Clergy Collars: What Not to Wear?

Some people watch reruns of Seinfeld. I watch What Not to Wear. Unfortunately, after a […]

Sarah Condon / 1.29.15

What-Not-To-WearSome people watch reruns of Seinfeld. I watch What Not to Wear. Unfortunately, after a 10 year run, the show was canceled in 2013. Thankfully, TLC airs an old episode almost every single day of the week. The hosts, Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, guide an individual through an extended makeover process. And it all begins with a long journey in a 360 degree mirror, where the poorly dressed are forced to face their horrible clothing choices. The candidate gets a whole new wardrobe, complete with hair and makeup. And their physical transformations are astonishing.

But the show is not compelling for it’s Before/After moments. It is gripping because the self-reflection required of that week’s style “ne’er do well” is often painful and important. It turns out that most of the people who end up on WNTW have simply been oblivious to how they look. Busy moms receive many of the show’s makeovers. I find these women incredibly relatable. They are simply too overwhelmed to deal with the fact that house shoes are not suitable for grocery store shopping. Or, like many of us, they are reluctant to let go of their youth. And so they are forced to admit that tube tops aren’t an appropriate choice for PTA meetings.

What often strikes me most in each episode are the forward questions that Stacy and Clinton ask the person standing there in front of the mirror. Questions like: What do you think this says about you? What are you trying to project to the world? Or, often, the most difficult, question, “Does this outfit make people want to talk to you?”

Certainly, I find this show helpful as a “mom on the go” (one of their most beloved catchphrases), but I also find the show’s innate self-reflection helpful as an Episcopal priest. I spent my first few months of ministry desperately trying to figure out what is “appropriate.” I had so many clothing rules going into my first job as a hospital chaplain. I wanted to look feminine and approachable. I refused to don a dress suit. And since I hail from the Deep South, my mainstays were mostly bold colors and gold-lamé loafers. This all went swimmingly. Sure, I am kind of a loud dresser, but I’m kind of a loud talker too. So, I come with my own warning label. But the rule that I had to stop following, the one that I gave up a mere 6 months after my ordination, was that I had to wear a clergy collar.

20131113-181455Part of this had to do with my getting pregnant. While some of the world has adjusted to the idea of women clergy, pregnant clergy are a whole other pair of Manolo Blahniks. No one sees a pregnant lady in a clergy collar and is without an opinion. I remember being particularly aware of this around October when I realized that my professional garb screamed: Happy Halloween!

But giving up the collar was about more than me becoming great with child. Gradually, I realized that my clergy collar felt like something the patients needed to process, even an obstacle in some cases. And to be honest, that broke my heart. I could not bear adding to the discomfort that a hospital stay produces. Patients, often older Catholic ones, struggled with my wearing priesthood into their rooms. Many of them did not even know that the Episcopal Church referred to their clergy as priests or that we dressed so similarly to Catholic clergy. For all they knew I had joined Father Sinead O’Connor in the ranks of some sort of alternative Catholicism. And suddenly, what should have been a moment for me to be with these patients in their suffering, turned into a tutorial on my denomination. And in the midst of all this unnecessary, somewhat defensive chatter about me, I could hear Stacey and Clinton of What Not to Wear asking: Does this outfit make people want to talk to you?

These days I serve as a priest in a more conventional ministry setting. I work in pastoral care on a church staff and I always wear a clergy collar. Still, there are moments and conversations when I wonder if it is a help or a hindrance. But that was the great gift of my first job as an ordained person. I realized I did not need a collar to be a priest. In fact, maybe the collar was keeping me from being a priest and pastor to the people who most needed it.