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Part 2 of reflections on

Wearing a collar can help clergy recognize role

Although we never are able to fully set aside all the different roles we have in life, putting on that collar helped me begin to recognize the role I was stepping in to.  In the same way, taking off that collar meant that I was done for the day. 

mike denton

PNC Conference Minister Mike Denton


We talk about self-care in ways that sometimes seem empty.  Wearing the collar helps me recognize that I’m working too much some days and taking it off helps my attention feel less divided when I’m home.

When I served a local church in Ohio 11 years ago, the church was more of a primary institution. Church folks were regularly invited to be part of change and advocacy work. Clergy were seen as an important part of institutional constituencies and were looked toward as community leaders.

That’s not as true here today.  The involvement of religious folks is more of an after thought and folks don’t know what to do with, well, the religiousness of clergy.  By much of our own failings and assumed privilege—as well as the reality of religious extremism—the relevancy of clergy and religious institutions are lifted up as more of a negative and anachronistic influence.  I think we are embarrassed by some of this, too, and retreat into what feels like safe, inner church conversations and activities. 

By trying so hard not to be associated with negative expressions of religion, we’ve sometimes overdone it and become invisible.

Putting that collar back on made that clear.  I felt visible and the church was more visible.   In the first two weeks of wearing it, I was asked more questions about the UCC by non-UCC folks than I’d been asked in the previous year.

In addition to strangers, this included people in the neighborhood I’d known for years and colleagues in advocacy work who I’ve been working with for years, now. 

When I used to show up, people would say it was nice “a minister” was present.  When I wore the collar, folks started to name the presence of the United Church of Christ.  I was also invited to be part of more actions.  Without the collar, I was another person present.  With the collar, I was able to bring some of the presence of church along, too.

It has had me thinking.  The collar thing was a New Years/Lenten experiment I thought would end after Easter, but I’m going to keep wearing it, at least significantly more than I used to. 

It’s always been a minority of UCC folks who wore clergy collars.  When I wore it before, it was in a particular context where it was important.  However, I’m thinking it’s something we need to consider again in the emerging church context.

More than we might realize, the mainline churches have taken their relevancy for granted.  We’ve leaned on what was a culturally based sense of Christian supremacy to guard our place in society.  We were centers of community and service life. With membership, privileges came.

That time is over or coming to an end. 

Religion, and U.S. Christianity in particular, has constructed a legacy of spectacular failure and harm. Too often, the trade off for societal privilege was blessing behaviors and systems that, at their root, were oppressive and self-serving. 

Many who are a part of church play defense and construct safe places for our particular brands of Christianity.  We could name thousands of examples to counter this but many are more historical than current?  How many positive stories have you heard this week about religion compared to how many negative stories?

Wearing a collar might seem like a throw-back, an attempt to assert those old unearned systems of privilege.  At its worst, it could be.  However, it’s an important way for clergy and the church to be more visible. 

I’m not suggesting that clergy wearing collars is some sort of church growth plan.  I’m not suggesting that our visibility will somehow lead us back to the “glory days” when the church was regarded as a primary U.S. institution. 

I do think it helps us live into the call to find meaning in giving ourselves away and living into a full life. 

• lt’s an offering of vulnerability that can welcome stories of people’s religious trauma and pain to a listening ear that might just be able to say, “I’m sorry.” 

• It’s a transformation of some lingering privilege into tools for those who are spiritually, politically, socially and economically impoverished. 

• It’s a willingness to say publicly that  I am a Christian and welcome conversation about what that might mean.

• It’s a willingness to say publicly that I’m a part of a church and welcome conversation about what that might mean. 

• It’s a welcome for those who might not be part of a church to help us remember what being a pastor and a person of faith could mean.

Before I started, I had a love/hate relationship with wearing a clergy collar.  Not all of that ambivalence has gone away. However, I think these times might call for it. 

The clergy collar can be a gift, a yoke and an offering.  Try it on.  See if it fits.

Copyright June-July 2015 © Pacific Northwest Conference News



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