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Rural pastor asserts identity by wearing clerical collar

Seeking clarity about her identity as pastor to First Congregational UCC and to the community of Metaline Falls, where she wears several hats as mayor, Chamber president and volunteer director/actor at the Cutter Theatre, the Rev. Tara Leininger decided to start wearing a clerical collar when she had official church business during the day.

Tara Leininger wears a clerical shirt when she’s doing ministry.

Tara Leininger was no stranger to Metaline Falls or the church when she began as pastor 19 years ago.

She had lived there for eight years, taught high school and was involved with the Cutter Theatre before she began on a slow path from being lay to licensed to ordained.  Within a year of starting at the church, they called her as pastor. 

Tara had not attended the church, but had done pulpit supply, so the church knew her.

“I felt called to ministry, and I was ordained in 2006 without having attended a traditional seminar,” said Tara, who earned a master’s degree  in theology at Whitworth University in 2010.”

She went from “Pastor” Tara to “the Rev.” Tara, but she still felt that with her other roles in the community, her role as pastor became muddled.

In the last three of 10 years she was in spiritual direction, she focused on identity. 

“It wasn’t about giving up my work as mayor or in the theatre—unless they got in the way of my ministry,” Tara said.

The more she talked and prayed about her many “hats,” she realized it helped Sunday morning that she wore a robe.

So she began wearing a collar, stepping into the role to remind her and people in the community who she is.

“What was my most important identity? It was my role as pastor to the community through the church,” she asked. 

Just as she was ready, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 7, 2016 on her 26th wedding anniversary.

“My focus was on dealing with the cancer,” she said.

Tara scheduled surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

She had a lumpectomy in August, and chemotherapy Sept. 1 through Nov. 31, losing most of her hair, but otherwise having no side effects.  In January, she began radiation for four weeks in Spokane Monday through Friday, and home on weekends.  She never missed a Sunday.  Recent mammograms are good news.

Then her husband, Donivan, had to have heart surgery in February and was in the ICU between her chemo and radiation treatments.  Donivan returned to teaching.

“I began to work through my identity as I began to wear a clerical collar,” Tara said.

If during the day she was working for the church—having office hours or a church meeting, leading a class or visiting someone, she would wear a collar, even if she was also at city hall or the theatre.

People grew used to it. Most felt nothing changed, recognizing that’s who she is.

“It gave me a sense of my priorities,” she said. “I would take time to focus my energies in prayer, closing the door and turning the phone off.”

It was a physical reminder of where she spiritually needed to put herself.

“I am more assured in who I am as a pastor, not taking myself for granted, not walking on tiptoes about who I am.  I am a pastor serving the congregation and community to bring the Good News,” Tara said.

The surety she felt was not just about her but how people responded to her. When she wore the collar to a city council meeting, she asked, “Is it a problem?” “No, it’s who you are,” was the reply. No one was put off by it at the Cutter Theatre either.

Tara feels affirmed about who she is as pastor.

“I worked hard for this,” she said.  “Often women are not taken seriously as pastors.”

When she first went to the local pastors’ group, two walked out and would not come if she came.  One said she and her church would go to Hell. Now none of them are around. 

“With it a small town, some had problems, but we are neighbors and teach each other’s children,” Tara said. “Criticisms faded about me being a woman pastor and the UCC being open and affirming.”

When Tara started, about 10 to 12 came to worship.  In five years’ attendance grew to 30.  Now most young adults move because there are few jobs. The cement plant and lumber mill closed.  In 2008, the mine re-opened but employs few local people.

When she and Donovan first came, there were 550 children in the school district.  Now there are 230. So the churches are small and have few young members.  First Congregational is the community church, often called for funerals or weddings.

“Wearing a clerical collar is not magical.  I learned early in theatre that when an actor puts on a costume, the actor becomes the person.  The last sense of acting is the costume. 

“It’s not the clothes that make the difference. It’s how I feel about my presence as a pastor,” said Tara, who wears pink, green, red, blue and purple. She usually wears black or gray clerical shirts on Sundays.

“It gives me a wonderful identity to wear colors, like the play, ‘Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.’  It gives me a multicolored identity.

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Pacific Northwest United Church News © September-October 2017


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