Real priests do not wear billboards. Part I

When I was thinking about ordained ministry, the idea of wearing a clergy shirt was appealing to me. The attraction was not any perceived power, or the desire to have a piece of plastic around my neck. Rather, it was the knowledge that every morning, I would have no decision to make about attire. Reach into the closet, grab the next black shirt, and put it on. I suppose that bias is one reason why I was particularly disturbed by two recent Facebook postings.

orange clergy shirtsI’ve reconciled myself to pastel clergy shirts (for someone else, not for me). But this is over the top. It’s a “Standing on the Side of Love Campaign” advertisement in the guise of a saffron-colored clergy shirt. I don’t know what the “Standing on the Side of Love Campaign” is, and I might support it. But it makes me want to start a “Standing on the Side of Non-billboardesque Clerical Garb Campaign.”

It seems to me that the point of the clergy shirt, besides my selfish desire to avoid sartorial dithering, is that it’s a role-based uniform. People see someone dressed like a priest, and they may be more easily able to relate to the wearer as a priest, not just as another dude or dudette. Mind you, I’m not saying the shirt is necessary, but that it has a functional benefit.

This is not unlike the wearing of a nurse’s uniform. The uniform does not define the person, but when you go to a hospital, you know who the nurses are and you know that you can just start in asking them questions and so forth. I do not want to see a nurse wearing a uniform adopting a position on national health care reform. It is a distraction at best. Someone seeking a priest very likely does not want to have a conversation about whether or not they are also on the side of love, or what that means. This billboard function wrecks the purpose of the shirt. If you want to campaign, put a sticker on your car or wear a button.

Now you might think — perhaps rightly so — that I’m making too much of this. But this one pushed me over the edge. It is a clergy shirt marketed to people so they can celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Really? So, what, I’m going to put on this shirt and partay? Unless I’m a Protestant in Northern Ireland, and then I guess the orange shirt pictured above might be more useful.

If someone has need of a priest while I’m wearing this ridiculous shirt, they are likely to wonder if I’m a real priest or if it’s some kind of joke. Wearing this stuff might relieve monotony for the person who, unlike me, tires of the same color every day. Alas, it places a burden on everyone with whom the priest interacts. They have to figure out what message is being sent and what it might mean for them in this moment.

Now I’m aware of folks who like to wear all manner of colored shirts. Many bishops choose to wear purple. There is good ancient justification for this, though plenty of bishops choose to continue wearing black. Some clergy wear pastel or “French blue” shirts or other colors. It doesn’t float my personal boat, but I think these other colors generally serve the functional purpose of the clergy shirt.

You can make your own decisions about plaid shirts, Hawaiian shirts, and the like. Again, not my style, but I know some clergy who go in for that, and it seems to work for them. I do wonder if there have ever been problems. I’d say if pastoral conversations begin very often with “tell me about your Hawaiian clergy shirt” then it’s crossed the line from “fun” to “distracting.”

In these strange shirts, there is a shift from symbol or function to fashion statement or, worse, billboard. What is meant to serve a function becomes a caricature, a distraction. These shirts are another worrying symptom of a problem we face in the church. To those who would wear the saffron shirt, I have a message: it’s not all about you.

A friend of mine was in social work school many years ago. As her personal fashion brand, she always used to wear two different mismatched socks. Well, they were mismatched from each other, but they always matched her outfit perfectly. After several visits with clients in their homes which began with “tell me about your socks” she stopped doing that. She saw that it was getting in the way of her reason for being where she was.

It seems similar to me. We clergy have to stop making things about us, whether it’s editing the liturgy, the way we preside or preach, or the way we dress. If what we’re doing is pointing toward us and away from Jesus, we’ve gone astray. If what we’re doing makes our interactions about us and not about those whom we serve, we’ve gone the wrong direction.

So next time you’re contemplating that “special Easter” shirt with bright egg shape designs, fuzzy pink cuffs, and a matching bunny ear hat, think again. It’s going to undermine your work if you have to make a hospital visit or attend the death of a parishioner.

Remember, it’s about Jesus. It’s about those we serve. It’s not all about you.

Also remember the ancient and venerable saying, “Black is always in style.”

Coming soon: another post in this sad series on wearing billboards. Chasubles!

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9 Responses

  1. Joseph F says:

    Uh oh, someone’s gonna be touching a nerve on ‘clerical individuality’ soon!

    I see clergy all the time who wear stoles and shirts to show off their personality. Note to clergy: It’s Not About You! That stole / chasuble / shirt is not some fashion accessory, something to show off just “what kind of cleric” you are. When will we see someone wear a Denver Broncos stole to show off ‘team spirit’ during Advent?

    Is it because spiritual consumerism is alive and well? Crack open a church furnishing catalog, drool over the neat new baptismal font / candle set / iconography / stole / etc… and look at just how much prettier you could make worship!

    In a culture that is so profoundly sick, that thinks spirituality can be bought at the local bookstore or yoga studio or psychic for a nice price, that wants something real and authentic and humble, why do we as a church buy into spiritual consumerism?

  2. Laura says:

    This particular billboard comes from the Unitarian Universalists–and believe me, there’s some outrage. See in particular PeaceBang:

    http://beautytipsforministers.com/2011/12/17/uua-standing-on-the-side-of-augh-my-eyes/

  3. Anisa says:

    And yet, they can’t be bothered to make a maternity shirt. . . .or a comfortable, flattering shirt of any sort for women. They have heard from me.

  4. You’re right. It’s not about me. A shirt made of a fun child-friendly pattern is a blessing at a children’s hospital or with Vacation Bible School. My pastel shirts with nice pantsuits are just the key in the community. Black is appropriate for somber occasions. With college students – don’t wear a clergy shirt cuz they don’t care. When I was a deacon, we hemmed and hawed about whether or not to wear a clergy shirt. I said then what I say now: Please let me use my own judgement regarding my clothes and don’t make assumptions. That goes for vestments and paraments too. (BTW that saffron thing is just ugly.)

  5. Jonathan says:

    Amen. Of course, if clergy don’t want to be in uniform they mostly don’t have to be, but it makes no sense to try to personalize major aspects of the uniform. Either wear the uniform or don’t wear the uniform. Uniforms need to be (mostly) uniform to work as identification.

  6. Douglas LeBlanc says:

    I have yet to see a Denver Broncos stole, but many years ago a fellow parishioner at a parish in Colorado wore a Broncos sweatshirt while serving as a chalice-bearer.

    At the time I considered it merely an annoying distraction. After the passage of many years, I find it much more disturbing than that.

  7. Audrey says:

    a.m.e.n.

    basic black for me. Shirt and clerical collar when I am ‘working,’ t-shirt and jeans when I’m not.

  8. C.B.:

    Has it occurred to you that you could just wear a fun shirt — no clerical collar — and your blessing the kids’ mud-pie tournament might be just as efficacious?

    The collar has serious symbolic meaning, but not wearing it doesn’t invalidate your “magic hands.”

  9. Susan says:

    Our bishop wore a New Orleans Saints shirt (under his vestments as I recall) during the Sunday morning closing service for our diocesan council on the day New Orleans played in and won the Super Bowl.