Clerical Collar Etiquette

IPod clerics
I do not remember receiving a seminar or guidelines in “clerical collar etiquette” when I was in seminary.  From what I understand, it used to be taught.  But not any more.

I think, in part, this is because I was taught mostly by Baby Boomers who are largely ambivalent about authority and power, having rejected authority as youth but who now find themselves holding positions of authority within the church.  Perceived as a symbol of power and authority, many shy away from wearing it or diminish its function as a sign of the office of ordained ministry.  Somehow not wearing the collar makes them “regular people” – as if a guy in a polo shirt is guaranteed to be down-do-earth, and the guy in the collar is sure to be a stiff!

I like the collar for use by clergy in the context of parish ministry – not so much in hospital chaplaincy – and I have been wearing it nearly every day on internship.  I don’t think I hide behind it, use it to define myself, or wear it to distinguish myself over and against others.  But I do I wear it as a kind of discipline, a reminder of my office, a uniform.  I have rarely received special treatment because of it – only once has someone asked if I was a Roman Catholic priest, and only once in the past year have I received a free cup of coffee on account of it.  Rather than a benefit, I often get odd looks and stares.  I’m sure for women it can be even more befuddling.

But I admit to knowing very little about its history or tradition of usage.  So, I’m wondering – particularly for you pastors who are generally fond of the collar – under what circumstances do you wear the collar?  When do you choose not to?  To which church functions would you arrive dressed in clerics, and to which would you arrive in “civilian clothes”?  And where the heck did these things come from, after all?


Published by Chris Duckworth

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

12 thoughts on “Clerical Collar Etiquette

  1. I did a paper on this my first year of seminary. The collar is a remnant of 19th century gentleman’s dress. Everybody else moved on – clergy hung on.
    I treat the collar as a uniform and where it when I am publicly representing the church: worship, visits, other public appearances.
    I once was on an elevator in a county facility when someone noted that he had never seen “a lady priest in a plaid skirt.” In his reality, I don’t think the collar went with plaid.

  2. When I was first ordained, I wore it all the time. This was due in part to context: my senior pastor also wore it all the time, so I did it in part to fit with church culture and so that people had an external sign that the senior and I shared the same pastoral office.
    In my mission church context (second call), I wear it far less. In fact, I would say most weeks it is only on Sundays. I like Jennifer’s answer: I wear it when I am making “public” appearances, or other times when people might expect or desire a collared one. If I am at the storefront in the middle of the week, I usually just wear jeans, a shirt, and often boots. I do, however, keep one hanging in the closet at church should I need it.

  3. Forgot to say I once received a free meal at a Thai place on opening day. The guy was hoping for good karma and fed me and another collared one (both interns). We were broke…so we let him feed us.

  4. I am a clergy member of another similar denomination. I am not aware of any written rules of collar etiquette or of it being formally taught. With that being said, my first albeit short conversation with a clergy member of the Lutheran persuation was at my sister-in-laws wedding at the un-airconditioned Danforth Chapel on Kansas University’s campus. The temperature was over 100 degrees fahrenheit, yet I was impressed that the pastor appeared in a black clerical shirt, shorts and sandals. When I quizzed him about his comfortable and pragmatic appearance he said that, “nobody would notice this under my alb.” Of course he was correct. I never forgot his example. I serve in an un-airconditioned yet vibrant inner city parish built in the mid nineteenth century, and I can I can unequivacably attest that during dog days of Summer on Sunday mornings a pair of shorts is accepted by parishioners but an business collar is not. Clerical attire is a part of discipline, custom, and a setting apart for service regardless of class or venue. I have been specifically told by senior members of the congregation that they expect their clergy to be readily identifiable by anyone walking through the door. This custom of distinctive clerical attire has been evident for many centuries. Besides, my own experience in the West End has led me to look at a dog collaar or a tab as a cheap insurance policy. The corporate work of the church is general knowledge to everyone there and occasionally being panhandled is a small price to pay. Serving the poor and indigent is primary to our calling.

  5. I don’t have a lot of experience wearing the collar yet, but the experience I have had I blogged about here:
    Bottom line for me is that the collar helps people indentify “why you’re there.” If I dress “up” people assume I’m a doctor, if I dress “down” they think I’m the janitor.
    The only thing I dislike is that in the hospital context people look at the black and assume “angel of death” and assume I’m bringing bad news (and aren’t we called to bring good news?).
    I guess the argument against the collar I don’t find that compelling is that “Lutherans don’t HAVE to wear the collar because of the priesthoood of all believers.” because don’t have to becomes can’t really quickly.

  6. Brother Bishop:
    Happy New Year to you and Saint Katherine.
    I read your e-mail and the attachments thereunto; especially the section from Bishop Nolan B. Harmon’s book. Very honestly, much of Harmon’s “Ministerial Etiquette and Ethics” text is written to an age gone by. However, I like the look that he prescribes for the Cloth (non-liturgical). As you well know I am of the more stringent liturgical bent. We hold to the “uniform” view for our clergy and deacons. There is some leave for our clergy and deacons to leave the uniform and revert to civilian attire but I believe that our work and ministry must always dictate that we be “the visible symbols of The Holy.
    The clerical collar and appropriate dark suit is, not only, a symbol of our high calling, but it is also the public testimonial of our own sense of self-sacrifice. This is one of the reasons I teach and insist on our clerics not wearing non-symbolic jewelry when in uniform. Of course, the wedding rings and watch is needful; but bracelets, extra rings and adornments are always in very poor taste. We are never respected in our uniforms if we wear the habit of the world while adorned in that which the average citizen knows to be distinctive “holy clothes.”
    The Clerical Haberdashery Industry has also done us a disservice in that they’ve created all of the queer colors for shirts and advertised multi-colors in suits and trousers or skirts for our Sister-Clergy. Our clothes are now confused and we (The Family of God) don’t know how to salute each other and certainly the world doesn’t have a clue. We are not called to be one-of-the-fellows. We’re His peculiar mouth-pieces in the earth and our garments should announce us long before we utter one word.
    As you know, I am a military chaplain. The United States determines what I shall wear with those uniforms. The Regulations tell my sisters in uniform how large their earrings must be. Their fingernails are regulated and the hair on men or women has regulations which speak to the Military’s need to maintain good order and discipline. I really believe that our ministers should be distinct and live lives that reflect the “holiness” that God requires.
    Those churches that call for Collars are within their right to require a certain dress for heir clergy. If that clergyperson does not want to wear them, he/she should look for another station or Communion in which to serve. The Collar is not a passkey to Glory and those who don’t wear them are just as bound for Heaven as I am.
    At this age, and after fifty-three (53) years in the pulpit, I’m not likely to change collars or clothes between now and when the Lord calls me home
    Teach your class with wisdom and don’t use our understanding or liberty to cause bondage to anyone.
    Your Apostolic Father,
    The Joint College of Pentecostal Bishops

  7. Interesting study, and as an undergraduate deaconess I did a study about the effects of “habits” and found, as on of our Lutheran Chaplains at Ground Zero, that sometimes we then let go “me” but “His/Hers” – rather a humbling act rather than an expression of pride . As a pastor I wear my clergy shirt alot – and startle people to ask how I could be a lady priest, and complete strangers will stop and ask a spiritual question. In my new ministry on the street I will wear it all the time.

  8. a UPS delivery man came into the entry way at church; he was in a hurry to deliver his parcel so i immediately buzzed him into the office. On his way out he asked me why we wear the collars. I told him it’s like his uniform. Because I recognized his uniform i knew where he came from, what he was here for, and i didn’t have to slow him down by asking him to show me some ID. If what he has to deliver is important, how much more important the gifts the clergy are called to deliver. Even though its not necessary, uniform recognition has its practical benefits.

  9. In the Baptist and Pentecostal tradition of ministry, we are taught that wearing this type of uniform represents the collar that slaves wore in the Old and New Testament, therefore this say to the world that we are a slaves for Christ.

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