabbinical clothes.

While Jesus definitely did not wear a black shirt with a white collar, He obviously wore the first-century equivalent. So clergy who wear clericals are imitating Christ. I think the clergy who do not wear clericals have the more difficult position to defend.

Objection: Some People Have an Adverse Reaction to Clericals!
Conflict-avoidant people raise this objection, but there are two problems with letting other people’s phobias dictate your wardrobe. The first is that you are not solving their problem by changing your clothes, you are only letting it fester unresolved. The second is that if you are driven by your own fears of what other people will think of you, you’re on a slippery slope to second-guessing yourself into total ineffectiveness as the Rev. Milquetoast. If someone has a problem with clerical dress, at least this exposes it so you can help them overcome it. I observe, however, that this problem is more apprehension than substance.

Recently, a colleague of mine visited my church. I knew he had a chasuble and that he liked it, so I invited him to bring it and wear it—which he did. One of my parishioners admired the chasuble. When I told her that he doesn’t wear it in his own church because he’s afraid his congregation won’t like it, she looked very frustrated and said, “Sometimes you just have to assert yourself!”

A person who is assertive without being authoritarian or bossy is said to have a strong character.

Objection: But a Collar Would Make Me Look Catholic (or whatever)!
Don’t bet on this one, either. One Sunday I went to lunch with some of my parishioners. The restaurant was so crowded that you couldn’t inhale without saying “excuse me” to someone. As we got up to leave, we walked past a booth with a well-dressed family. Their son was sitting on a chair at the end of the table. The young man grabbed me by the hand and said, “Pastor!” Then he saw my face and was confused that I wasn’t who he thought I was. He said, “You are a pastor, aren’t you?” and I said, “Yes, I’m pastor of Garfield Memorial Christian Church,” and gave his father my card. The father explained that they were members of a Lutheran megachurch that is nearby. The young man asked me, “Is Garfield a Lutheran church?” and I said, “No,” and turning to his mother who was looking at me, I said, “However, if you sat in our church blindfolded, I bet you couldn’t tell the difference.” And the father nodded, saying we are all alike.

The reason this happened is that for the young man, the collar made me look Lutheran. To an Episcopalian, it would make me look Episcopalian. In some areas, it would make me look Methodist. Orthodox clergy have taken to wearing black shirts with white collars. Recently someone wrote to me to say that in his country, rabbis wear black shirts with white collars.

My parishioners who witnessed this exchange were very proud of their church. In their minds, it made our little church just as important as the Lutheran megachurch, because I received the same treatment as the Lutheran pastor for whom I had been initially mistaken. This is not a bad thing.

And by the way, the inventor of the clergy shirt, the Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod, was not Catholic.

Objection: None of This Applies to my Congregation!
You may be surprised on this one, too.

Some time ago, I attended the installation of a pastor. Her church was a startup, so the installation service took place in another church’s building. She had worked out all the arrangements with the host pastor over the phone, so she had never seen him before. The startup church was Disciples of Christ and the host church was one of those independent community megachurches. Neither congregation had ever experienced clergy wearing clericals before; I was the only one there in a collar, so this was definitely the acid test.

I severely overestimated my travel time, so I arrived at the church much too early. As I was standing in the narthex in my clergy shirt, the guest of honour walked in the door. She walked right up to me and began thanking me profusely for everything I had done. She had mistaken me for the pastor of the host church—whom she had never seen before—even though she had no reason to expect the pastor of an independent community church to wear a collar.

About a half hour later, someone else mistook me for the host pastor, which was very embarrassing for him, because he was standing right next to me at the time. Later, I was mistaken for the host pastor a third time! Now all the other clergy were beginning to feel a little out of uniform, because I was the only one whom lay people perceived as clergy.

After the service was over, someone complimented me on my lovely wife, which was strange, because I’m not married. Then I realized that the person had met the pastor’s wife and presumed I was her husband—after all, I was the one wearing the collar.

All this happened in an environment where it was not customary for clergy to wear collars.

The lesson is that if you dress like a minister, everyone will think you are one.

One day, Lord willing, I will have the privilege of being a Methodist minister, and in fulfilment of this office I will wear a collar. But if my motivation for doing so is to make myself out to be something more than I am, and not as a "badge of service" to our Lord Jesus Christ, then pull the plug now, for I am not fit to enter the ministry.


Gus said...

Watch out for those collared shirts... always try them on. They often stick the wrong labels in the wrong shirts.

Anonymous said...

God Bless

Anonymous said...

where can i get Clerical shirts. Samantha info@tvpcouriers.co.za

Steven Jones said...

Most Methodist bookshops / Christian Connexion Centres stock them. But be warned - they're NOT cheap!

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The Fridge Elf said...

Bless you as you travel through your student years...the article was enlightening. I come from a tradition at Northfield Methodist and Alberton Methodist where the ministers didn't where clericals. However I have taken to wearing them everytime that I am on "official" duty. It helps a lot, plus being youngish with spikey hair doesn't help my cause at hospitals etc...if I don't wear one.

Many Blessings
Juan Smith

Jcm said...

Hi Steven
I have read your article and it really blessed me since I was also struggling with this issue. I am a young(34 years old) ordained minister in an evangelical church but was raised all my years in an Episcopalian church. I feel now more confident to wear my clericals, since it reminds me of my service to the Lord Jesus Christ.

God bless you