Why tattoos are like clerical collars  – On being a Pastor with Tattoos

Tattoos are everywhere these days. According to pew research in 2010, nearly 4 in 10 millennials had tattoos. And half of those have 2 to 5. Generation X isn’t far behind with 32% having been inked.

So it hardly makes me unusual to be a millennial with tattoos.

I am also a Lutheran pastor, but I am by no means the only pastor with tattoos out there. In fact, if I had to guess about the pastors that I hang with, we might be more tattooed than average. And there is of course that famous tattooed Lutheran pastor, who has also written a few best selling books and even been interviewed on national radio here in Canada.

Tattoo #1 

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ICTHUS- Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour

I went under the needle for the first time in the summer of 2006. Part of me is hopeful that I was ahead of the mainstream 10 years ago but I am sure I wasn’t. I was working at a bible camp at the time, and I remember having long talks about the implication of being tattooed. It would need to be a christian image, but not a cross. Every rapper had a cross tattoo by then (and rappers are a bad thing to the kind of young adults who work at bible camps). It would need to be in a place I could cover with clothes on a regular basis so that I could be a proper pastor (I was already a seminary student by then). But I also wanted the opportunity to show it off now and then. An original artwork Jesus fish on the back of my calf seemed like the best option.

That first tattoo made me feel cool. The comments of my co-workers, the kids at the camp, and my seminary classmates that I returned to that September made me feel ‘edgy’. Don’t laugh, it was 2006.

In 2009, I was ready to be ordained, and I hadn’t really thought about my Jesus fish much for a while. Then a church called me to be their pastor. My family told me to make sure I wore pants whenever I was working (as opposed to?), which I laughed at. But I was worried about what my new congregation would think if they ever saw my “edgy” tattoo.

And then the very first council meeting I was to attend, was also the day the uHaul was available for me to move into the parsonage. I drove up to the house only a few minutes before the meeting and sure enough I was wearing shorts on a hot summer day with my clothes still in boxes. What would these pious church folk think?

No one seemed to notice enough to say anything. So nothing?

That church had called me despite the fact that I looked like Hagrid from Harry Potter, or a giant dwarf from Lord of the Rings. My proportions are of someone with short legs and a squat body, except I am 6’2. And I had long hair and a beard at the time. A little calf tattoo was the least to get past when it came to my appearance.

After that I didn’t ever worry about my “edgy” tattoo.

But then unusual things started happening. I played slo-pitch in a Lutheran league, to which I usually wore shorts. Often players from other teams would comment on my Jesus fish. A number of times when other players found out that I was a pastor, they would think it was cool. They had never met a pastor with a tattoo (one they had seen).

For years after, I always wanted another tattoo, but I got my first on a lark at the one tattoo shop open on a Saturday in the small town near the bible camp. Going about getting tattooed in a serious way seemed like a lot of work.

Then life put another tattoo on the back burner. New calls to new churches, marriage and a baby.

Tattoo #2

For our 3rd wedding anniversary, my wife and I started talking about tattoos – yes, a bit of a stretch for the “leather” anniversary. And we wanted them to be seen. Somewhere that would regularly visible.

IMG_3971
Great Colours

Forearms.
Courtenay got a peacock feather (we had a peacock feather themed wedding), and I got a lion of St. Mark with a greek bible verse (I am a pietist at heart and a church nerd).

So for the last 7 months I have had a tattoo that is visible the majority of time (I a

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The Kingdom of God is Near

m almost always in short sleeves or rolled up sleeves). And as Justin Trudeau says, “Because it is 2015” I really didn’t think much of getting a tattoo, even as a pastor. My congregation largely didn’t notice either – bless them. A few said they thought I always had it, after I used it as an object lesson in a children’s sermon. Others have asked about and admired my lion.

Yet, outside of my usual group of church people, unusual things have started happening again.

Most of the baptisms I do are for families who are seldom active in the church, but have returned for whatever reason to get their child baptized. For this reason, I have opportunity to invite myself into the homes of unchurched or de-churched people in order to talk about Jesus. I have been doing this for 7 years and I always thought it was going well. But something changed once I had this big lion tattoo on my arm. People started relaxing more quickly, I didn’t have to make 10 jokes just to put people at ease. These poor young families with a pastor intruding in their home to talk about Jesus started to sense that I am a real person. All it took was a tattoo to break the image of christian judgement robot that pastors often have on TV.

My second tattoo is a wedding anniversary gift and it makes me think of my wife every time look at it (the greek bible verse says “the Kingdom of God is near”, and my wife and kids make me feel as close to paradise as I have ever felt).

But I never expected that my tattoo would also be a tool for ministry. I never thought it would humanize my clerical collar… that it would make the person in the shirt a person and not a caricature.

I never thought that when I rolled up my sleeves halfway through a conversation about baptism with a young unchurched mother who was getting her baby baptized for her mother-in-law that she would say,

“You have a tattoo! Is that okay for pastors to have?”

And then we would get to have a great conversation that makes Jesus, christians and the church seem reasonable.

Tattoo #3

IMG_4544
Pete

A few weeks ago, I got my 3rd tattoo on my other forearm. A birthday present from my wife. An elephant for my son, whose constant companion day and night is a little stuffed elephant named Pete.

The day after I got it, I presided at a funeral. Funerals can be awkward for pastors as there are usually a lot of people and you become a momentary figure of importance on a small scale. Since they watch you lead worship, people feel like they know you, but you don’t know them. Some are friendly, but many people avert their eyes when you come strolling into the lunch. Either way, when you are the one in the collar, people react to you with different levels of comfort. Some see you as a friendly and safe person, others are wary or unsure.

As I was mingling before lunch, a women passed me, averting her eyes … which landed on my tattoo. This stopped her and she began asking about it. We then shared a brief conversation about where I got it, which opened the door to more conversation about the funeral itself. My guess is that this woman have likely avoided me, but the tattoos were an opening. Still, for those whom the collar is safe and friendly, that hasn’t changed. I am still a safe person to approach.

A few weeks later, I met a de-churched young couple coming for pre-baptismal preparation before worship. I was wearing my vestments, which cover my arms. They seemed nervous to greet me. But following worship, with my vestments off and my arms uncovered, I could see the tension and nervousness leave the couple. My tattoos made me seem more human and relatable.

Tattoos and Collars

When I made the decision to get inked with permanent body art, I did so because I wanted to. It wasn’t about ministry at all.

IMG_1360But in some ways tattoos are like clerical collars.

Becoming an ordained pastor or getting a tattoo is a deeply personal decision. When you put on a collar you are displaying publicly an important and personal part of yourself. Everyone who sees you knows important and personal details about your job and  about your religious beliefs.

Tattoos function in much the same way. Tattoos are personal symbols and images on public display too. Everyone who sees your tattoos is given an image of something that is likely personal and meaningful to you.

When I wear a collar I embody a symbol that carries a variety of meanings to the people I meet. Symbols that range from spiritual caregiver to pedophile.

When I am just a guy in street clothes with tattoos, I embody an entirely different symbol to people. Symbols that range from millennial hipster to Hell’s Angel.

When I wear both, two symbols that have traditionally not mixed before come together.

And the thing I never expected about wearing both – a collar and tattoos – was that they would would humanize and tame each other,  and they would together open doors that neither could on their own.


 

What do you think about tattoos? What do you think about Pastors? Do you have stories involving both? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

If you are in the Winnipeg area and looking for a fantastic tattoo artist, check out Tattoos by Coral.

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38 thoughts on “Why tattoos are like clerical collars  – On being a Pastor with Tattoos”

  1. You do understand that according to Scripture, we should not mark our bodies with Tattoos, Leviticus 19:28 (NASB)
    28 ‘You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that “tattoo” is a Polynesian word that entered the English language long after Levitucus was written. English for that matter didn’t exist. So marking and cutting would be better translations. And that cutting and marking flesh rituals were pagan activities associated with mourning. And that objections to paganism were the concern of that passage of Leviticus.
      It is a leap to suggest that modern tattoos were what was going on with cutting and marking.
      I also know that verses 26 and 27 prohibit eating non-kosher meats and shaving the beards, but as those things were separated from the pagan rituals.
      So I hope if you aren’t getting tattoos because of Lev 19:28, you aren’t eating steaks or shaving your beard.

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      1. I do not think so, because you are doing both at the same time. One has to cut the skin to insert the ink. I believe that doing so is to reestablish the pagan way of life, whether one wants to believe this or not. When one put on a Tattoo, they are in essences saying the Creator made a mistake with my body, and it must be corrected by oneself. We are not talking about eating we are talking about changing the appearance of one’s body.

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        1. Well, that is not what the concern of the biblical text is. You need to understand the biblical context and why Leviticus was written. Cutting ones beard and the hair from ones temples is just as much altering the appearance of one’s body. I notice from your profile pic you have had a few hair cuts in your life. Eating meat with the blood still in it was also just as severe. The ancient Hebrews understood that blood contained the very life force and essence of a living creature. Pagans believed they could become a thing and gain power by drinking the blood of non-kosher meat. Hebrew people did not eat the blood, but instead sprinkled the blood of sacrifices at the temple in order to use the cleansing power of the life force.

          But really, what you are suggesting that is paganism can be practiced accidentally which is absurd…

          Your real problem seems to be with the 1st commandment and Romans 3. You seem to be assuming that you can make yourself righteous by keeping the levitical law. If you are righteous by your own efforts, what need is there of God. You are God in God’s place in your understanding.

          And as Romans 3 says, even if you could be righteous under the law, this is not equated with righteousness under God.

          So either we are freed from the law by Christ, which means we are free to cut our hair, eat steaks and get tattoos (which is not even what Leviticus 19 is talking about). Or you are God and you are achieving your own righteousness – which is not Christian orthodoxy.

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          1. What you are saying it is okay to practice this habit even though it has pagan roots. Do you understand that in many cultures today, a tattoo on an individual is considered bad and that person is an evil person? Now tell me how could an individual with a tattoo be a missionary to people that believe tattoos to be immoral if one has them all over their body? What do you think Christ would do?

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            1. As I have been saying, what is translated as tattooing is not the same as modern tattooing. And by this logic, eating steak and cutting your beard hair is pagan. And so would be any surgery or medical treatment that required cutting the body. Is the surgical mesh holding my hernia together also pagan?

              In many cultures today, tattoos are considered normative and acceptable. The unchurched couple I met with today about baptism noticed my tattoos and it became an opening to share the gospel.

              And many cultures today consider all manner of things to be bad, including eating non kosher meat or cutting ones beard. Some cultures consider being a white North American male to be evil.

              So how could a white clean shaven meat eating male be a missionary?

              What do you think Christ would do?

              The Christ that Gospels talk about had no problems ignoring social taboos. He ate with sinners, did work on the sabbath, touched the unclean.

              And considering Christians in the early church routinely got tattoos to signify their slavery to Christ, I am pretty sure Jesus might even have a few tattoos himself. And if we really consider the body of Christ to be the faithful, than the Body of Christ is covered in tattoos.

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                    1. Well then show me with scholarship and evidence. Don’t try to pass off 1950s values as biblical values. Explain the what I have missed in the biblical context and Christian understanding of the law. Keep in mind I am a Lutheran, so you will need to use orthodoxy, not fundamentalism to convince me.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Well since the canon of scripture is a product of denominations, that might be difficult.

                      And denominations simply are the communities of faith that hold us accountable over time. Like the different parts of the Body of Christ. I would suggest that rejecting the faith of your brothers and sisters in Christ is the real problem.

                      Making yourself an island of interpretation and correct doctrine puts yourself above scripture. It is only in the context of community or a denomination that we can submit to scripture, because then our personal interpretation doesn’t trump the spirit speaking to a community. I cannot claim to know the spirit’s voice on my my own, but rather it can only be confirmed in community.

                      So what is the spirit, perhaps, saying to you?

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                    3. It was a denomination that decided that Paul’s words would be considered scripture. And no, Paul did not try to stop it, especially over 2000 years ago.

                      But more importantly, 1st Corinthians teaches that the Body has many parts with many gifts, all working together.

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                    4. Liberal is a political term. I think what you mean is orthodox. I am surprised that you would want to break fellowship with and deny Christian orthodoxy.

                      I will pray for you that you will abandon this fundamentalism that elevates the individual above scripture and the church. While I am not the one who decides who is a Christian or not – God alone does – I do not consider your kind of fundamentalist bibliolitry and American nation worship to be authentic Christianity.

                      I am glad to stand with, and in, the great and ancient tradition of the church and to read scripture with all those great theologians who have gone before me. When you are ready to join us, we are waiting for you.

                      Liked by 1 person

    2. You do understand that Galatians tells us fairly explicitly that we are not required to keep the law. Paul is clear that of we want to keep some of the law we have to keep all of the law. Eaten any bacon or sausage lately? How about crab legs?

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        1. And what would that look like? If one “stumbled” I would offer my pastoral counsel. My tattoos wouldn’t have much to do with it. But if someone felt they couldn’t receive ministry from me, I would do my best to help them find a pastor that they could work with. One of the advantages about a denomination. It isn’t about me, but about the gospel.

          But generally, stumbling blocks have tended to be personality conflict, gender, agism, racism, worship style etc…

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          1. Please no more because you are a stubborn individual who seems to think nothing is wrong, you my friend, have a lot to learn. You will find an excuse for everything. I think you do not even know what sin is because you will use a euphemism to hide reality. No more talk

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            1. I completely agree that this line of conversation is tiresome. But you are the one who came to my blog to ask the questions. I am just trying to offer a perspective different than your own. I will keep praying for you brother.

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        2. Dr. George. I don’t know if this was directed at me or not but I am going to comment. First: I have zero tattoos.

          Second: Are we abandoning the “law” argument? I am having trouble understanding who is replying to which comments. The indents are very slight. But if this a reply to my previous reply regarding Galatians, are you conceding the freedom then that comes in Christ that does not require adherence to the Leviticus law?

          Thirdly, regarding the “causing my brother to stumble” thing. I think we have to note that we are not talking about simply upsetting someone we are talking about causing them to sin. This is sin in their own eyes, from their perspective not ours. In the cases scripture mentions this subject it is calling out behavior in a present tense, things we are doing not things we have done. In that sense – keep the tattoo.

          Paul was confronted with this issue in a way. He was being told that he had to conform to the Levitical law and that new believers had to as well. It would have been simple enough for the author of Romans, who tells us to not cause our brothers to sin by our behaviors, to simply say, “You are right brothers. We don’t want our the Jewish brothers to be upset by what we eat so let’s all conform to this rule.” But he didn’t do that. He taught about the freedom that comes in Christ and said “No, you may not like it but I am convinced that we have this freedom.”

          Now Jesus always seemed to be concerned about our interpersonal relationships, perhaps even more so than our adherence to the law. I believe that in the cases Paul talks about in Romans he is also concerned with the interpersonal. While I don’t know if we have any scriptural confirmation on this, despite opposing the Jewish brothers on this subject I doubt very much that if Paul had dinner at any of his Jewish brothers homes he would not have ordered in a pepperoni pizza or make bacon for breakfast while staying with them.

          Moving this to the tattoo subject. I think if you and I were friends and I said that I was considering a tattoo, if my getting a tattoo simply caused a disagreement between us I would consider getting the tattoo despite your objection. You are not sinning by objecting. Just as the Jewish believers objected to Paul’s interpretation of what God told him but it was not sin. However, if you had some kind of sin issue that surrounded tattoos and my getting one encouraged you to indulge in that sin, then no way to I get the tattoo.

          I believe that is the sense of what Paul talks about in Romans, not allowing a brother to be destroyed because I eat bacon. I would never do that if I was having dinner with a Jewish brother that has tasted bacon and loved it but thought it was a sin to eat it. But I’m not going to NOT order bacon on my burger while I am with my bacon loving friends just in case someone nearby might be caused sin in their eyes. That is not the intention of the lesson.

          (WOW. That turned into a book didn’t it, sorry)

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          1. I believe anything that calls into question one’s faith in a negative way can hurt them and could cause them to sin and we stronger must not do what is presumed to be innocent. We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters to refrain.
            Oh yes, I do have a tattoo, and I got it years before I received Christ, and it has caused a problem for others, and it is a small tattoo.

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  2. I have been an ELCA pastor for over 20 yrs and got my 1st (of 10) tattoo about 20 yrs ago. It’s a small strawberry on my left chest which I got to symbolize my joy that a lump was non cancerous. Before I went to the shop I investigated a little. I discovered that small tattoos of fish or crosses(possibly other symbols) were used to identify fellow Christians in the early church and during the crusades as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Winning the troll wars – the Rev. Erik Parker. Well played, sir – very well played. My recent attempt at an earring (the demarcation of ‘cool’ among my high school crowd) was quickly vetoed by my eldest daughter. Not sure my congregations would have cared. Preach on, brother – I’m really enjoying your contributions to the on-line conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoy visiting your blog, first of all. Thank you. 🙂

    Tattoos are a neutral issue (neither right nor wrong) to me, though I’m not personally a fan of body graffiti, myself. 🙂 They can be a “statement of faith” or a door to testifying, but that doesn’t mean those who choose them are somehow elevated spiritually or more “relevant” than those who don’t. Just like those with more conservative “50s values” are no more spiritual than Gen. X of the Tattoos – as the latter likes to remind us all often. (and the point seems alluded to here as well.) 😉

    I see Scripture calling me to get under my cross, lift, and follow – denying myself in the process – tattooed or not. Revealing Christ IN me through my words, deeds, and attitudes matters more than revealing – or not – tattoos on me. I wish we all (myself included) could stay fixed on the heart of the matter more often. Wouldn’t that be pretty spiffy?? 🙂

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  5. I would definitely agree, tattoos are not a thing that makes one spiritual or not. I certainly didn’t get mine for the ministry opportunities that they have surprised me with. But the same might have happened with a new hair cut, a book, a car, a gym membership etc… God can work in all manner of ways.

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  6. I stumbled across this post from a link. I’m an Gen-X Episcopal priest with four tattoos, a nose ring, and a cartilage ear piercing (and lots of lobe holes, but stopped being able to wear earrings in my lobes about three years ago). I am having the same experiences that you are – people who are unchurched seem to relax when they see the tattoos – it somehow makes them feel less stressed about talking to me. Thanks for writing this – it confirms my own experience.

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  7. Hello! Millennial seminarian here in Canada (pierced and tattooed), loved the article and appreciate how you dealt with the connects, really loved the dialogue following. Epitome of keeping calm and carrying on 😉

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  8. This is a great post. I think you are right about the visual cue that tattoos give to people that you are approachable. The collar can seem distancing, but the tattoos open up conversation. SO glad to see more pastors embracing their humanity and leading with it rather than trying to put themselves in a superior position. I’m a big Pastrix Nadia fan myself. Also, I thought you handled the controversy here well. As a gay Christian, I’m often dismissed as having any insight to Christians who can’t get past the gay. I had no idea that tattooed believers went through the Levitical bludgeoning as LGBT do. Hugs from Ohio (I’m a Yukoner–too, just found myself in Ohio)

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