As many in my church know, I often wear a clergy collar for hospital visits. When I visit parishioners or when I’m asked to give an opening prayer at a fireman’s dinner, the collar goes on.
For those who are versed in denominationalism or protestant traditions, you know that vast majority of Baptist ministers do not wear clergy collars. Those funny looking white tabs or rounded white collars that ministers wear are most identified with Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions.
If collars are not required for Baptist ministers or not a part of the Baptist tradition, what is a Baptist doing wearing one?
As a young seminarian, I did a stretch in a clinical chaplain program in a hospital in the suburbs of Philadelphia. As a student chaplain, I was charged with doing rounds to patient rooms. As I visited, we evaluated the patient’s needs, offered prayer, and gave emotional support.
Often, staff and patients could not figure out who I was or what I was doing in the hospital. I was seminarian (What’s a seminarian?) but not an ordained pastor. Nurses would call the administration asking what a “religious student” was doing in the hospital. On top of that, I was young (well, to many, I still am young). I would hear, “You are too young to be a minister.” I quickly realized that establishing my identity was a challenge because of my age and nature of my profession.
When I started in my first full-time pastoral position in an United Methodist Church, I dabbled with wearing a clergy collar for hospital visits. I immediately noticed that I did not have to explain myself, my role, who I was, or what I was doing. The vast majority of people understood I was a minister visiting a sick patient. I also discovered that many surprising courtesies were given: helpful pointers, extended visitation time, access to sensitive areas of the hospital and quality time with hospital staff.
Many evangelical Christians scoff at the idea of a minister wearing a clergy collar, especially a Baptist. A collar is too Catholic, right? It’s not. Actually, it was a protestant minister who created the collar. The Rev. Donald Mcleod, a Scottish minister invented the detachable clerical collar in 1894, though other forms existed before 1894. I prefer to use a rounded collar with a white or blue shirt to avoid any confusion with being a Catholic priest. My collar looks like the one that Clint Eastwood is wearing there (picture). Priests usually wear black shirts with white tab collars.
Wearing a collar is not something I take lightly. It is not something I wear for show or for respect. Just as a police officer wears a uniform, or a doctor wears a lab coat, ministers wear collars as a way to identify their purpose. Some think a clergy collar is a deterrent, but it is actually a conversation starter. Many at funerals, hospitals, or on the street have asked me questions about faith or wanted prayer.
In a culture where symbols and images are highly valued, a clergy collar is a way to communicate that a pastor is present and open to ministering to the needs of others. It creates access rather than separation. Wearing a collar allows others to know that a clergy person is there not for themselves, As Christ reminded his disciples, the Son of Man “did not come to be served, but to serve.” As a pastor, I wear collar to remind myself and others, that I am to wear a Christ likeness: ready to serve.