Clergy Shirts: When and why I wear them

Yesterday, I went to visit a member who is hospitalized in the nearest town of size.  When I arrived, I was told that he was having a procedure that would last at least an hour.  I decided to run to the nearby Radio Shack to pass a little time. 

Soon after I got in the store, the clerk was saying goodbye to a man who must have been a regular.  She said, “Have a good afternoon.  I would tell you to have a fun evening but there is a priest right here.”image

To be assumed to be a Roman Catholic priest while wearing a clerical is not something new.  And it is an assumption not worth correcting if the reference is made in passing.  So I just chuckled along with them.  It was not the time to explain the reformation’s implications for the Church.

By the time I checked out, I had nearly forgotten the passing comment.  The clerk had not.  She asked for my phone number to look up my account.  I gave her my phone number.  She asked my name to verify.  I said “Philip Hoppe.”  She said.  “Oh, we only have a Jaimee Hoppe down.”  I said, “Oh, that is my wife.”  The clerk nearly jumped back and gave me a look as if she had just uncovered a controversy of Divinci code significance.

I explained.  I am a Lutheran pastor, not a catholic Priest.  We are free to marry.  She said back.  “I am a Lutheran.”  She explained that she was a member of an ELCA church in a nearby town.  Eventually she said, “I don’t think you should be allowed to wear those.  it is not very Christian of you.”

What?  I have heard people with all sorts of things to say about clerical shirts and their advantages and disadvantages, I had never heard them described as “not very Christian.”  I told her she should ask her pastor about the history of such shirts.  Whether she will and whether he will answer without bias I do not know.

I often get called out in loving jest by my pastor friends who wear the collar at nearly all time because when they see me, I usually am not wearing it.  Likewise, most of the members of my church and community rarely see me without one.  I have been asked if I own other clothes.

imageHere is how I think through this issue.  The clerical shirt is essentially the uniform of the clergy.  And while many professions in our day no longer wear uniforms, you still notice particular professions wearing them.  I recently wrote about calling pastors by their title and last name to show honor to the work they have been sent to do.  I noted how we do so with others in our culture esteemed to do important things.  Likewise, those who are thought to do particularly weighty things in the society also are the ones still wearing uniforms.  Think judges, police officers, surgeons.  And so again, I think wearing the uniform gives some credence to the importance of pastor’s work in our midst.

It also affords many opportunities for witness or service.  When people need a pastor (or just a listening ear) in a public setting, they often cannot identify one any longer.  When I am in my clerical, I get opportunities to pray with Christians and witness to those who are not.   Again, many times they say, “Father, could you come help us.”  But after a quick explanation, most are still ready to be cared for by me as a sent one of God, Catholic or not.

It also brings God to remembrance in secular spaces.  People reconsider their actions when one who represent God is near them.  And this is not a bad thing at all.

It also is an easy way to teach kids (and others) about the nature of the office of pastor..  Although this is not in my understanding how the look of the clerical shirt was developed, I use it to explain that pastors are sinners (dark shirt) with holy words (white collar) to speak from God since they are sent from Him.

So why do I not wear the clerical at gathering of pastors?  There are two reasons that are completely unrelated.  First, at smaller gatherings where I know everyone (circuit gatherings and the like), I truly view those gatherings as periods of Sabbath for me from my work of pastoring others.  It is a chance to rest even though we are often working.  And while I wear the clerical shirt regularly, I am much more comfortable in other clothes.  So to me, it is a sign of my resting with those I do not pastor.  It is my chance to Sabbath.

imageSecondly, I do not wear them at larger gatherings (district or synod) unless I am teaching or leading worship.  The reason here it that often those who wear them at such gatherings wear them as a way to identify themselves with a particular group, practice, or theology.  And even if they don’t intend this, others assume that they are doing just that.  I like to be able to easily engage with all my brothers and not just those I likely already agree with on most things.  And so at these gatherings, I like to lay my cards on the table one at a time in dialogue rather than laying down my whole hand all at once by wearing a clerical shirt.  At these gatherings, we do not need any additional reasons for division.  There are plenty of real issues already.   A simple thing likely a clergy shirt can distract from the real work that needs to be done to work toward unity.

Is all this wrought from hours of study in the scriptures and confessions?  Nope.  It is just hopefully well thought out reflections on the practice in light of history, culture, and theology.  I truly would like to how other pastors think about this.  Also, I would love to hear from laypeople what they think when they see a pastor in or out a clerical shirt.  Please comment here or on Facebook.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011 at 12:53 pm and is filed under Theology and Practice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

11 Responses to “Clergy Shirts: When and why I wear them”

  1. Mary Johnson Says:

    For some reason this story brought back a memory of when my grandmother had a car wreck outside of Branson on her way home from Springfield. She eventually died, but a man stopped to help out before the police and paramedics arrived. He was a minister and prayed with her. She was so happy for that and it comforted her as she died.

    I never thought about the opportunities of clergy witnessing just by standing out. I also routinely call anyone with a collar “father” just out of habit. It’s a good thing to “advertise” so to speak.
    Good post.

  2. Jaime Says:

    I always assumed you wore them to get free parking at the hospital.

  3. Chris Says:


    Why don’t you wear your collar at synodal conventions? Are you not a priest forever after the order of Melchizidek? I grant that you probably shouldn’t wear it to bed or when mowing the lawn but even as the soldier wears his fatigues even when not on duty so shouldn’t the warriors of God be clothed in the appropriate raiments ESPECIALLY at a church function?

  4. John Says:

    I am an Evangelical Anglican Priest prison chaplain. I wear one off and on. I would wear a clerical shirt all the time if I did not have to explain to people I am not a Catholic priest all the time……the ignorance of others does at exhaust me at times….I probably should brush it off.

  5. whit Says:

    I came across this blog entry while trying to find out what clergymen wear to bed – I’m assuming just regular jams, but I could be wrong here. What about clergymen from more strict denominations, like priests? I can’t help but imagine a priest sleeping in some fancy jesus jams.

  6. Philip Hoppe Says:

    Ha! As far as I know, sleepwear is just personal preference in all denominations 🙂

  7. David Says:

    Thank you for sharing your insight on a topic I had never before considered. My Grandfather was an Anglican Vicar, I admire him immensely. When he wasn’t working, he would be climbing the Alps with dogs and rifle pursuing deer, chamois and wild boar – probably unshaven and wearing practical woollen bush clothing. He was the fittest, strongest man in the village – and he was also the village Vicar. Oooh, for some parishioners the clash in stereotype was too much to reconcile. My Grandfather could not see the conflict between an active outdoor lifestyle and being a Vicar. He defined himself by his work and love of God, not by his clothes or necessarily how the small-minded viewed him.

    I dressed up, once, for a Halloween party in London, in a suit and a clerical shirt I bought at an ecclesiastical shop for that purpose. Between the train station and the venue, I noticed the incredible difference. Strangers in the street opened doors for me and smiled at me with deference and courtesy. I felt embarrassed and such an unwitting fraud that I haven’t worn the shirt since. But, my word, put a collar on and you have instant respect. I now understand why some clergymen would wear the collar as often as one could.

  8. Philip Hoppe Says:

    Thanks for reading and sharing your story.

  9. Craig LaBarbera Says:

    I was a pastor of a denomination that does not wear collars. When I went into the ministry I was given the original clerical collars that my great, great, great, great, great grandfather wore as a Methodist circuit rider. My wife and I are now missionaries in Kenya, Africa. Here we see many different denominations that wear collars. I personally have not wanted to wear the collar, but am now searching my heart as to whether or not the Lord would have me to do so.I am wanting my motives to be right if I do so.

    Thanks for the article.


  10. Rev. CeCe Jacobs Says:

    Hi Pastor Hoppe, etl.

    Great comments and stories. I asked the question why most Christian Pastors(Five-Fold/Ordained) no longer feel it is necessary to wear any clerical attire to preach and teach from their pulpits or anywhere else for that matter.

    I am an Ordained Minister/Pastor of an outreach ministry but I do not preach/teach weekly to a set congregation. Because I have co-pastor-ed and worked as an residential pastor and filled these positions by assignments and other ones, I would never presume to not wear the clergy attire. When I go on a hospital call for prayer I wear my attire (people expect it), when I go to a court hearing on someone’s behalf to speak I wear my collar/clergy attire. The call has God’s authority and power backing it up, you are not going in your own authority and power and if you do chances are little power will be with you than could have been. People want God’s power to show up through you. Playing down the attire can also play down the calling to man’s level, I want God’s presence everywhere I go and yes God has done great things when I was not in my clergy but that is his choice not mines to take. If we wear whatever uniform that our employers tell us to wear for that job, career etc., then what makes us think we can pick and choose to wear the clergy uniform or not wear. I understand for times of rest because even when I am not in clergy and people find out that you are clergy I get many questions they have been wanting to ask a pastor and or a teaching on demand, or prayer over some life circumstance, so you can get little rest at times. But if you were clergy and no one ever came to you is that a good thing, I think not! People responding to you should happen because even when I am not wearing the attire I am introduced as Rev. CeCe or Rev. Jacobs, this title is always on me it represents my life in God, the call. If you are called you ought to walk in it uniform and all using discretion and common sense when it is not appropriate to be in full attire, remember your title is also a part of the clergy attire.

    I am sure someone will be thinking where is the teaching about ministers should be wearing their clergy attire. I would come back and with where is the teaching that says, you are not to wear clergy attire if you are clergy, if you don’t want to who started that movement? Use your God consciousness. The fact is that we have a long history of proper clergy attire that it goes with the calling, search it out and though our garments came through the Catholic Church clergy attire history the attire is for all clergy at least of the Christian faith (faith in Jesus Christ)and its Churches. I think some clergy are just wanting to appear as everyone else when everyone else were not called to be “like people like Priest,”(Isaiah 24:2;Hosea 4:9), we should set the example and help improve the lives of the people we serve,it is not about appearing better than the people. If you are called be the priest stop acting like the people, confusion? Others who do not wear any clergy attire anymore for example television preacher, and why not? Some people talk about wanting to be comfortable but God has called them out from the comfort zone it is not comfortable to be yoked and we are yoked to God to his purpose and he is the one who gives us true comfort at all times not our attire per say. I used to struggle to wear my clergy in public mostly because other clergy peers made it an issue about not doing it, and it bothered me. I did not understand why are you a minister but you don’t want to wear the uniform? Then God, on different occasions told me to keep your clergy on and go on to the restaurant and or on to the grocery store on my way home from a service and I struggled but I obeyed God and it broke that issue off me for good. I am now comfortable wearing my clergy like I originally was (it’s a holy honor), at anytime now, it is a privilege to wear the call of my life the call to be clergy for almighty God. Amen!

    Thanks for reading, Blessings

  11. Philip Hoppe Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Good reminders to all of us who hold the office!

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