I don’t wear my clergy collar very often. I only own one plain white clergy shirt and it’s usually wrinkled (and why do clergy shirts get such a bad ring around the collar?). I don’t like feeling set apart from the congregation. I perceive people acting stiffly around me and—the worst—making uncomfortable jokes about how they can’t swear or drink beer around me. It seems to get tighter the longer I wear it. When I put it on, I feel a deep sense of the loneliness of the office.
I don’t enjoy it.
But it’s necessary, because when I walk into a room, no one points at me (a young woman) and says, “Hey, you must be the pastor!” I wear it at funerals and weddings and when I know I’ll be around strangers or in unfamiliar settings. It’s logistically easier as people don’t need to run around to find the pastor. But when I drive or make a stop at the grocery store while wearing it, I always take out the tab so no one will know. My introverted self does not like the attention. (My extroverted husband, on the other hand, likes to wear his to big-box home improvement stores, as he claims it gets him really fast service.)
Last week I stopped by a hospital on my way to officiate a burial, so I had my collar on. My previous visit to the patient in that hospital frustrated me. I felt like I was fighting the medical staff to get a moment with him. I know it was more about me than them—it was a bad time and they needed to do their work—but that experience left me struggling to find my pastoral voice. I decided to leave the collar on. I had to keep myself from unconsciously slipping the tab out of the collar as I stepped out on the sidewalk.
Everyone around me quickly identified my mission. In my collar and black suit, walking quickly toward a major hospital, I was immediately recognizable. I felt like I was wearing a clergy sandwich board, or in some futuristic video game where everything rearranges around the protagonist. Cars stopped for me so I could cross the street. Front desk workers at the hospital ushered me to the elevator. The doctors greeted me and motioned me into the patient’s room. Granted, this was a much more critical visit than the previous one, so my presence was greatly needed. Yet the collar really did make a difference. Most importantly, the collar brought a sense of respect and God’s presence to a family’s heartbreaking situation.
It’s yet another reminder to me that being a pastor is who I am. It’s not simply what I do. My life is different whether I have the collar on or not. Sometimes it’s lonely to be set apart. But sometimes being set apart is exactly right. It’s not about my need for privacy or building my ego or trying to fit into a crowd (or even getting fast service). It’s about bringing God’s presence as efficiently as possible. I won’t be wearing my collar every day, but sometimes God needs to work despite my own misgivings—so I’ll put it on.