The Permeable Collar

Post Author: Rachel Kessler

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.”

No doubt there are burdens to the ever-present nature of the collar in small town ministry.

Still, I come back to the countless gifts: the acts of grace and the friendship that I receive from members of my community, even when the collar is visibly “there” and I am explicitly “on the job.” It is the nature of small-town life, especially in a company town like my campus community, that people are accustomed to navigating multiple and sometimes conflicting relationships with one another. A department chair and junior professor might participate in the same board game club on the weekends. The village mayor is also a dedicated member of my vestry.

Members of my congregation fill the role of far-distant family members in supporting my children. Indeed, when I found myself suddenly readmitted to the hospital two weeks after the birth of my second child, it was a parishioner who dropped everything to stay overnight at my house with my three-year old.

The collar, with its dual natures (ever present but also permeable), can be a particular burden, but it is also a particular gift of small-town ministry. There is no point when I can cease to inhabit my dual roles of priest and chaplain within my context. But it is also true that even within my clerical capacity, I cannot cease to be a neighbor, a member of the local parenting community, and a colleague to those with whom I work at the college. I am always a priest and always a neighbor.

The gift of such incarnational ministry is that members of my community have a great capacity and willingness to see me fully as a complex human being, even when I am functioning in my clerical capacity. They understand that I sometimes have moments of weakness and need as much as any other person. They recognize that they have the capacity to support me, as much as I am called to support them.

This is not to say boundaries have no place in my ministry. I work hard to protect time with my partner and children. My daughter is the first to voice her disapproval on the rare occasions I agree to a meeting or something work-related on my “day off.” I have learned to demarcate other spaces needed for my self care–like TV and cookie night with two close friends. The peculiar nature of my ministry context does mean, however, that those boundaries must be held lightly. And it means recognizing that while the collar may be ever present, it is not present as an impermeable barrier. My personhood is always allowing the grace to show through.

Rachel Kessler is priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church in Gambier, Ohio, and chaplain at Kenyon College. She blogs at RevRachelRambles.Worpress.Com.

Image by: Rachel Kessler
Used with permission
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