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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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Why Can’t Pastors Agree on What a Pastor is?

What DOES a pastor do anyways?

Ask 10 pastors what a pastor is, and you will get ten different definitions. Read 10 different blog articles on what a pastors is and should be doing, and you will get ten different opinions. The job title and ecclesiological office of pastor is one that encompasses a variety of definitions, often confusing and contradictory ones.

This vagueness around the job description and theological concept of being a pastor is one of the most frustrating parts of my vocation. The debate lately seems to be between the pastor as CEO vs. pastor as Shepherd. Just check out the titles of some relatively recent blog posts:

Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof
CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley
Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters

The current debate raging online, and probably in churches and among colleagues, about what a pastor is and does is nothing new. It is simply a symptom of the church facing the changing world and some dim sense that part of facing that change means pastors and churches updating their understandings of each.

Even in my short millennial life-time, I have seen pastors of different generations try to live up to different and changing ideas of what it means to be a pastor.

A different time, a different pastor

In my first congregation, a small farming community where the church had been the central focus for nearly a century, pastors were understood to be something akin to the “community professional.” In the early part of the 20th century, pastors were often called upon not only to shepherd the flock, but also provided medical knowledge, taught school children, provided legal and mediation services among other things.

In my Grandfather’s generation in the 40s and 50s, pastors were public moral paragons. They were (supposed to be) living examples of moral living who were required to lead the faithful in their own moral living and a disciplined faith full of regular devotion and study. Pastors were expected to be public moral authorities whose credibility was rooted in their character and leadership position. They were called upon to serve on public boards, public offices and positions and were often in the public eye.

And then in the 60s and 70s, Clinical Pastoral Education and a trend towards psychology and therapy transformed again the role of the pastor. No longer was the pastor a voice for morality and divine authority, but now a counsellor, therapist even. Someone to hear your troubles (sometimes on God’s behalf) and direct you to the help you need. And pastors started using as much the language of psychology as theology.

And then 80s and 90s, when, despite the early signs of decline, the trend was for established and growing congregations to program their ministry. This meant large facilities and increased staff positions. Pastors became middle managers, overseeing growing churches that had become corporatized. Business language become the vernacular at board meetings and for church leadership.

And then in the 2000s, pastors were called upon to become entrepreneurial CEOs, revitalizing the unwieldy and declining organizations that had been started by the community professionals and moral paragons, grown by the pastoral care providers, and managed into decline by the middle managers. Pastors were and are expected to be the source of mission and vision renewal for churches longing for a return to the glory days. The glory days of course depend on which of the previous eras felt the most glorious for a given person. And the new glory days also include incorporating all the new technology of a changing digital and online world.

These are, of course, not the only dominant forms of pastor that have risen up recently. There are several of other images and ideas about what the primary role of a pastor is:

There is the social justice warrior, who leads their faith community in striking out to address all the evils of the world. This pastor strives to lead people in activism and to organize communities of resistance beyond congregations who will fight for justice among all the injustices that exist in the world.

And there is the cruise director / country club pro who is the omni-present social glue that holds the many activities and programs and fellowship events that a congregation plans. The pastor will likely make an appearance at everything: every meeting, every breakfast, every golf or curling fundraiser. The pastor is more mascot than spiritual leader.

And there is the coach and cheerleader. The person encouraging the laity in their calling by passing off the bulk of the responsibilities of the pastoral office. A pastor’s job is to put themselves out of a job is mantra of this style.

So which of these is the right style or idea of the core of pastoral ministry is? Should pastors need to choose?

Jack-of-all-trades pastoring?

Picking one version of pastoral ministry over another actually misses the point. Of course all of the responsibilities are, at times, part of what a pastor does. Sometimes you will be the community expert, other times you will inspire your people to faithfulness, sometimes you be called upon to provide counsel and care for people in need, other times you will be the one checking the boiler and booking rentals, sometimes you will be hiring and firing people. And of course in the midst of all these things there is preaching and leading worship / the liturgy, studying and teaching the bible, prayer and helping people grow in faith.

But none of these shifting ideas about what it means to be a pastor are core to pastoral ministry as it has been understood for most of the church’s history. Pastors or priests have always been tasked with preaching the word, administering the sacraments and tending to God’s people. And throughout the millennia, this has put various responsibilities on the shoulders of pastors, managing and tending to groups of people wherever they are is complicated.

Yet, whatever trend or style of ministry is current, and even whatever denomination or part of the world  a pastor serves in… the essential of what is a pastor is the same.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.

Whether it is the through high church smells and bells liturgy or someone standing alone on a staff with just a bible in their hands, whether it is providing expertise, modelling faithfulness, caring for those in distress, managing complicated communities, or revitalizing declining churches pastors are the connection through which a particular faith community (a church) encounters the faithful of all times and places (The Church).

The Office of Ministry is how The Church enters into the life a church or congregation. In all those things that the debates suggest that pastors should be spending their time on, the underlying purpose of doing any of those things is to help local and particular communities be connected to the body of Christ. To help local congregations participate in the mission of the whole Church, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. And we don’t do this in vacuums, rather we serve this mission in consort with all the congregations and communities doing the same around us and around the world.

When pastors, or lay people, or the church as a whole debates what a pastor is or does, the reality is that in some sense there is still agreement. The different ideas or styles still fit within the scope of a pastor.  And yet, all the debates fail to return and remind us of the core.

Pastors bring the Church to the church.


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I am choosing religion for my children – they don’t get a say yet

Whether or not to raise your children with religion is a pretty controversial topic. Just google “choosing religion for your children” and you will find a host of articles explaining why choosing religion for children is a bad idea.

In spite of the prevailing opinion out there, I am going to make a bold claim:

The idea that you can defer choosing a religion for your children until they are old enough to choose for themselves is wrong.

As parents we are choosing for our children either way, whether we choose religion or not, we are making the choice for them. We are not putting off that choice, we are choosing something or we are choosing nothing for them. It is like saying I am not going to choose literacy for my children, they can decide to be readers on their own when they are older, if they want to. You aren’t delaying the choice, you are depriving them of a real opportunity to read.

And while, I get that every family and every child is unique, and that applying a universal rule is impossible… I am convinced that choosing religion for your children can be and is a very good thing.

Strangers in a Foreign Land

I do a lot of baptisms for families with babies or young children. And most of the baptisms I do are for families who have only the most nominal or tenuous connection to the church. Grandma has said that the new baby in the family needs to be baptized to protect him or her from hell.

And what usually results is that some sheepish and tentative new mother or father phones or emails the church, wondering about baptism for their new beloved child.

“I was baptized and confirmed at this church,” they say. “We are thinking of coming back.”

(I don’t know about you, but the idea of introducing a significant lifestyle change, like regular church attendance, shortly after having a baby is crazy-talk in my books).

So I set up a meeting to talk about what baptism means and we plan to have the baptism on a Sunday morning. I try to go into good depth about the meanings and symbols of baptism; and about what the church believes that it means and what we believe that God is doing in baptism. But no amount of casual, yet informative, conversation can prepare a family for standing in front of a congregation of regular church attenders with this weird guy in a dress praying prayers, asking questions and pouring water on the baby’s head.

I almost always feel bad for families that come for baptism, and the obvious awkward self-conciousness that they are experiencing while standing in front of a group of mostly strangers.

It takes years to live into and feel comfortable with the liturgy and ritual of the church. So for those for whom church is not really a part of their daily lives, parachuting in for a baptism can be a strange and alien experience. I imagine it to be something like if I were to be parachuted in as a contestant in a Miss Universe pageant. I only know the vaguest things about the pageant world from the movie Miss Congeniality… it is an understatement to say it would be super awkward!

I don’t question the motivations of those who come for baptism and I will baptize anyone who asks, but I do wonder why people subject themselves to a ritual and experience they have no connection to and little desire to pursue in any meaningful way.

Choosing Religion vs. Choosing Faith

My parents chose religion for me. Sunday morning worship was a weekly event, in addition to playing music, youth group, confirmation, bible studies, fellowship events throughout the week. Church was a big part of the life of our family, and it was clear that as children we didn’t have a choice about participating.

Sure there were some annoying parts, like missing all the medal games of weekend sports tournaments because they would be scheduled during Sunday morning worship. Or knowing that Saturday night was essentially like a school night because I had somewhere to be in the morning.

But looking back, there was nothing else in my world that gave me the experiences that church did. There was no other intergenerational community full of adults (not related to me) who knew my name, asked about my life, and just cared about me. There was no other place where the deep questions of meaning – life and death – could be talked about without hushed, anxious voices. There was no other place where I was exposed to the rituals, symbols, metaphors, music and history that comprise so much of our western world.

As I grew up going to church, what became clear to me is the more religion I was exposed to, the less my parents were making the choice for me. Faith was my choice and my experience at church allowed me to be informed about what I was getting into.

  • A caveat: I am aware that not every church or faith community is a safe and healthy place. In fact many are centred around fear, judgement and shame. Many do not encourage questions and conversation, nor are places that allow members to search for deeper meaning. Sometimes churches can be places of abuse. These churches are not religious experiences that I would advocate for, and I am sorry for those for whom this is their experience of religion.

Liturgy and ritual in our DNA

Recently, our 3-month-old daughter was baptized. Standing on the other side of the font, so to speak, as a parent rather than the pastor, I was struck by the experience. I have presided at more baptisms than I can remember, but only been a parent for two.

fullsizeoutput_434eWhile the Bishop (presiding at the baptism), godparents, my wife and I stood around the font, our two-year-old son stepped up and placed his water cup and container of goldfish on the font. He must have thought it was a natural spot to stash his stuff. And then he proceeded to do laps around the font as the Bishop led us through the liturgy for baptism. None of us were worried or anxious, all 5 of the adults standing there were seminary trained (who else do pastors ask to be godparents but friends from seminary!). We even laughed when our son started dipping his hands in the font in order to bring some water to his own head (re-baptizing himself?).

I was struck at how comfortable my son was in the moment. He wasn’t in a strange place. The font and altar rail and nearby pews were not foreign pieces of furniture. Being in worship with us and in front of the congregation was not unusual.

My son was at home.

I wasn’t just struck by his comfort, I was moved by it. I could see that even at the age of 2, he was beginning to be shaped and formed by the experience of worship, by the experience of religion and community. Liturgy and ritual is being imprinted on his DNA, his daily life is connected to the practice of re-telling the story of Jesus.

When it comes time for him to chose faith for himself, I know that he will know intimately what he is choosing. He will know what practicing religion feels like, he will know what it means to be a loved member of a community. He will have a sense of what it might feel like and be like to practice other religions.

My wife and I are choosing religion for our children, because we are choosing to give them an experience that will allow them to choose faith later on in life. We are choosing religion, because there are few, if any, other places in our lives where we can be a part of diverse, intergenerational communities that help us make sense of and bring meaning to our lives. And choosing “not to choose religion” for our children, would actually be almost certainly be choosing “nothing” for them.


Are you choosing religion for your kids? If so, why? If not, why not?Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik