I wrote this for my congregation a few years ago. Perhaps it will help others.
I have begun to wear the recognized uniform of my calling—the white tab-collared shirt—with more frequency these days. Some of you may have never seen me wear the pastor’s collar. You are more likely to now that I have become convinced that I need to wear a ministerial uniform around town during the week. Many of the same arguments I used seven years ago to defend the use of the pastoral robe in worship apply here as well. I will not, however, normally be wearing my collar for the Sunday services. The robe is sufficient for the worship service. You all know that I am a pastor. The collar is for my weekday ministry. It will serve to identify me as a minister in the community.
For me there is one overriding reason for wearing a collar: it can open doors for evangelism and ministry in the community that I would otherwise miss. I am convinced this is true. Whenever I have worn my collar in the past, I have always been surprised at the results. I want the congregation to be comfortable with this practice. That is why I’m writing this little essay.† Once you think over the reasons and hear about the results, I think you will understand and accept the uniform as a helpful way for us to have more visibility in our community.
“Hold your horses,” someone may say. “If you need a collar to do ministry then you’ve got a problem. You should be identified as a Christian minister simply by your life and words.” I’ve actually had someone (not a member of this congregation) say this to me. I do think that there’s more than a little truth in such a statement. Surely a collar alone does not make one a minister. But I don’t think it’s really that simple.
The real question is not whether I need one, but will wearing a uniform help me better perform my ministry in the community. I certainly don’t need a collar to do ministry. I will never claim that it is necessary. Rather, I think it is beneficial. The same holds true for other professions. A waiter or EMT specialist doesn’t need a uniform, but it sure helps. And if it is helpful for waiters, policeman, doctors, even UPS drivers to be readily identifiable by their uniform, shouldn’t the same hold true for pastors?
Furthermore, I don’t deny that a collar alone is worthless. There must be godly living and speaking if there is to be any real ministerial service to others. To be sure, some ministers may wear a collar out of haughtiness and self-promotion. Some may even misinterpret my decision to wear the pastoral collar as arrogance—a kind of spiritual one-up-manship. I’m a minister and you’re not. Look at me! But I know my own motivations. I fully expect that a few will call me pompous and elitist.
But that is not the effect that wearing the uniform of a pastor has on me. It affects me in just the opposite way. The actor Laurence Olivier once said that he could not become a character until he had decided upon the right nose. Clothes do the same thing for us. A moment’s reflection will show that the kind of clothes you wear affects the way you behave. There’s a powerful short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” in which six down-and-out men experience a miraculous transformation in their attitude and behavior when they wear a brand-new white suit around town for an evening.
When I wear a collar I am continually reminded of my accountability as a minister of the Gospel. In a word, I speak and behave differently. I have a constant reminder that I am a slave of Jesus Christ.
With all due respect to those ministers who don’t wear a collar, I find dressing like a West County banker or lawyer to be a much greater temptation. Why should I pretend I’m someone I’m not? Why should I wear clothes that affect me in ways that do not contribute to my ministry? I think the offense of the collar is often determined in large part by the man wearing it. If he's a smart aleck with a haughty attitude, he'll probably come off as a high-church upstart. This is a real temptation. Nevertheless, I think wearing the collar will actually serve to curb this temptation for me. It will constantly remind me of my calling, of how I should speak and act before the world as a representative of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Moreover, if I wear a uniform, I can no longer travel around town incognito. What I say and do will be evaluated differently by everyone who sees and hears me. Wearing the collar will be an act of self-denial, a helpful means of rectifying my own sinful tendency to hide my calling. That white tab over my voice box will remind me of the need for sanctified, life-giving speech. While I’m out in the community, I must take Paul’s charge to Pastor Timothy with the utmost seriousness: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:6).
Think about the office of the pastor and what kind of work he should be doing. The pastor is not a businessman. He is not the CEO of the ecclesiastical corporation with its headquarters at the intersection of Sappington and Eddie & Park. I always feel a little uncomfortable in a starched shirt, suit and tie. It tends to contribute toward a very real problem in our PCA churches. We tend to attract upper-middle class people. People in these economic strata are comfortable around a pastor whose uniform is a suit and tie. Poorer people, however, often find it hard to relate to a pastor who dresses like and acts like a banker or businessman. I often sense that what I wear erects unfortunate barriers in certain situations. Talking to a poorer man or woman wearing a Polo shirt doesn’t make sense.
I think it’s important for us to reflect on how our pastors are dressed. Just because a congregation doesn’t have their pastor wear a robe on Sunday or a collar on the weekdays doesn’t mean that they escape the idea of a uniform. In the modern Evangelical subculture pastors are expected to dress conservatively. This usually means a blue or dark suit, a white starched shirt, a conservative necktie, etc. As I have already pointed out, the problem is that this attire is the typical weekday uniform of a lawyer or middle to upper management businessman. Unfortunately, it has become de facto the American Evangelical clerical garb. I think this “uniform” often communicates precisely the wrong message in our churches and the communities in which we minister. Our pastors too often seek to conform to the patterns and symbols of authority prevalent in American middle class culture.
It is simply not possible to escape the symbolism of clothing. When a minister wears a collar, however, it helps him and the people he comes in contact with remember that his authority comes from Christ and his Church. In the Bible clothing and calling are often connected; a person’s calling or office—together with whatever authority is connected with the office—is often visually symbolized by the clothing the man wears (Gen. 9:20-27; 37: 3-11, 23; 39:1-13; 41:1-44; all of the references in Exodus and Leviticus to the clothing of the priests; 1 Sam. 2:19; 15:27; 18:4; 24:4, 5, 11, 14; Ezra 9:3-5; Esther 8:15; Isa. 22:21; Jonah 3:6; Matt. 22:11ff.; 27:31; Mark 16:5; Luke 15:22; Rev. 1:13; 4:4; 6:11; 19:13, 16). The purpose of the pastoral collar is to cover the man and accent his God-ordained office or calling.
To be continued.