Tag Archives: collars

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.

Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

Why tattoos are like clerical collars  – On being a Pastor with Tattoos

Tattoos are everywhere these days. According to pew research in 2010, nearly 4 in 10 millennials had tattoos. And half of those have 2 to 5. Generation X isn’t far behind with 32% having been inked.

So it hardly makes me unusual to be a millennial with tattoos.

I am also a Lutheran pastor, but I am by no means the only pastor with tattoos out there. In fact, if I had to guess about the pastors that I hang with, we might be more tattooed than average. And there is of course that famous tattooed Lutheran pastor, who has also written a few best selling books and even been interviewed on national radio here in Canada.

Tattoo #1 

ICTHUS- Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour

I went under the needle for the first time in the summer of 2006. Part of me is hopeful that I was ahead of the mainstream 10 years ago but I am sure I wasn’t. I was working at a bible camp at the time, and I remember having long talks about the implication of being tattooed. It would need to be a christian image, but not a cross. Every rapper had a cross tattoo by then (and rappers are a bad thing to the kind of young adults who work at bible camps). It would need to be in a place I could cover with clothes on a regular basis so that I could be a proper pastor (I was already a seminary student by then). But I also wanted the opportunity to show it off now and then. An original artwork Jesus fish on the back of my calf seemed like the best option.

That first tattoo made me feel cool. The comments of my co-workers, the kids at the camp, and my seminary classmates that I returned to that September made me feel ‘edgy’. Don’t laugh, it was 2006.

In 2009, I was ready to be ordained, and I hadn’t really thought about my Jesus fish much for a while. Then a church called me to be their pastor. My family told me to make sure I wore pants whenever I was working (as opposed to?), which I laughed at. But I was worried about what my new congregation would think if they ever saw my “edgy” tattoo.

And then the very first council meeting I was to attend, was also the day the uHaul was available for me to move into the parsonage. I drove up to the house only a few minutes before the meeting and sure enough I was wearing shorts on a hot summer day with my clothes still in boxes. What would these pious church folk think?

No one seemed to notice enough to say anything. So nothing?

That church had called me despite the fact that I looked like Hagrid from Harry Potter, or a giant dwarf from Lord of the Rings. My proportions are of someone with short legs and a squat body, except I am 6’2. And I had long hair and a beard at the time. A little calf tattoo was the least to get past when it came to my appearance.

After that I didn’t ever worry about my “edgy” tattoo.

But then unusual things started happening. I played slo-pitch in a Lutheran league, to which I usually wore shorts. Often players from other teams would comment on my Jesus fish. A number of times when other players found out that I was a pastor, they would think it was cool. They had never met a pastor with a tattoo (one they had seen).

For years after, I always wanted another tattoo, but I got my first on a lark at the one tattoo shop open on a Saturday in the small town near the bible camp. Going about getting tattooed in a serious way seemed like a lot of work.

Then life put another tattoo on the back burner. New calls to new churches, marriage and a baby.

Tattoo #2

For our 3rd wedding anniversary, my wife and I started talking about tattoos – yes, a bit of a stretch for the “leather” anniversary. And we wanted them to be seen. Somewhere that would regularly visible.

Great Colours

Courtenay got a peacock feather (we had a peacock feather themed wedding), and I got a lion of St. Mark with a greek bible verse (I am a pietist at heart and a church nerd).

So for the last 7 months I have had a tattoo that is visible the majority of time (I a

The Kingdom of God is Near

m almost always in short sleeves or rolled up sleeves). And as Justin Trudeau says, “Because it is 2015” I really didn’t think much of getting a tattoo, even as a pastor. My congregation largely didn’t notice either – bless them. A few said they thought I always had it, after I used it as an object lesson in a children’s sermon. Others have asked about and admired my lion.

Yet, outside of my usual group of church people, unusual things have started happening again.

Most of the baptisms I do are for families who are seldom active in the church, but have returned for whatever reason to get their child baptized. For this reason, I have opportunity to invite myself into the homes of unchurched or de-churched people in order to talk about Jesus. I have been doing this for 7 years and I always thought it was going well. But something changed once I had this big lion tattoo on my arm. People started relaxing more quickly, I didn’t have to make 10 jokes just to put people at ease. These poor young families with a pastor intruding in their home to talk about Jesus started to sense that I am a real person. All it took was a tattoo to break the image of christian judgement robot that pastors often have on TV.

My second tattoo is a wedding anniversary gift and it makes me think of my wife every time look at it (the greek bible verse says “the Kingdom of God is near”, and my wife and kids make me feel as close to paradise as I have ever felt).

But I never expected that my tattoo would also be a tool for ministry. I never thought it would humanize my clerical collar… that it would make the person in the shirt a person and not a caricature.

I never thought that when I rolled up my sleeves halfway through a conversation about baptism with a young unchurched mother who was getting her baby baptized for her mother-in-law that she would say,

“You have a tattoo! Is that okay for pastors to have?”

And then we would get to have a great conversation that makes Jesus, christians and the church seem reasonable.

Tattoo #3


A few weeks ago, I got my 3rd tattoo on my other forearm. A birthday present from my wife. An elephant for my son, whose constant companion day and night is a little stuffed elephant named Pete.

The day after I got it, I presided at a funeral. Funerals can be awkward for pastors as there are usually a lot of people and you become a momentary figure of importance on a small scale. Since they watch you lead worship, people feel like they know you, but you don’t know them. Some are friendly, but many people avert their eyes when you come strolling into the lunch. Either way, when you are the one in the collar, people react to you with different levels of comfort. Some see you as a friendly and safe person, others are wary or unsure.

As I was mingling before lunch, a women passed me, averting her eyes … which landed on my tattoo. This stopped her and she began asking about it. We then shared a brief conversation about where I got it, which opened the door to more conversation about the funeral itself. My guess is that this woman have likely avoided me, but the tattoos were an opening. Still, for those whom the collar is safe and friendly, that hasn’t changed. I am still a safe person to approach.

A few weeks later, I met a de-churched young couple coming for pre-baptismal preparation before worship. I was wearing my vestments, which cover my arms. They seemed nervous to greet me. But following worship, with my vestments off and my arms uncovered, I could see the tension and nervousness leave the couple. My tattoos made me seem more human and relatable.

Tattoos and Collars

When I made the decision to get inked with permanent body art, I did so because I wanted to. It wasn’t about ministry at all.

IMG_1360But in some ways tattoos are like clerical collars.

Becoming an ordained pastor or getting a tattoo is a deeply personal decision. When you put on a collar you are displaying publicly an important and personal part of yourself. Everyone who sees you knows important and personal details about your job and  about your religious beliefs.

Tattoos function in much the same way. Tattoos are personal symbols and images on public display too. Everyone who sees your tattoos is given an image of something that is likely personal and meaningful to you.

When I wear a collar I embody a symbol that carries a variety of meanings to the people I meet. Symbols that range from spiritual caregiver to pedophile.

When I am just a guy in street clothes with tattoos, I embody an entirely different symbol to people. Symbols that range from millennial hipster to Hell’s Angel.

When I wear both, two symbols that have traditionally not mixed before come together.

And the thing I never expected about wearing both – a collar and tattoos – was that they would would humanize and tame each other,  and they would together open doors that neither could on their own.


What do you think about tattoos? What do you think about Pastors? Do you have stories involving both? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

If you are in the Winnipeg area and looking for a fantastic tattoo artist, check out Tattoos by Coral.