A Missive on Clericals

A reflection from a few years back on clerical collars:

In my time as Pastor of this congregation, the members of Saint John have learned that I almost always wear a clerical collar - I can even sometimes make through the grocery store unrecognized if I am not in a collar. Yet within our community of Brenham, the use of clericals varies widely among the town's clergy. The origins of the collar are pretty uninteresting and banal - it largely is a product of men's fashion, and was simply the collar used by most educated men at one point. As to the black shirt; in an age before chemical dyes, black was the most expensive color to produce, and was reserved for the educated professions: professors, lawyers, and clergy (it is no accident that the two slowest institutions to adopt change - the church and the courts - retain the black attire).

Certainly the origins of the clerical collar are fairly uninteresting - but far more important is the historical significance of the collar, and how that can be understood today. Let me run down, briefly, what I think is the significance of clerics dressed in ... clerics.

  1. The collar connects today's clergy to the "great cloud of witnesses" who have come before us and to the church catholic. Ordained persons do not serve for their own personal gain, nor ultimately do they serve only for the good of the local congregation. Rather, persons are ordained for the sake of the Church. The collar serves as a reminder of that responsibility, and also of how that affects authority ...
  2. The collar points to the authority of the office. The authority of clergy is not a personal authority - that is, it is not a result of who they are or anything they have done. Instead, any authority granted to a pastor/priest is because of the office, not the person. In an age when it seems that many churches are driven by the personal authority of a charismatic pastor, the collar serves to remind both clergy and others that the authority of the office is much more important.
  3. The collar is a symbol for the faithful. To members of the church, the collar helps mark the clergy as being set apart for the function of administering the sacraments and preaching the word. Certainly we all know who our pastor is, but this visual distinction helps to remind us of the function and role of our selected and called leaders. It also helps us to identify those from outside of our congregation who serve the same function.
  4. The collar is a symbol for the world. Wearing the collar in public can be an interesting exercise for new clergy. You very quickly learn that, whether you intend it or not, when wearing the collar you represent the church to the world. Of course, this may mean that there are certain things that it may not be appropriate for you to do in public - but it also gives to the world a witness and a reminder of the church. Further, it makes it easier for persons to come to you with a need - because you are easily identifiable as a person who can help.
In short, think of the clerical collar as a uniform. If you were in need of help, would you be more likely to approach the police officer in uniform, or the plain clothes cop? So too with clericals. Both to the faithful and to the world, the collar serves as a symbol of our office and function - and also of the presence of the church in and among the world.


  1. I admit to having mixed feelings about the clerics, though I have been wearing them almost daily while on internship (my supervisor, on the other hand, only wears clerics for liturgical functions). But like you, I approach clerics like a uniform - you either wear it or you don't. I never stick the tab in my pocket and walk around with my open collar. It just looks sloppy to me, and detracts from the meaning of the uniform.

  2. I don't wear clerics all the time, but, like Chris, I don't do the tab in the pocket thing either. I do think it can be a good exercise, but I also have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it is like a uniform so of course I wear it to church, weddings, etc, word and sacrament functions. And I think it's also ok to think that there are some things I wouldn't want to be seen doing when I'm wearing a cleric. but on the other hand, I don't want to be "the official religious person", i.e. that I would be the only person authorized to pray and give comfort to a person in a time of crisis.

  3. I remember the first time I wore my collar to the grocery store. I have been shopping there for years, but this particular time everyone treated a little bit different. They really didn't know what to make of me in a clerical collar.

    Since that day I have been much more comfortable making stops on the way home. I like the fact that people recognize the collar and associate it with the Church. Like David said...it is a great reminder and it makes people think.

  4. This gives me much to think about in my future ministry. It was hit or miss for me to wear clerics on internship last year. There was no "formula" for myself or my supervisoring Pastor. We were of course professional in our dress but I did not see the "need" to wear Clerics.
    Of course we are representing the office of the church if we are wearing your clerics or not. So do you need to make it "necessary" to your ministry?
    Like Diane I agree if we are leading worship, weddings, funerals, hospital visits ect - it is something we want to wear but if we are spending time in our office working on newsletter articles, sermons, and catching up on e-mail does it make it necessary?

  5. I too am not a fan of the open collar with the tab stuck in the pocket - it is just too unprofessional for me.

    The first trip into public wearing the collar is always interesting. It is even more so when in a community with a large Roman Catholic community - I always found the looks I got when accompanying my wife with a collar on very interesting.

    Joe, thank for coming by. Certainly we represent the church when not wearing the collar - but only to those who know who we are and the office we serve. With the collar, the symbol is much stronger, and more universal.

  6. I don't wear a collar all that often. I wear it to funerals and weddings and when I make a hospital visit outside of Jackson. Sometimes it is easier to get help at a strange hospital or access to the ER/ICU when you are immediately recognized as the pastor.

    Also...I know a guy who took his driver's license picture with his collar on, hoping maybe that would help in case he got pulled over :)

  7. Eric,

    I have found that it is very unusual for a pastor who lives in an area with a heavy Pietist history to wear a collar frequntly. Completely ancedotal with no solid evidence, I would say that there is a connection between the Pietist history and dislike of clerical attire.

  8. and where Eric is, I can attest, has a strong Pietist history