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empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

The Permeable Collar

empty chocolate candy wrappers on a wooden surface

“as I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life…”

I recently had a particularly rough pastoral day. One of those days that would leave even the most faithful priest questioning God’s divine providence. As I was driving home from the last encounter, I spontaneously turned toward one of the office buildings on the campus where I am chaplain. I was looking for one of my close friends to whom I might express my feelings of impotent sadness. I did not find her, but I did encounter another individual, someone who inhabits the spaces between friend, neighbor, campus colleague, and–yes–also parishioner.

As I sat in her office eating chocolate and crying about the inevitable tragedies of life, I could not help but think that there might be those who would find our interaction inappropriate. Was I breaking some priestly boundary by emotionally unloading on a member of my parish?

When I first set out to write for this column, the proposed topic was a reflection on how the clerical collar never really comes off, particularly in small-town rural ministry. But as I reflect more deeply, I wonder if it is more appropriate to say that the collar is permeable, not just ever present.

To say that I live and work in small town ministry is an understatement. I am chaplain at a small liberal arts college (with a student body well under 2,000) and the priest at what is essentially the village church. Our immediate community has fewer than 1,000 single-family residences. I live on the same street as both my junior and senior warden.

The reality of work in this job is simply the work of living in this community. My work is to be present at important campus events and to be a public witness for religious identity on a predominantly secular campus. My work is going to the grocery store, knowing the name of the barista who makes my Americano in the (one) coffee shop we have, singing in the campus community choir, and being engaged with important local issues.

When your work is quite simply the work of living your life in and among your community, how are you ever “off the clock?” Sometimes that means receiving the life burdens of the woman who works at the deli counter in the local market when I am quickly trying to grab a sandwich for lunch. Sometimes it means prayerfully guarding my language in matters of local conflicts—even while engaging as a “private citizen”—because people on both sides of the issue worship in my congregation. Sometimes it means refusing to leave my house on a day off because it is the only way I can truly be “off the clock.” Read more