Wearing A Collar? Ordained Ministry Q&A Part 1

by Fr Thomas McKenzie with Deacon Tish Harrison Warren.

This series is an ongoing Q&A between Deacon Tish Harrison Warren and Fr Thomas McKenzie about ordained ministry.  The introduction is here.  Here is a link to all of the series as it rolls out.

When do you wear a collar and when do you not? How do you decide?

The purpose of a clerical collar is to identify me as a priest/pastor in public. This is, theoretically, helpful for the same reason other uniforms are helpful. If you see a lady walking up to your house with a box, it helps to know that she’s from UPS. If you are having a heart attack, you may want to grab the guy who’s wearing scrubs.  My uniform says “hey, if you need a pastor, there’s one right here.” It also says “I’m allowed to be here because I’m a pastor.”

The secondary reason for the clerical collar is to de-emphasize my individuality.  Clothing is used to signal so much in our society—income, education, class, political affiliation, sports preference, drug use, sexuality, etc. To wear something that should signal none of those, but simply says “hear comes a priest,” is pretty counter-cultural.  Of course, some clergy do tie fashion into their use of the collar. That Lutheran minister who tears the sleeves off her collared shirt—so you can see her tattoos and muscles—comes to mind. I normally just go with the black shirt and the round collar and have done with it.

I wear a collar on the days I’m working. That means I wear a clergy shirt Sunday through Thursday, Friday being my day off.  Unless i have to perform some kind of clergy task on a Friday or Saturday, in which case I will put it on.  I keep a clergy shirt, along with some other things, in a bag in the trunk of my car.  So, if I have to take an emergency trip to the hospital, etc., I have it available.

Since the collar is detachable, I might take it off when I’m alone. If you walk into my office I might have it off. Or I might take it off at the end of the work day but just leave the shirt on, which is not an attractive look.

I have found that the collar is sometimes helpful, sometimes off-putting, but usually neutral. Sometimes it causes double-takes. It usually lets me walk into emergency rooms, skip the line at funeral visitations, and get quickly through security checkpoints. I’ve worn one most days of my life since 1998. I’ve noticed that less and less people seem to notice it. That may be because I am so used to it. Or it may be that less people know and/or care what it is. Probably a combination of both.

Is there anything that you wouldn’t do in a collar that you would do otherwise (example: like smoking cigarettes)? Why or why not?

My immediate response to that question was “of course not!” After all, if you wouldn’t do something because you are wearing a collar, shouldn’t you not do that thing simply because you are a Christian?

Then I thought about it less defensively. My wearing of a collar has, from time time, prevented me from making angry gestures in traffic. It has also led me to give money to beggars when I wouldn’t have otherwise done so.  I have smoked one cigarette in the past 20 years, so I don’ think it affected that. When I smoke a pipe, which is not often, I smoke it regardless of what I’m wearing. The same could be said of drinking a beer.

All that said, there is one thing I have stopped doing while wearing a collar. I have stopped walking into public places with headphones on. I love wearing headphones, white ear buds, because I like listening to podcasts or music, or making phone calls, while running errands. However, wearing headphones with my collar seems counter-productive. A collar says “hey, I’m a pastor, you can talk to me if you need to” while headphones say “hey, leave me alone, I’m listening to something.” So now, if I really need to have the headphones on, I leave my collar in my car. Otherwise, I try to remain present to the people around me while wearing my collar.

6 thoughts on “Wearing A Collar? Ordained Ministry Q&A Part 1

  1. thanks for this.

    I’m ordained in Sydney Australia where we’re a very low-church bunch of Anglicans and collar-wearing is the exception, not the norm. I am, however, (and others here also) open to the idea of using it at the right time.

    One question immediately arises from your piece. It seems that the main argument you’re making is that wearing the collar makes it obvious that people can approach you for “pastoral stuff”, in which case my obvious question is “How often in your experience does that actually happen?”

    • David, I live in the Northeastern part of the United States. I would agree with Canon Greg that, in my experience of having lived there at one time, the South had plenty of inquisitive individuals asking me about my collar. Even in the Maryland/Delaware area I get a lot of constructive and valuable question. Most leave me be, but quite a few will talk to me about faith and the Anglican Church. The collar really is an opening for conversation.

  2. Hey David, this is Canon Greg (not Fr Thomas who wrote above). My experience is that many times when I wear the collar here in the southeastern U.S. people talk to me about it, or about faith or church. That is, they do when I don’t seem to be in a hurry. If I slow down and seem open, people often ask “what church are you from?” Or “are you a catholic priest?” Or “will you pray for me?” Or just start talking about God. I’m not sure if that would hold true elsewhere.

    • hi Greg,

      Thanks for that. My impression from a coast to coast road trip across the States last year was that in the southeast people were much more open to Christian things. Our context is substantially different so I’m thinking through the implications.

      btw, wearing a clerical as I write this ;)

  3. I am a chaplain to the voluntary fire service. I always wear a collar with my uniform in parades. It says to several thousand by-standers, “This department believes in God, enough to have a chaplain”!

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