Monday, August 26, 2013

Wearing a collar is my super power

I'm a cleric who is conflicted about the collar. Like Spiderman, many of my colleagues, and the Watchmen, I agonize over whether and when to wear it.

I wear the collar sometimes, but not all the time. Of late, I more frequently wear the Anglican (sometimes called the "dog collar") than the Roman (the "tab" collar).

It's almost always on for Sunday worship, often for formal events where I have to "represent," and typically for funerals and weddings.

I am more often not wearing a collar than wearing it. If I'm not in a collar, my preferred dress is casual. Lots of people would probably say I'm a pastor that doesn't look like a pastor.

Every once in a while I find myself wearing it in incongruous places. Earlier this summer, I had to wear it to the swimming pool to watch swim lessons. It is these moments, when the collar travels where it typically does not appear, that I learn quite a bit about my profession.

Costumes matter.

In some ways, the clerical collar is like The Watchmen. Clergy have no special powers, but with the collar on, everyone treats us like we do.

In fact, the best way to disprove the thesis--common in some circles--that clergy have lost their position of prominence and authority in our culture is simple. Invite anyone who thinks this way to wear a collar in public space for a whole day.

Here's how today went, for example. In the morning, I was the guest preacher at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Plano, TX. The entire congregation treated me respectfully. I was wearing a collar, after all. They even smiled at me and told me how great the sermon was... and tapped me an advance cup of coffee before it had completed brewing.

Getting people to be nice to you and compliment you is a super power, absolutely. And whenever the hostess in a kitchen will interrupt the brew process for a cup of joe, you know you have super powers. But it gets better.

I left the collar on when we stopped in Irvine for lunch. When you wear a collar, people go out of their way to be kind to you. Almost too kind.

One diner, seated near us and writing in his notebook, asked, What kind of priest are you?

He had been attending an Anglican parish in Colorado, was recently moved to Irvine, and was looking for a church. I suggested the church my hosts attend just outside Irvine, and also hauled out my iPhone to show him the ELCA search engine for finding ELCA congregations around his zip code.

He was suitably impressed. A super hero with a super iPhone.

After lunch, my host dropped me off at the airport. After getting directions to the check-in area--it is true that some other public professionals approach clergy as if they are slightly addled and clueless human beings--the security checkpoint lady says, "Are you... a Father?" I told her I was a pastor. As she handed back my driver's license, she said, "Pastor Clint, have a great trip."

I removed all my metallic objects and placed my various tech devices in a plastic bin, then headed for the scanning system. After she scanned me in that fancy 3-dimensional scanner where they can see you as if you aren't wearing any clothes, she said, "See, now I'm following you."

My response: "That was the most effective discipleship conversation ever!"

We both laughed. A lot. We were best buds. Superheroes are funny!

Finally, when you are a superhero in costume, everyone wants to know what you are reading. On this flight, I happened to be reading On Liturgical Asceticism. This is not a kind of clerical posturing. I would be as likely to be reading this while wearing a t-shirt of Darth Vader that says, "Who's your daddy?" Really, just ask anyone.

The difference, here, is that if you wear a t-shirt with Darth Vader on it, no one will venture to talk to you about your book with the title, On Liturgical Asceticism. Really, I know. From long experience. Because most of the time I don't fly with my super power visible, and I often read theology. Apparently lay people reading theology are invisible.

This time, however, I was wearing my super power, so my last conversation, before deplaning, was about "literal ascensionism." See, a lot of people don't use the words liturgical or ascetical in polite conversation. They're impolite, not appropriate for mixed company.

What ensued was a conversation where I tried to explain (rather unsuccessfully, I might add) what liturgical asceticism is, and he responded with, "I thought only Jesus ascended. How can we all literally ascend?"

We parted ways with me telling the story of stylites who spent their whole lives living on the top of poles. It was awesome. He kept nodding and glancing away and then started running.

Clergy have not lost power or influence in our society, as far as I can tell. Whenever you wear your super power, it's almost guaranteed, people all around you will call you Father (sometimes even if you're a woman!), ask questions out of curiosity, become unequivocally kind, and stop swearing.

If you can stop a room full of people from swearing while watching an SEC football game, you know you have super powers.

In many instances, they will then turn to you, and say, "Father, I've always wanted to talk to a priest about..." 

And that's when the real super power of a cleric is fully exercised. Because that's when we listen. Our real super power, when inspired by the Spirit to do so.

That collar is a public sign that we will faithfully attend to whatever matters to you. And miracle of miracles, in spite of all debate to the contrary, a lot of people still know this.


  1. Super power indeed. I have a whole "thing" about the value of "public witness," but have mostly written about collar power relative to my life as a clergy wife: and

  2. My son shared with me a Ted talk from a business professor who talks about the impact of squared shoulders, even before the meeting with the other super powers, and how that stance actually improves interaction and perception of credibility and strength of the one who has squared up. The process of squaring up and filling space increases the amount of the testosterone hormone and decreases the amount of hormone that's associated with meekness (forgetting the word just now).

    I wonder if people stand taller and project more testosterone while wearing a clerical collar. :)

  3. Cortisol vs. Testosterone. :)

  4. Fascinating question. I was aware, for example, that I was listening to my earbud headphones while wearing my collar, and wondered how people would perceive that when they saw it.

    1. Listening to Christian Radio? er ... something more modern?

  5. I will wear my clergy shirt during Advent and Lent as a way of running an experiment about how it impacts me and the people around me. It is fascinating.