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Part 1 of reflections on

Wearing a collar for more than worship and protest

If I’ve visited with you or your church in the last few months, you might have noticed I was wearing a clergy collar. I’ve usually done this for worship and, like many good UCC clergy folks, for protests, but I hadn’t worn a clergy collar every day for years.

mike denton

Mike Denton - Pacific NW Conference Minister

The last time I did was when I served a local church in Ohio.  As part of that ministry, I worked with folks on the street who were at high risk for contracting AIDS.  Information and materials were shared to help them minimize their risk and, when some became ready to leave the streets, they were connected with resources to help them find their way to a different kind of life. 

The clergy collar helped me be more identifiable to those who were looking for help and, realistically, also made it a little bit safer there.

I noticed other things, too.  For those whose image of a pastor wasn’t a 32 year old, the collar helped.  In addition to street folks, other folks looking for help would approach me. There were several instances of violence in our community, and I was able to be received more quickly as someone who was supportive. 

During a time I was trying to figure out how to live into this role, the collar helped other people remind me what my role meant to them, and helped me have my own inner-dialogue about it.

In addition to positive projections, there were difficult projections. Many automatically saw me as someone who wanted something from them.

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On more than one occasion, people felt free to approach me and tell me how much the church hurt them. I was serving the church during early stages of the Roman Catholic child abuse scandals and more than one parent got at least nervous when I was around.  That normal way you smile at a child when they smile at you was clearly unsettling to some parents who scowled at me.  I’ll always remember the parent of a child at a grocery store, who had just waved at me, pulling away their child while chiding them with the words, “I told you never to talk to priests.”

When I started doing regional ministry I stopped wearing the collar and, frankly, I was kind of relieved.  Even the more positive experiences of wearing a collar had started to grind away at this introvert. I was relieved to move in to a different sort of anonymity that could more easily be turned on and off.  I kept the shirts and the collars but only to wear for worship or protests.

Over the Christmas season this past year, I found myself in the midst of a bit of a vocational crisis.  Most of this will sound familiar to many of you.  I wasn’t satisfied with my work and was feeling further away from many of the parts of ministry that I’d felt called to do in the first place. 

The sense of meaning that had been more a part of the early days of ministry had faded.  There were other things I felt as though I’d lost doing this particular kind of work.  The pastoral muscles that come from regular contact with a geographic and spiritual community felt as though they had atrophied.  I still felt connected to ministry as a job but had lost the connection to ministry as a lifestyle.  I needed to do something different.

For reasons that weren’t clear at the time, I thought wearing my clergy collar on a more regular basis might help. The deal I made with myself was that for the time between the new year and all of the way through Lent, I would wear my collar when my church day began and only take it off when I wasn’t planning on doing other ministry related things for the rest of the day.

It was uncomfortable.  I’d forgotten that people stared when you had it on.  People talked to me differently. Neighborhood friends teased me a bit and weren’t sure what to do with it. Folks looking for spare change approached me more regularly. It was clear how, um, completely rude a driver I’d become. I’d forget I had it on then see myself in the mirror and sometimes it was jarring.  In the same way that non-clergy sometimes apologize to clergy for swearing, there were times I realized that just a few moments before I had not been a very good representative of our church. There was other stuff like that, too.

Although uncomfortable, these ended up also being the benefits of wearing a collar.  I had been more in denial of my role as a clergy person than I realized.  That very personal thing we name a call and the very public that becomes our role overlap, but are also in tension at times. 

There are those things we feel are completely in sync with who we are and then there are those things that feel a little more like something we put on. By, literally, putting on a collar it helped to make this tension more real in a way that I couldn’t avoid. I began to realize that the problem isn’t the tension, itself, but trying to avoid it that can be so exhausting sometimes.

The actual physical act of putting on a collar and taking it off did something, too.

When my son Leo saw me putting my collar on, he started saying, “Daddy’s going to church!” and that’s what I started to feel. 

Reflections on wearing a collar continue next issue.



Hello, I love Mike Denton's article about wearing the clergy collar.  When did Christian clergy stop wearing the collar?  I have always felt that the collar is important like Buddhist monks wearing saffron robes and LDS missionaries wearing suits, the collar tells who we are and perhaps what we believe, who we follow.   

What a gift to be told how much the church had hurt the person, I believe the purpose of lamentations is permission to be able to tell God about our pains.  The Church is a human institution, but even so God still resides there.  What a blessing to be able to share one's anger with a representative of Christ. In the world of disabilities even disabled children are told by their mother in grocery stores not to stare at the disabled lady. But as adults people with disabilities need to talk about being different, even without my collar on people continually tell me about their secret hidden disabilities and talk freely about their their life with obvious disabilities.  This is also such a gift, even though listening to suffering sometimes stretches my available energy to almost zero, because who else can listen confidentially without judging their inner pains. Whether people may first turn away because clergy and the church have hurt them, or because they are afraid of being judged as different, they often still have that need to be blessed by something bigger, their pain needs to break open so it can be healed. It is good for folks to be able to see that there are loving and not abusive visible representatives of their belief available.  Thank you Mike. I'm looking forward to the rest of your article.   Rev. Iris J. Coover  


Copyright © April 2015 - Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ Conference News


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