A few months ago, I celebrated the 20th anniversary of my ordination to pastoral ministry. A few weeks later, I wore a clergy collar for the first time.
To set the scene: I didn’t go to seminary following a clear call to professional church leadership. I went to seminary to earn a graduate degree. At the time, my favorite learning subject happened to be Sunday School. Following the delightful course work, the enlightening pastoral internship, and discovering that a pulpit is just a soap box with a holy higher purpose, I accepted a congregation’s call to serve as pastor.
Ordination followed, and that put into play the “Reverend” title and God’s “yes” to go ahead. I dressed up in pastor clothes to play the pastor part in worship services — clergy robe and stole and proper shoes. At all other times I went into the world in “plain clothes,” incognito, unnoticed.
Except that I wasn’t — unnoticed, that is. One day a parishioner saw me in a grocery store and was shocked: “I never thought of you buying groceries like everyone else.” Turns out that some folks also have trouble picturing their pastor refueling her car, or carting her stuff to the recycling truck, or getting a mani-pedi. They told me so.
All of that might lead a pastor to decide that, if she is going to be seen as being so very “other,” she might as well put on the clergy collar. “Go ahead,” she might say to herself, “put on the pastor role without reservation, from head to toe, in coffee shops and in nursing homes.”
It didn’t fit me. In my denomination — the United Church of Christ — some clergy do collar up, and some don’t. Without judgment on those who do, I was one who didn’t.
Clergy collar-free, I have never felt under-dressed, nor any less ready or capable to carry out those ordination vows. As a plain-clothes clergy person in a hospital ICU or in a pre-marital counseling session, I have never lacked signs or symbols to lend authority or authenticity to what I do. I have never been turned away from courtroom hearing rooms or funeral homes for not looking clergy enough.
Not that I’ve been flawless in the clergy role. Yet, none of the mistakes and missteps would have been prevented or made better if I had been wearing a collar.
A few weeks before I had been ordained 20 years, my new ministry colleague Gail was ordained. Rev. Gail serves a sister church housed in our church building, is about my age, has sharp pastoral instincts, and is quickly becoming a cherished friend.
As soon as she was ordained, Gail put on a clergy collar. She wears it daily and without pretense. I liked the no-pretense look, a lot. During this hot and humid New Orleans summer, she wears a clergy collar and shorts combo. Long pants are more out of place here in August than clergy collars on Southern women. Rev. Gail in a clergy collar: natural, authentic and obviously clergy. It works. I started to get curious about my long-standing clergy collar aversion.
One day, she presented to me one of her clergy shirts. Wrong size for her, was it? Wrong color, perhaps? She knew I was clergy collar-free. She encouraged me to try it. Later that day, I was standing in front of a mirror, in a bright blue clergy shirt, playing pastor dress up. That’s how it felt to me.
I started wearing a clergy collar on Thursdays every week. Some Thursdays, Gail and I walk the two blocks from church to the coffee shop for a professional meeting, with laughter. We walk our collared selves past a cathedral in a city that is heavily Roman Catholic. “Are you priests?” is the most common question.
For the past few months, wearing a collar (sometimes) has been almost-comfortable and not-quite-me. At 20 years past ordination, it has been an exercise in exploring the next phase of my pastoral identity.
I always thought the clergy collar option was mine to play. Turns out some people can’t picture their clergy person — their clergy woman — dressed for the part “in that way.” Clergy collars say to them “male Roman Catholic priests.” There is discomfort and amusement in the eyes of people who otherwise are in favor of women clergy and supportive of me.
And then Pope Francis declared — again — that women can’t be ordained as Roman Catholic priests. He was praised — rightly so — for taking a small step toward openness to gay male priests. “Who am I to judge?” he said. Then he went ahead and repeated the eons-old human judgment that women are not qualified for ordained priesthood. “It’s already been settled,” he said.
Showing yet more male religious hubris, he said: “We still do not have a theology of women. We need to create one.” Who is that “we,” sir? The “we” around the most important deciding tables are predominantly men — in Roman Catholic world, in religious groups, in governments.
So I have come out more visibly as a clergy person. I wear my clergy collar (sometimes). The United Church of Christ began ordaining women in 1853. Even in my UCC church, some still say “lady preachers,” and they are not totally comfortable with *her*.
I wear my collar for the child or the teen — or the adult, God help us — who sees me buying peaches at the farmer’s market and might be seeing a woman clergy for the first time.
I wear my collar because “In Christ, there is neither male nor female” needs more illustrations, not fewer.
I wear my collar because it doesn’t “doesn’t matter” that I am female and clergy. I want you to see us. We are right here.
I wear a clergy collar. Sometimes, or more often, or not at all. My choice.
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Rev. Sharon M. Temple currently serves as interim pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in New Orleans. She has recently moved back to Louisiana after great adventures in Ohio and Pennsylvania for 25 years. At this time, her New Orleans food tour is 1.5% complete. She is expecting her second grandchild in February. Here’s how she looks in her purple clergy collar (sometimes).