The first time I wore my clerical collar, I felt squeezed.
I was just a month into my ordination as Minister of Word and Sacrament. I hadn’t even been installed to my call at the church I serve.
I had purchased a collar several weeks prior sort of by accident. While unpacking boxes – many of which had been stored for a few months while I lived in limbo between seminary and my first call – I had come across an old Cokesbury gift card. (I have no idea how my seminary self allowed that to sit unused!) So instead of simply ordering a book from my wish list, I found myself ordering a collar.
Up until this point, that collar hung in my closet, looking like a piece of clothing I had perhaps borrowed from someone else. I wasn’t even entirely sure why I purchased it or when I would wear it. I figured I might put it on for hospital visits, but given that we Presbyterians don’t tend to have a well-developed sense of clerical garb beyond Sunday morning, I hadn’t thought much beyond that.
Sure enough, on this day, I was headed to a hospital. A member of my congregation had undergone serious surgery a day or two prior and I asked to visit. I would leave from my office (back before COVID-19 and we still went into offices), so I grabbed my collar on its hanger and brought it along with me to work. As the day went on, I doubted myself on why I felt compelled to wear it. Was it because this hospital was in another city, and I didn’t want to be questioned when I inevitably asked for directions to the room? Was it because this was my first opportunity in this new context to prove myself at pastoral care? (Yikes. I hoped it wasn’t that.)
The drive to the hospital was long. A few miles out, I stopped at a rest station for (what felt like) my costume change. And that’s when I first felt the constricting presence of the collar around my throat. At first, I wondered why anyone would wear a shirt that felt like this. And then almost simultaneously, I realized there was something almost reassuring about the fact this article of clothing, this shirt that identified me as a person of faith and a minister at that, would not let me get too comfortable engaging in the sacred duty of sitting with someone in a moment of great pain and anxiety.
The next time I wore my collar was on Ash Wednesday. It felt appropriate for our two short services that day. Following our evening service, a congregant said to me, “Is that your Lenten collar?” I told him no, that I wasn’t interested in wearing it the whole season.
Well, you can guess how that turned out. Two weeks later, worship moved from the building to Facebook Live. Since we’ve transitioned to worshipping online, that collar is what I wear every Sunday morning as I lead liturgy, pray, preach and preside over communion from my kitchen table.
That collar is also what I now wear to protests, as I witness the cries for justice and police accountability from my neighbors of color. It’s a way I try to leverage the power of my vocation to amplify voices long silenced. And yet, it doesn’t set me apart in ways I might have expected in such public settings. I’ve been hit on by men. I’ve been asked what one calls a “female father” (or simply “female …?” as the asker dropped off and gesticulated towards the tab at my throat, completely unsure what noun to supply). The sexism and patriarchy so deeply embedded in Christianity never makes itself so obvious to me as when I am wearing my collar. In fact, a reason I prefer to wear it while leading worship online is so that no one gets distracted by my choice of shirt or accessories. Most male-identifying pastors I know don’t worry about that.
And yet, every time I wear that collar, there’s a chance that someone will see a woman-identifying pastor for the first time. There’s a chance that a girl who’s been told by the church that she must stay silent might begin to realize she can lead. There’s a chance I’ll humanize the profession (apologies in advance) in a way that makes the church accessible for someone long alienated. There’s a chance the Spirit will do her thing in ways I can’t even imagine.
Now when I put that collar on, it feels more familiar. Perhaps like something I’ve grown into. But every time, I’m still a little surprised by the stiffness of the paper at my throat; at the way it feels different than anything else I wear. And I thank God for that. May I never get too comfortable with the holy call of God.
LINDA KURTZ is associate pastor for Christian formation at First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. She is newly married to Daniel, a Methodist pastor. Linda enjoys being outside, reading for fun, and taking photos of anything but people.