Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Wear My Collar Into Target

target 2

This morning, I wrinkled my brow in the driver’s seat of my car, considered my options, and took off my clergy collar before walking into Target. I don’t wear a collar every day, but when I do, this is often a choice I have to make. Pumping gas, going into restaurants and stores, walking across downtown Chicago to a meeting, on a train or other public transportation: Will I go incognito? Or in my bright, white, plastic collar? (You can get a linen version, but it’s much easier to keep plastic clean and unwrinkled.)

I was on my way to bring communion to an elder member at her home and wore a collar to honor that visit. She had to cancel so I had some time on my way to the office to stop at Target and pick up a few things I’d been meaning to get for church.

Would I go into Target as a pastor? Or as a person?

I feel ashamed whenever I feel I have to make this decision. Am I ashamed of my work? Don’t I want to be a public witness to the existence of women in the clergy? Why not make myself available to people who might want to talk to a pastor?

But I feel like a spectacle. Especially as a girl in a collar – a young one, at that. My seminary dean, Gary Hall, told us students that a collar is like a tiny movie screen; people will “project” all kinds of things onto it about you and who they’ve decided you are: Saint, Fool, Judge, if you’re a man: Father.

If you’re a woman in a collar, add: Nun, Huh?, Abomination, Halloween Costume. (Literally, a friend of mine was in her collar, on the way to the hospital, one day in late October and went through the McDonald’s drive-thru where the cashier said, “Nice costume!”)

Most clergy, even Roman Catholic priests, don’t wear a collar in everyday public life unless we’re functioning in a specific role (hospital visit, community meeting, vigil, protest). So, in Illinois anyway, a collar is a strange thing to see in a grocery store, at a gas station, or in a restaurant. Even on an older man who “looks like a pastor”, maybe with pleasantly greying hair and some thoughtful spectacles:


Thanks, Almy!

Collar-wearing has never brought words of fury down on my head, but it attracts attention. And sometimes, I don’t have the emotional energy for confused looks or awkward comments. “Are you a nun?” “You seem awfully young to be a minister.” “I’m not that into organized religion.” “I’m so glad to see a woman pastor!” Instead of a person, I’m a symbol of The Church. I imagine members of the military feel the same when they’re in uniform – they’re not a person, they’re A Soldier.

Some will say that I AM different, that I do represent The Church and I should claim that. Maybe they’re right. But I’m not sure that’s my theology for the priesthood – to stand apart as a More Spiritual Person. To be a Public Religious Leader. To be a Holy Presence wherever I go. Must clergy always be public property in that way? I belong to the people of my congregation yes – I am theirs. Their priest, comforter, person-to-pray-for-them, preacher, and teacher. But am I also that for everyone I meet? For the people in Target? Does wearing a collar even communicate that message?

Or does it just mark me as a novelty?


A final irony: if you’re wearing a clergy shirt, with a neckline sewn to accommodate a clergy collar – a little button hole and a strange, high neck — you still look rather odd. But I never attract attention in a high-necked black shirt the way I do in the collar itself.

I’m a priest. After six years of ordination, I’m still learning what that means to me and to my community. Maybe I always will be.


  1. Ben Day says:

    This post highlights a conversation I think clergy of are having everywhere. I really loves reading your insights.

    I will confess right from the start that I wear my collar every chance I get. I welcome the attention, and like discovering how others react to it in different contexts. Its fascinating to me how a flimsy piece of plastic can bear so much stigma, both good and bad. In fact, the only time you will consistently not find me in a collar is when I am out with my fiancé. She hates the stares, the skepticism, the assumptions that we are doing something wrong. I am sensitive to that, as well, and so I take it off when I leave my office or after the last visit of the day.

    One of my seminary professor at Emory once likened the collar to a policeman’s badge. For him it communicated a role of being one of the “helpers” in the world. I dislike that image, mainly because for me, we represent so much more than the ability to help in crisis. It seems to quickly simplify the priestly vocation to crisis manager, and discount all the other meaningful stuff priests do on a daily basis. I prefer thinking of the collar as a symbol of Christ in the world. It is a reminder to christians and non-christians alike (if they recognize the symbol) that faith is alive and active across the many different places and contexts of our lives. In my most optimistic moments, I hope that the collar may reveal the incarnational faith of our tradition and remind those around me to look for the presence of Christ around them. I hope those in crisis will talk to me, but also those who are reminded of their faith by my presence.

    Then again, I have been ordained only seven weeks. My optimism may soon give way to emotional exhaustion and I too, may be slipping the collar on and off as I go about my day. I am new to this game, maybe my hope and idealism has not been broken yet. Only time will tell.

    Pax et Bonum, and thank you for this post.

  2. Carroll says:

    Yes, Indeed !! The collar is a yoke. In the German language the i, j, and y are interchangeable: as in: yoke, joke. On the other hand, i prefer yoke as in the burden of the beast to bear the load. A rose by any other name and a priest by any other garb and she still represents herself, and for you, there is no other comparison. Self protection, that is the best reason for taking off the collar where you do not want to bear the constant necessity of giving of yourself. In fact, from my vantage point of long retirement, i would say it should be a rule that clergy have a life of their own at their own choosing. Reread the book: The Picture of Dorian Gray. He thought he was maintaining his 36 year old self until he looked at the picture of himself as he really appeared. Then he figured he’d better change. Priest with no self protection in the long run will end up disintegrating into uselessness long before her time.

  3. Very creative job in addressing this question, addressing not just in the assumptions that people make, but your questions as to your role as priest.

    When I remember that I’m wearing the collar, and thus faced with the question of taking it off to go into Wal-Mart (we don’t have a Target here…), I consider taking it off for similar reasons (even though I don’t have to encounter the formable female question). But additionally, I wonder that if I choose to leave it on is it about MY ego: am I wanting to be recognized as one with a level of religious authority?

    I posted an excerpt and link over on The Episcopal Cafe.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Kurt Wiesner

  4. I JUST had this conversation with myself in the car yesterday. I had to go into a swanky restaurant for 2 seconds to pick up a gift card that my brother had bought for me as an ordination present. I was coming from an interview downtown, and I was in my clerical blacks. I wear an Anglican collar, so I think people just think I have a super starched mock turtle neck.

  5. I remember once being in an accident (a 17 year old ran a traffic light and spun my car around) while wearing my collar. The older cop was VERY deferential to me but came down hard on the kid without any investigation at all. He kept calling me “Reverend” though he knew my name was Chris. I felt a bit as if I had taken advantage of my collar but when I asked a more experienced clergy friend about it she just said, “Milk it.”

  6. Jim Stanley says:

    Hi Rev!
    Greetings from nearby Plainfield. I am not ordained yet, but hope to be in December or January — presuming I pass canonicals in the Diocese of No. Indiana. (We live here now — long story.) I have had similar discussions with soon-to-be clergy, new clergy and long-time clergy. I get all kinds of answers and really don’t know where my head is. But here’s the thing. I’m a guy…I don’t have the double-whammy you face. It’s a shame, really. Because I cannot imagine doing church without my sisters sometimes taking the lead, celebrating the mass, preaching and doing the work of pastor. Not everyone is on that page, even still. So I hear ya.

    The hard part for me is weighing the embarrassment of family (my wife and daughter predict they will not be comfortable with the collar in public; and my extended family is pretty sure I’ve sold out to Old Scratch by even being Episcopalian — so that pretty much tells you how THEY might feel about the collar!); the fear that some people might think I am trying to be some sort of “holier than thou” type; and the very real desire to wear the collar publicly as a way of stating openly — “I am here to help.”

    Of course, there is something of a positive, mitigating influence the collar will bring to bear on me. Don’t know about you. But I think — I hope — I’ll be less likely to be that guy who goes ballistic on Rte. 59 when someone cuts him off and almost kills him. And I think I’ll be more apt to be patient and polite with the guy who cusses me out because he doesn’t like my Obama bumper sticker or the cut of my jib or whatever.

    I don’t know. I guess all us postulants and candidates are sure we’ll sleep in our collars. Because we have worked just that hard. But I hear you. And bottom line, you are there — collar or no. Making a difference, loving people to Christ, calling for justice & peace and being the servant and leader you are called to be. But I promise — if I see you in Target, I’ll shake your hand.

    Under the mercy,

  7. I wear my collar every day except my day off. I know that this causes reactions but as a very wise mentor once said — you have chosen this and now you need to live what you have chosen. So workday is collar day.

  8. I have this conversation with myself all the time, and honestly, sometimes I take it off when I’m in the grocery store so people don’t see a priest when I end up making cranky faces at folks who can’t figure out the self-checkout machines. I’m human too! I’m not always sunshine and daisies.

    But I’ll also convey a story from a collegue who recently went to speak at a civic event on behalf of gun control. He wore a black clerical shirt and collar with a grey suit. He was the only person in the crowd dressed so formally, and a stranger walked up to him and said, “what are you, a lawyer? Why are you wearing a suit?”

    I think we need to realize that in our current cultural setting we can’t assume that people even know what the collar means.

  9. Our last diocesan bishop encouraged clergy to spend one day a week doing nothing but hanging out at the local shopping center, mall, store in our collar. Part of me wanted him to go back to parish ministry and ask himself whether that was possible, but I got his point. Being seen in a collar is a chance for a conversation starter. But I live way down in Alabama where people want to talk about church–my church, their church, any church. And even people who aren’t that excited about a church conversation know that this is a safe place to talk about it if the subject should happen to come up. That might not be the case in Illinois, but down here it’s a benefit.

    That being said, I’m one of those clergypeople who “looks” like the preconceived notion of a priest. I’m male. I’m white. I’m conservatively dressed. No one has ever asked me about my “costume,” though I have walked into a costume store while wearing a collar and asked for a priest costume. For me, the collar enables lingering, inviting eye contact. It makes it possible for me to smile genuinely at people and not have them wonder what the heck I’m doing staring at them. I’m not prone to wink at strangers, but, if I were, I bet I could get away with it–but only in a collar. I can’t speak for other contexts (gender, location), but the collar makes it possible for me to minister to strangers. And yes, whether I’m wearing the collar or not, I always walk into Target as a pastor AND a person.

  10. Rev. Heidi, I enjoyed reading your blog and never realized the feelings that wearing the collar brings to clergy. I would almost never approach a clergy person in public because I feel they deserve their private lives. However, I’m sure there are lots fo people who feel the clergy have no private life and are there to serve the people no matter where. Knowing you, I feel you are a priest no matter with or without the collar. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Marcy Troy says:

    Okay, before I read Heidi’s post, but after I read the title of it, I guess I thought that wearing the collar is a good way to evangelize (although you are not actually preaching the gospel, but perhaps calling attention to the notion of religion because hopefully when people see the collar they will make that connection). Is it a bad thing for people to see clergy in collars in public? It seems like the collar is an outward sign and a reminder that religion exists and perhaps it can be viewed as a promotional device to encourage people to come back to the church or to think about coming to church for the first time. Kind of like advertising. But after I read Heidi’s post and the comments of others, I could connect to the feeling of wanting to be under the radar. As a teacher, there are times when I am roaming around town and do not want to run into students or parents of students. I don’t want to have to be “on”. Since I don’t have a sign that I wear that says Teacher, my circumstances are different, but I do think I now better understand the dilemma of To Wear or Not to Wear. I guess my final thoughts are that if you have the mental energy and the time to answer questions and deflect comments, wear it. If you are contemplative, in a hurry, or want your own space, then don’t wear it and don’t feel bad about it. I think priests already give a lot of themselves. They need time to refuel and rejuvenate.

  12. (RF) Norman says:

    Fifty years ago I elected to work outside the buildings, worker priests were more popular back then, I haven’t worn my collar since. I do occasionally miss the “dress up”, but that’s not why we were called. If the clothing helps you “to be all things to all men, so some may be saved” than go for it. You do whatever it takes to do His work.

  13. Mary Evans says:

    Interesting! I’ve been ordained just over a year and I’m 35. If I’m ‘on duty’ then I’m wearing a collar. If I happen to drop into a store or my kids’ school, I don’t take it off. I try to see it as a witness to the church, but I agree you can feel slightly a bit of a spectacle – or worse, as if you’re showing off. ‘Look – a young woman priest! How different is that!’

    Also interested by comments about ‘Anglican’ collars – I guess you mean the full white ones. Here in the UK those are fairly rare, except among exceedingly High-Church clerics. Almost everyone else wears tab collars.

  14. I have been a Quaker Minister for 25 years and recently became ordained as a ULC Minister. The main reason is Quaker Ministers are only allowed to perform marriages and funerals among other Quakers within thier meeting. The ULC Ministry is a vehicle to work outside the meeting and perform weddings, funerals etc. I perform weddings for a fee, but the fees are used to fund a fledgling food bank. I wear my clericals because I AM a minister, not to show off – I do gods work and help others. I use my ministry to show others that Christians do good in the world, not just evangalize and criticize people of other faiths. For those that say bad things about the ULC Ministry – it is what you make of it. If you choose to marry you friends and obtain the ordination to do so, then you are a “minister” for the occasion. If you choose the ministry as a way of life and to use that ministry to do good then you are a practicing ULC minister. ULC is NOT and online ordination. You apply online OR in writing. Several times a week the ULC Modesto clergy sits down and approves ordinations. Noting is done online. ULC was ordaining LONG before there was an Internet. When you are ordained you are a minister. In the old west preachers were called and then ordained in the local church. They did not go to seminary (except in the east) and receive college educations. They were no less ministers than the seminarians and were respected by the community. I have more respect for the practicing ULC Minister that lives a life above reproach than for the seminary educated clergy that has been caught up in some of the recent scandals. I quote Ephesians 3:7 – “Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power”.

  15. Frances Handrick says:

    After the called by God, in 1993 and being lead
    by the Holy Spirit, living in today’s world, it is a blessing
    to be a true servant of the Almighty God! Today, I walk in my
    calling! When I put on the collar, I want to keep my mind on Christ
    the Lord, and who He has called me to be for Him to the world
    and think about soul’s. Being call out is not easy. If it was anyone
    could do it. My trust is in the Lord! May the Lord continue to help
    each one that is called to stand! In Jesus, Name Amen!


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