The Clergy Shirt & My Pastoral Identity

In two weeks I’m going to visit my internship congregation for the first time.  Truth be told, I’ve been to St John’s by the Gas Station (not its real name, as you might have guessed) before in my previous capacity as a sales representative for a certain Lutheran publishing house, but this will be my first appearance as the soon-to-be intern.  I’m quite excited.

So yesterday I shot off an email to my internship supervisor and asked, "Will I be wearing clergy shirts while on internship?  If so, I should probably wear one when I visit in a few weeks.  I don’t own any clergy shirts any longer, so I’ll have to go out and purchase a few . . ."  My supervisor told me that I should be prepared to wear clergy shirts on Sundays, but that the midweek attire is generally business or business casual.  That works for me.

But then it struck me – my question itself is probably odd.  Most seminarians coming out of their second year of seminary already own several clergy shirts and the question is not "will I be wearing clergy shirts," but "how frequently will I be wearing clergy shirts."  The clergy shirt is a given for most seminarians.

For me the clergy shirt is not a given (pic stolen from the Augsburg Fortress website).  Years ago I loved the clergy shirt – perhaps too much.  I confess that enjoyed wearing it.  It was an important part of my pastoral ensemble.  Without the shirt I was a 23 year-old in seminary.  With the shirt I was a pastor-to-be.  It made a difference in me and in how others approached me.  I even (foolishly) wanted to wear my clerics to my 5th-year high school reunion.  Thank God my then-girlfriend talked me out of that misplaced demonstration of piety and pride. 

Though I appreciate the meaning and symbolism of the clergy shirt, particularly in a Lutheran community, I am somewhat ambivalent about it.  I can see the clergy shirt as barrier to pastoral conversation or, alternatively, an opening to pastoral conversation, depending on the situation.  It’s a mixed blessing.  (I wrote some thoughts about this back in September in a post called The Cross and Hospital Chaplaincy – thoughts which need to be revisited and revised after 8 months in the hospital.  Nonetheless, I still agree with the fundamental thesis of that post.)

But the passage of time – and particularly time away from the seminary/Candidacy world – has helped me form my pastoral and professional identity apart from the focused, structured, four-year experience of the Lutheran Seminary and Candidacy.  That is, though my preparation for ordination is bookended by a full-time, intense period of study at a Lutheran seminary (on one end) and full-time immersion in a Lutheran congregation (on the other end), in the middle of this formation I spent 8 years in other corners of the church and world.  In those 8 years I have dabbled in two master’s programs (business and education), worked five full-time jobs – including two positions with church agencies – ended an engagement, got engaged, married and become a dad (twice!), and done lots of growing up.  And I did – am still doing – a 9 month CPE Residency.

Though I have kept Lutheran questions and a pastoral perspective close to my heart over these years, I have also looked at life, church and the world from other angles.  Over these 8 years I have attended church more often as a worshipper than as a leader, approached church questions as a lay person more than as a clergy person, and spent significant time with people not wed to the Lutheran mainstream, to Lutheranism, or to the church at all.  These external influences – few of which I would have had in the traditional four-year scheme of formation at a Lutheran seminary – have been and will continue to be influential in how I look at church, the pastoral role, and my ministry.

Well . . . there’s much more to say on this topic – and some of it relates to a conversation here a year ago about about what it means to be Lutheran, and some of it relates to issues of pastoral identity and practice – and I’ll come back to it all very soon.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

4 thoughts on “The Clergy Shirt & My Pastoral Identity

  1. You have to balance what you want to project with what “some” people in the congregation will expect. Or what someone tells you they will expect.
    At Bible study today, for some reason the topic of the style of clothing that teachers wear came up. One woman mentioned a male teacher she had worked with who had dressed in what some might describe as farmer attire. One day, he had to dress in a suit because of some other reason. He quickly found that the students reacted differently to him.
    When we interviewed for our previous pastor, the candidates were all “rookies.” I didn’t expect to be swayed by clothing, but I found that the clergy shirt helped me picture these people as my possible pastor during the interviews.
    So the questions might be, In which situations will the shirt be a boundary between me and somebody else and is that good or bad? When will the shirt help me be “invited” in to a circle of people?
    The other pastors in our town don’t use clergy shirts. I wonder how they deal with needing certain expectations at certain times? Or are they perceived as more human without the shirt?

  2. Interesting. This is a tough one to negotiate. Collars really are adiaphora. When I first got ordained, I wore them every day, just about everywhere. The further I get from that date, the less I wear them for day to day. A lot of days, like today, I have the shirt on with the tab out, more for comfort than anything else. If the need arises, I can always put it back in.
    In some situations, I feel like it is helpful, especially at hospitals. It opens doors pretty quickly that may not otherwise be open. And many people – I believe – feel comforted by the collar since it is a sign of the office.
    For me, wearing the collar has also been about formation. I served as a lay leader for the first few years out of seminary, so wearing the collar helped me and the congregation adapt to the change of my role here. Also, when doing public pastoral stuff – you know, the “official” appearances” – I’ll wear it for that. I couldn’t imagine not wearing it to worship, or an interview, or to our preschool graduation, or other places like that.
    Still, there are some people for whom the collar is a stumbling block. I am sure you have encountered this in CPE. I see it to a much lesser extent in the parish, but in some situations it is there. I try to be sensitive to this when possible. I guess flexibility is what it is all about.

  3. As an out and proud layperson (hence the title of my blog), I think that your lay experiences have given you a good sense of reality about the pastoral office you are about to prepare. You are right, as a 23 year-old seminarian, the cleric gives you an authority you wouldn’t have otherwise. However, now as a somewhat older and more life-experienced person, you might be better prepared to earn and garner authority by your presence and wisdom. You don’t need a cleric as much as you once did.
    Of course, there are still expectations that you will wear a cleric. You can’t always control what your congregation or context expect of you. I’ve understood that the east coast is much more cleric-wearing than the mid-west or the west. However, you won’t have to rely on the cleric as much as you once would have to.
    Blessings as you move forward.

  4. Its funny that you just posted this because a few weeks ago my candidacy committee changed my status from becoming an Associate in Ministry to becoming ordained. I’ve been in the process for awhile, taking seminary classes and assisting with the liturgy, preaching occasionally, and doing pastoral care. I’ve discussed it with the pastor and I am going to start wearing a clerical collar, at least occasionally, to note my change in status. I’ve run into a few occasions at hospitals & nursing homes where the collar could really help. So, this Sunday, I’m going to show up in a collar, and I’m anxious to see what the reactions will be.

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