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That Darn Collar

Hours after receiving my denomination’s final approval for ordination a little over a year ago, I began pouring over catalogs and websites trying to decide what type of clergy shirts to order. Long sleeve or short sleeve? All black or a mix of colors? The amount of time I spent doing this is quite ridiculous considering there are very few options to begin with and the prices are steep.

Once I received the shirts and collars in the mail I figured the hardest part of the whole collar-thing was done. Wrong. The second time I donned that sweat-inducing piece of plastic around my neck after my ordination, I had my first (and rather rude) awakening to the public/private tension of being a priest. After guest preaching at friend’s church, I stopped at a local Exxon station to get some gas and use the restroom. As a matter of fact, I didn’t need gas as much as I needed to empty my bladder. Normally, I refuse to use gas station restrooms, but I had a three-hour drive ahead of me. It couldn’t wait.

Once I went inside I discovered a long line for the restroom. Fabulous. I tried to hide my angst, but I felt like a four year old ready to bust through the seams.  A couple of minutes after standing squished between bags of chips and bottles of motor oil, a woman with three young children joined me in line. We exchanged conspiratorial smiles of urgency and went back to that awkward staring-at-the-wall thing. Suddenly, the woman turned toward me, touched me on the shoulder, pointed to the plastic collar around my neck and gushed, “Excuse me. I normally wouldn’t ask someone this, but you appear to be a nice person. Would you mind if my children and I could go in front of you? We’re kind of in a rush.”

“Umm, sure,” I replied in a confused state of disbelief. I would have let her gone ahead anyway because of the three kids thing, but her acknowledgment of my collar and her inference that I “appeared to be a nice person” because of it threw me for a loop.

Granted, I hope I am a nice and gracious person most of the time. But the truth of the matter is, I have a way too-short fuse, get frustrated easily, and well, I’ll just stop there. You get the point. Waiting for the woman and her family to finish, I started thinking not-so-nice thoughts about the her. Moments later, as I entered the single-person restroom and performed that delicate balancing of act of trying not to touch anything, I realized that I wasn’t necessarily mad. Rather, I was taken aback by her comment about “being nice.” Who am I? I wondered. What do I do with all these expectations? What will happen if I’m not always nice? For the rest of the drive home, my mind raced with anxiety.

That rainy August afternoon was the first of many times I would be forced to consider my role and image as a clergywoman. For the first couple of months, I was self-conscious every time I wore my collar outside of the church. I wearied of feeling that I had to be “nice” all the time, especially after long, trying days at work. When I lost my temper after being treated poorly at a local cellular phone provider, I felt like a fraud. Of course, that was also the same day my congregation witnessed the second death of a parishioner in less than a week–an unexpected death of a young husband and father. Intellectually, I knew that I didn’t need to be “on” all the time, but my actions betrayed a different sort of belief.

I shared my angst with a friend–a friend who is not a member of the clergy–and she said, “Maria, come on! You’re human, too. You have bad days. Your congregation knows what you are really about. God knows what you are about.” Her words pierced me to the core. Indeed, how could I be an authentic pastor if I could not authentically be a human being first?  Broken, weary, wounded, sinful, and ever still, redeemed.

Over the course of that first year in ordained ministry my country parish suffered what one colleague called, “unexpected and enduring trauma.” My supposed quarter-time status quickly morphed into three-quarters, and sometimes even full-time, work. My dissertation stalled. Our souls ached. During that time, I cried with parishioners and got mad alongside them. I baptized babies and sat with our young people as they faced tough questions about life, death, and faith. Many times, my little plastic collar was nowhere to be found, but I learned that I was doing the work of my calling anyway. This was what being a pastor was all about. This was what mattered.

Yes, my collar forced me to ask tough questions about my identity, but it was the living that told me who I was. Indeed, in the deepest part of my being I know and believe that an essential part of my calling to the priesthood is helping to make the Church a hospitable, welcoming place for all people to find their story and life in God and in community–especially those we label and marginalize. Indeed, my love, my life, and my joy, are in my vocation.

Even still, sometimes I just really need to use the potty.

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