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Why Should Clergy Wear Clericals?
By: Ken Collins

Clothing conveys a message. A business suit says, "Money!" A police uniform says, "Law!" A tuxedo says, "Wedding!" Casual clothing says, "Me!" Clericals say, "Church!" Any of those messages might be valid in different contexts, so you have to make sure you are wearing the right clothes for the occasion.

The word clericals refers to the special clothing that clergy wear outside of worship services, usually consisting of a white collar on a black shirt (for male clergy) or on a black blouse (for female clergy), combined with other clothing that is either black or grey.

If you are a pastor and you think you are aggrandizing yourself when you wear clericals, you'll be disappointed. The congregation quickly gets used to the clericals, and they see them as badges of service, not honor. Clericals put you in the same functional category as bellhops, waiters, police officers, airline pilots, and so on. We do not dress to please ourselves, or anyone else for that matter; our manner of dress facilitates our service. It makes our function obvious to strangers. It makes our duties inescapable, and it constrains our personal conduct, because we can't disappear into the crowd when we are wearing clericals. Clericals mean that visitors don't have to ask, "Where is the pastor?" They know just by looking.

Clericals also have other advantages. They communicate to the congregation that you are not a proxy child, a potential date, a worldly expert, or a bosom buddy. It allows you to focus on the job of pastoring, without slipping and sliding into any role conflicts or boundary issues.

Objection: Jesus Didn't Wear Clericals
Now, of course, there is the objection that Jesus allegedly wore the clothing of the working man, not special clothes of the clergy. The assertion doesn't stand up to close scrutiny in Scripture. In many places, people walked up to Jesus out of the blue, addressed Him as "teacher," which the New Testament informs us is the translation of the word "rabbi."

Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?"
—John 1:38, NIV

Without knowing who He was (that is, Jesus), they knew what He was (that is, a rabbi), because they asked him to do rabbinical things: to heal the sick, cast out demons, settle disputes, probate wills, and decide religious issues.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
—Mark 10:17, NIV

If they thought He was a rabbi, these were reasonable expectations, because those were the duties of rabbis. However, in John 7, Jesus attends a festival at the Temple and even though everyone is talking about Him, they are unaware that He is among them in the crowd. Since there was no photography in those days, we can understand that strangers would not recognize Him by His face.

However, after his brothers had left for the Feast, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, "He is a good man." Others replied, "No, he deceives the people." But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the Jews. Not until halfway through the Feast did Jesus go up to the Temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews were amazed and asked, "How did this man get such learning without having studied?"
—John 7:10-15, NIV

So, we have to ask: how could they know He was a rabbi in one circumstance, but not in another? Why were people surprised by His expertise at the Feast in John 7:10-15, when they took it for granted in situations such as Mark 10:17? The only explanation is that they knew by the way He was dressed. When they addressed Him as a rabbi, He must have been dressed like a rabbi; the surprise was not that He was a rabbi, but how He handled their requests. In John 7, they did not recognize Him as a rabbi, so they were surprised that He knew rabbinical things. He must not have been dressed as a rabbi. The only way He could attend the Feast "in secret" was to go without wearing rabbinical clothes.

While Jesus definitely did not wear a black shirt with a white collar, He obviously wore the first-century equivalent. So, clergy who wear clericals are imitating Christ.

Objection: Some People Have an Adverse Reaction to Clericals
There are two problems with letting other people's phobias dictate your wardrobe. The first is that you are not solving their problem by changing your clothes, you are only letting it fester unresolved. The second is that if you are driven by your own fears of what other people will think of you, you're on a slippery slope to second-guessing yourself into total ineffectiveness. If someone has a problem with clerical dress, at least this exposes it so you can help them overcome it. I observe, however, that this problem is more apprehension than substance.

Objection: But a Collar Would Make Me Look Catholic (or whatever)
Don't bet on this one, either.

One Sunday I went to lunch with some of my parishioners. As we got up to leave, we walked past a booth with a well-dressed family. Their son was sitting on a chair at the end of the table. The young man grabbed me by the hand and said, "Pastor!" Then he saw my face and was confused that I wasn't who he thought I was. He said, "You are a pastor, aren't you?" and I said, "Yes" and gave his father my card. The father explained that they were members of a Lutheran megachurch nearby. The young man asked me, "Is your church a Lutheran church?" and I said, "No," and turning to his mother who was looking at me, I said, "However, if you sat in our church blindfolded, I bet you couldn't tell the difference." And the father nodded, saying we are all alike.

The reason this happened is that, for the young man, the collar made me look Lutheran. To an Episcopalian, it would make me look Episcopalian. In some areas, it would make me look Methodist. Orthodox clergy have taken to wearing black shirts with white collars.

Objection: None of This Applies to My Congregation
You may be surprised on this one, too.

Some time ago, I attended the installation of a pastor. Her church was a startup, so the installation service took place in another church's building. She had worked out all the arrangements with the host pastor over the phone, so she had never seen him before. The startup church was Disciples of Christ, and the host church was an independent community megachurch. Neither congregation had ever experienced clergy wearing clericals before; I was the only one there in a collar, so this was definitely the acid test.

I severely overestimated my travel time, so I arrived at the church much too early. As I was standing in the narthex in my clergy shirt, the guest of honor walked in the door. She walked right up to me and began thanking me profusely for everything I had done. She had mistaken me for the pastor of the host church—whom she had never seen before—even though she had no reason to expect the pastor of an independent community church to wear a collar.

About a half hour later, someone else mistook me for the host pastor. Later, I was mistaken for the host pastor a third time! All this happened in an environment where it was not customary for clergy to wear collars. The lesson is that if you dress like a minister, everyone will think you are one.

So, we come full circle. Maybe if you are ordained clergy, and you wear a black shirt with a white collar, someone will come up to you and ask, "Pastor, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" A black shirt with a white collar makes you look like ordained clergy. If that is what you are, why not dress like it?

The Rev. Kenneth W. Collins is the pastor of Garfield Memorial Christian Church in McLean, Virginia. You can visit him on the Web at www.kencollins.com.

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