This month we asked our bloggers to share their thoughts on wearing vestments in worship. Here’s what they think.
“Send us a picture of you in your robe and clergy collar.”
I grew up in Joliet, Illinois, a predominantly Catholic, post-steel, suburban, racial amalgamation of a city outside of Chicago. I had never seen a Protestant clergyperson wearing a collar, and it wasn’t until I visited Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago during seminary that I saw a Presbyterian wear anything beyond business formal. John M. Buchanan’s Scottish tabs were befitting for a man of his caliber, I thought, but would probably just make me look like I was wearing a child’s bib. “Oh, how cute!” my congregants would muse, “the 25-year-old babyface is being careful not to spill any of his preaching words on his new thrift-store suit. How precious.”
So when I received the request for a pic in my collar from the APNC at the church I started to serve in mid-August, I was a bit taken aback. I remember how grateful I was, upon graduation from seminary, that my home church and my mother had conspired to buy me my robe and stoles, saving me the intimidating work of researching a product category I had never previously considered. Now I was being asked to wear a collar: not only would I have to figure out where to shop (suggestions welcome in the comments below!), but I needed to work through this theologically and aesthetically. Was I being asked to grow up? To become Buchanan? To subtly raise my fist to the priesthood of all believers and set myself apart from the flock, Levite-style?
I began my first call in rural northwest Ohio wearing a robe and stoles every Sunday; at age 25, I felt like it was necessary to build credibility as a “pastoral leader” (I eventually found my zone with the suit-and-stole). Fortunately, I learned this fun fact: Wearing a long black gown does not necessarily lead to perceived credibility. Trust-building moments most often came in parishioners’ homes, where I did my best to match their attire. Over time I came to believe that good pastors are people who blend into the culture aesthetically and (mostly) theologically; most often, they come from that culture themselves. (A fascinating Leadership Network report about multisite churches suggests that 87 percent of new campuses are led by pastors brought up from within the existing church, suggesting that cultural affinity correlates strongly to perceived trust in the congregation.)
Will I begin to become a culture chameleon at my new call in Washington, D.C. by wearing a tabbed collar? On one hand, the D.C. metropolitan area probably won’t blink an eye. Professional garb is part and parcel of the experience there, whereas any person wearing a collared shirt in my former context is clearly “not from here.” The head-of-staff at my new call wears her collar for a variety of reasons. But doesn’t this encourage the problem of “professionalization in religious services” if I’m wearing something I would never see the typical D.C. worker wear? On the other hand, doesn’t a collar “set us apart” for conversations about prayer and discernment in a world where no one will talk to each other about their faith?
Maybe there’s a middle way: Visiting City Church in San Francisco, I was struck by the pastoral staff’s comfortable blue jeans, business-casual sport jacket and clergy collar shirt. “In the world, but not of it” came to mind – as did how comfortable it would be to wear jeans every day to work.
Regardless of the dress code at my new call, I will most probably fail in some ways: too casual, too formal, etc., and I respect that clothing comes as part of the cultural adaptation. But I do know this: When I wore the collar for my candidacy sermon, I kind of liked it. There was a clarity to it; a designation of the calling, a sign of what’s happening, a visual reminder on my neck of what I’m to focus on with my body and soul. If it only serves as a reminder for me, that has to be OK. The white plastic will have already pushed me to think beyond myself, and that is a great feat indeed.
ERIC PELTZ is a husband, father of 3 under 4.5, lover of organizational behavior, curious about governance, branding, Frisbee and an intergenerational gospel. He serves Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. as associate pastor, and tweets at @ericpeltz when he’s procrastinating the dishes and not listening to podcasts.