Clerical Collars and Ecclesiastical Titles: 5 Reasons they are needed in the Church

“Just call me Erik”

I have never said these words out loud in the context of pastoral ministry.

Sometime just before or during my childhood, there was a movement toward informality in the church. Many pastors stopped going by “Reverend Last Name” or “Pastor Last Name” and started going by just “First Name.” At the same time, there was movement away from clergy attire (although for many Lutherans, collars and vestments had only been reclaimed a few decades earlier).

When I began seminary in 2005 and graduated in 2009, it was more-or-less the norm that clergy would expect to be called by their first name by parishioners, church goers from other churches and colleagues. Wearing a clerical collar was a hotly debated option for many seminary students.

I often got the sense that my desire to be called “Pastor” seemed stodgy and formal to some. And while seminary students of all stripes often liked to experiment with wearing clerical collars, it was not uncommon for veteran pastors having been active for 20+ years would come and drop off collars and vestments for students… yet, these pastors were not intending to retire or resign… they just had no need to clerical attire any longer.

“They create a barrier” was the common refrain when speaking of titles and collars. And real ministry can only be done through personal relationships. And you can only have relationships where people feel like they know you and trust you with personal relationships, which means first name basis and casual clothes.

Once I began serving, colleagues twenty years my senior would tell stories of their own childhood experience in church. They remembered having “Reverend Last Name” teach confirmation, and he was a real strict, no-fun, jerk who always wore his clerical collar. But then “(Pastor) First Name” came to town, and he was lots of groovy fun in his bell-bottom jeans and t-shirts. So now, every pastor should go by their first name because being old and traditional and stodgy is not good ministry. And being fun, and casual and cool is good ministry.

But even at 22 when I started seminary and 26 when I graduated, I thought that going by “Pastor” and looking like a pastor made sense.

The thing is, I was worried about being considered a kid or too young. The average age of pastors in my denomination is well in to the 50s, and here I was, half the average age. And I was about to lead a congregation on my own. Going by “Pastor” was just a small way that I could project the office to which I was called. Looking the part would disguise my youthfulness. Just maybe the people I was serving might see me as a pastor – and not some entitled millennial – if they visualized me as and called me “Pastor.”

In the eight years since, I have learned a few things about what it means to project the symbol of pastor, and to get by on the virtue of personal relationships and charm.

And there are reasons that the church has used titles and clerical collars to identify pastors, reasons that still hold water today. Here are some of them:

1 Pastors are Symbols

Like many vocations and callings in our world, we become public symbols when ‘on the job.’ Like police officers or fire fighters who symbolize safety and protection, like doctors or nurses who symbolize caregiving, like teachers or professors who symbolize learning, pastors are symbols to the people that we work with. We are symbols of God’s and the Church’s public voice in community. When we speak we speak not has individuals but as representatives of someone or something other than ourselves.

The symbol is visualized in the collar or other clerical attire. People can see the symbol in the uniform of pastors, just as safety is presented in firefighter’s gear, or healthcare is by hospital scrubs.

The symbol is verbalized in the title. When people address pastors by the title “Pastor” the symbol and its existence are intentionally articulated, rather than unintentionally assumed.

2 Using titles and collars provides clarity

Here is how pastors who wear collars and go by “Pastor” know that the two are important. When a funeral home, for example, calls me looking for a generic pastor for a funeral, they don’t tell the family that some guy named “Erik” will be doing the service. Rather by calling me “Pastor”, the nature of the relationship I will have with this grieving family is understood. When I show up in a collar, it is clear who I am.

Imagine walking into an ER and everyone was dressed in street clothes, and some person in jeans and t-shirt asked what your symptoms were, and then told you that Jimmy would be with you in a minute? You would be confused wouldn’t you.

Now imagine the same in a church. A person walks in looking for spiritual help, and a member says, let me get Erik to help you.

Collar and titles provide clarity.

3 Privilege

The varied ways in which we bear privilege is coming into our social awareness. And the option to decline the visual symbols and verbal cues of pastoring are a privilege, in particular a white and a male privilege. It takes a certain amount of privileged assurance to decline being called “Pastor” and to forego looking to still be confident that those you serve will assume and understand the full nature of the pastoral relationship. It takes privilege to assume that people won’t confuse your person with you vocation. And that is because whiteness and maleness are not characteristics about that might lead people to assume that one couldn’t be or wouldn’t be a pastor.

Yet, it is often assumed that women who are pastors are not pastors, whether it is sales people looking for the pastor over the phone, or visitors new to the church, or staff at hospital questioning the legitimacy of a visit.

The same goes for people of colour whom are often likely to be disbelieved that they are who they say are.

Worst of all, is that when white men, like me, decline the title and clothing of pastors, we undermine our colleagues who are women and people of colour, because we send the unconscious message that it is our whiteness and maleness that allows us to be pastors. Yet, if we used titles and wore the garb, we would clarify that we are filling office of pastor by looking like clergy and being addressed as clergy. It would also help if we insisted that all of our colleagues, regardless of gender or race or orientation were addressed by their titles.

4 Order over hierarchy

Often the objection to titles, or collars are that they symbolize a hierarchy in the church. Only special people get to wear the special clothing and have the special titles.

But in fact, titles and collars help to minimize the hierarchical nature of the church when understood correctly. When the visual and verbal symbols are not used by pastors, we subconsciously convey that it is for other reasons that we occupy the office of ministry. Perhaps it is that we are more spiritual or moral, that we are smarter or more competent.

Instead, it should be understood that it is “putting on the uniform” that symbolizes taking on the office. It is because through people I serve that God has called to serve, and this why they call me “Pastor.” Titles and collars are the things that are put on in order to serve, rather than service rooted in virtue and specialness. They identify the fact that we are called to particular ministry in the Church, some for this ministry, some for that ministry.

5 Titles and Collars are reminders.

Just as I thought as a 26-year-old starting out in ordained ministry, it is still the case that going by “Pastor (First Name)” and wearing a collar are helpful reminders of the office I fill. And I have noticed over the years that when I wear the collar, people treat me differently. Not with more respect, but less as my particular self. I am more the office than I am Erik. And I have also noticed that whether subconsciously or not, when people address me as “Pastor Parker” or “Pastor Erik” or “Pastor” or “Erik” that is says something about their relationship to the office of pastoral ministry (and secondarily to me). Sometimes how we are addressed is sign of comfort or discomfort, security or insecurity. Those who call me just “Pastor” are often those who are the most comfortable in their relationship to me as their pastor. Those who use my last name are often the least familiar and from outside my particular church community. Those who use just my first name are either very comfortable and familiar, or sometimes are uncomfortable with my relationship to them as their pastor (for likely complicated reasons).

But the reminder is not just for those that I encounter and serve in the course of ministry. Titles and collars are probably most importantly reminders for me. When I put on the black shirt and slide that white tab into my collar, I am reminded that my personal identity takes a back seat to my vocational identity – I am a clergy person and pastor first and foremost to the people I interact with.

And when someone calls me pastor, it is small and constant reminder of who I am to them and the nature of my relationship and responsibilities. That I am called to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ in whatever way possible in this particular moment with this particular person.

Titles and clerical collars are symbols and tools for ministry which, I think, all clergy should consider. But wether not you prefer your suits and ties and go by your first name, or whether you want your pastor to be in a collar every time you see him or her and call them “Pastor”… The symbols we use, visual and verbal are important and they speak to nature of our call to serve in God’s Kindgom.

So let’s all think about the symbols and cues that we use that help us to understand and do ministry… titles and collars included.


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18 thoughts on “Clerical Collars and Ecclesiastical Titles: 5 Reasons they are needed in the Church”

  1. One of the reasons I left a non-denominational, evangelical church, where there were no collars or visual pastoral symbols, was because I was looking for something less about me and what God could do for ME and more about GOD and being in relationship with Him in a way that didn’t seem focused on being self-serving to me. The clerical collar and using the Pastor title helps me to remember who this person is serving – the GOD I want to be in relationship with. Initially the collar and Pastor title invited me into a relationship where everyone is welcome. That relationship is growing over time and through shared experiences. Now I sometimes forget to say Pastor and simply use the first name because of the developed relationship. This is all good, I think. Then I think of those who have not been so fortunate to have my positive experience. People abused by those wearing collars and I can appreciate how these symbols can cause pain. As I think through this I go back and re-read the blog post and what jumps out this time is the paragraph about how wearing the titles and collars is a reminder to you, the pastor, about who you are serving. My conclusion? You have definitely made me think about the symbols and cues I associate with doing and understanding ministry, but also how my experience is not the only experience. You have also reminded me of the far reaching impact of clerics. You are right to ask us, both clergy and lay people, to be mindful of who we serve. Thank you Pastor Erik!

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    1. The guy that wrote this article will be Catholic in 10 years because I can tell he urns for affirmation and recognizes the importance for authority. Protestantism is crumbling on its Swiss cheese beliefs and deficiencies of faith. This is just the start for his journey back to Mother Church. The Church that Jesus Christ started. Not the Church Martin Luther, Calvin, or king George started and made up their own rules. That has plagued the Protestants for now 500 years and is the reason for over 45,000 different little Bible club denominations.

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      1. I have great respect for Rome, but I won’t be swimming the Tiber. I have a theology minor from a catholic school, and it only reinforced my agreement with Luther. Now if Pope Francis keeps moving Rome towards us, we might be in full communion with Rome. He is seeing what every Pope before him refused to see. Luther was right.

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  2. Similar to the argument some nuns made they transitioned from habits to suits. Personally, I am somewhat put off by a clerical collar, but I have always been very low church. It is interesting how such small details garner such diverse reactions.

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  3. Out of curiosity – do you wear the collar and have the title on your driver’s license? When I was in the Catholic seminary in the 90s, it was a bit of fun debate over whether you should or not. Some priests thought the police would go harder on you, trying to “use God as leverage.” While others thought it helped.

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    1. Thank you Pastpr Erik. This Holy theater created is a good reminder to Clergy and Lay Ministers of who we are serving, God, and how we are perceived in that service. The “uniform” is important.

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  4. I think the robes and collars make me think pastors want to be elevated above the congregation….They are better and know more than the people so don’t question anything they want….They are the head of the church and have the last say……I like the fact our pastor never wears the robes and finery (as a pope)….It helps us see he is human, he is not God and he is to lead us but not “Lord it over us”….I think you are wrong!

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    1. So too is it possible that people elected to leadership boards or play the music or care for the property think that can be elevated. Even those who put money in the offering plate. But we don’t stop doing or question those other things because some abuse the perception of power.

      So too it it with clergy garb. When used properly they remind all, the pastor most of all, of whom they serve.

      And I would argue that when we are not intentional about how we use symbols and intentional in how we articulate the roles of ministry, whether ordained or lay, we ourselves a disservice. Because the symbols and the reminders don’t happen by accident

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    2. As with any important question like this one, we should try and understand both sides of the issue. I believe Pastor Erik has made a good case for the wearing of vestments, at least in the service itself. When we try to understand why someone would object to robes and collars, I believe the objection is based on man’s natural fallen instinct to rebel against authority. The clerical uniform is seen as designated authority and we are naturally tempted to at least feel ill at ease in its perceived presence. We must resist this temptation of pride and understand what Pastor Parker and others have said about the value in the Pastor identifying himself with this “uniform.”

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  5. As an itinerant minister these days, I tend to make a situational judgment on whether to wear the collar or not, but for me it is not about hierarchy or authority, but about boundaries. I tend to fall in love with the people I serve to the point where my role gets fuzzy and people cross boundaries with me by trying to draw me into their factional conflicts or even see me as a surrogate spouse or other kind of family member. So I wear the collar as a reminder for myself to maintain proper boundaries and to remind congregants to do so as well. As for the title, I do tend to just use my first name. While I want to maintain boundaries, I also don’t want folks to see me as so very different from themselves in terms of their own divinity and access to God. I like to think of my role with individuals is to put myself out of business, i.e. bring them along the path of spiritual growth to the point where they don’t need me for that growth anymore and are on their own trajectory. So, long story short, boundaries + equality where appropriate are my goals.

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  6. Recently a parishioner told me she called me by my first name as a sign of respect and thought she was being disrespectful if she called me ‘pastor’. The parishoner sitting next to her said, “but I call her ‘pastor’ as a sign of respect and think it is disrespectful if I don’t”. We all just looked at one another, shrugged our shoulders and carried on planning a worship event.
    Also, I had a mentor tell me that he only worn his collar when he thought people needed to see it. Works for me and sometimes I am one of those people who needs to see it.

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  7. I have always left it up to the person or persons that I am seeking or visiting. Wearing a colalr is what we do in my denomination. Often, however, I would introduce myself by m first name–and feel more comfortable doing that. Fortunately I have the title of “dean” so that has made it easier than Father. I don’t like the title Pastor, because that connotes that I am a Lutheran–which I am not. I think it depends on the situation more than a required time and place.

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  8. Very interesting discussion. As an African American Pastor, I am usually called Pastor by my parishioners and those in the community who know me as a Pastor of a church. It gets real interesting sometimes when White people come into our church and want to call me by my first name. I guess it’s cultural. I don’t like collars but they have their role especially when I am acting in the function of the office i.e. funerals and vestments are a part of my tradition. Although that is fading in some places. I didn’t know Pastor was reserved for Lutherans because I don’t think that it is.

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  9. Ina hospital setting clerical collars do clarify your role for everyone. I have always used Pastor- not Lutheran but did come from apart of country whose first settlers were German. As a kid I called my minister “Mr.”- all ministers at that time were male ( at least that Ihad seen.) We were a Congregational church.

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