The Power of Plastic

Post Author: Rev. Whitney Wilkinson


That Little Piece of Plastic

I remember the moment vividly. I sat across from my Koine Greek professor, the woman with wild red hair and a penchant for saying, “Okie dokie, Smokie!” Her dark-rimmed glasses slipped down on her nose as she leaned in toward me. “You’re a petite, young-looking woman. How will you claim pastoral authority?”

Now, perhaps I should be clear that this question didn’t come to me in the midst of parsing participles. I was halfway through my seminary education, going through what my seminary termed a “Midterm Assessment,” geared at seeing whether we pastors-to-be were on the right track in our spiritual and academic formation for that role. I don’t know if other seminaries do this, but for me, it felt a bit like going before a theological firing squad of beloved, but intimidating as hell, professors. In the face of that bespectacled, steely gaze and blunt question, I responded as best I could.

“Well, I’d never say authority was a given,” I began. “You don’t take it – when you’re in relationship with people, caring for them, loving them, they give it to you.” My professor looked pleased. I felt like a gold star was in order.

But the truth is, I was wrong. Sometimes, people don’t give you authority just because you love them. Especially if you happen to be a diminutive, young-looking woman.

As with most lessons worth learning, I learned this the hard way. My first call was as a mission associate in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a part of the world I fell in love with as a mission volunteer after college. I was ordained in my home church and sent to serve as a youth and community worker in a church I knew and already loved, right in the heart of Belfast. I entered that church as they were in transition – their beloved pastor of decades had retired, and interims aren’t really a thing in Northern Irish Presbyterianism. So they were to be “vacant,” that is, have another local pastor oversee them, but basically make do on their own until they called their next pastor. It was a thought of the retiring minister and myself that I could help fill the gap a little there.

But that was certainly not the thought of the presbytery in Belfast. They wanted to make it very clear that I was not the minister of that church (though it so happened I was the only ordained person on staff). I wasn’t allowed to serve communion in that particular congregation, even though the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are in communion with one another. I also noticed that people in my church were a wee bit skittish about me preaching. The “theologian’s group,” who decided the scope and leadership of worship, met but I wasn’t invited (until I invited myself). No one wanted to upset the presbytery, especially when they needed a pastor. I understood that, but it was still painful to wait a year before preaching on a Sunday morning. It was painful to speak about the power of the table of reconciliation, and then have to step aside while a retired, male, Northern Irish pastor presided in my place.

I worked to make inroads outside the church as well, connecting to the local elementary school to teach religious education (which they have in primary schools there) with my quirky and sarcastic colleague, the youth worker at the church I served. The principal of the school heard I was an ordained minister. At first, he wouldn’t look me directly in the eye, and for weeks thereafter, he would refer all of his comments and questions to my male colleague. He once even suggested that my colleague go to seminary, to which I replied (uninvited), “You know, I’ve been to seminary.” He was not amused.

Our church was located in a student area, and so I tried to connect with the chaplains at the nearby university. I met with them and asked how we might support them and their ministry. They were lovely, and we discussed possibilities for partnership. But when the time came for a community forum to discuss the welfare of students, one invitation from them was extended to the church – addressed to my male non-ordained colleague, not me.

I loved as best I could. I showed care as best I could. Yet I had very little in terms of pastoral authority. Then, one day, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I was in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. And ministers in that place (admittedly mostly male) had something in common: they wore a little piece of white plastic around their neck: a clerical collar.

I searched the internet, found a clerical shirt that was fair-trade (and patted myself on the back for that), and ordered it. It was ridiculously too big for me, but with the sleeves rolled up and the long shirt tucked into my trousers and a blazer covering all the extra fabric, it looked okay. I was very glad it was so cold in Belfast with all those layers!

I tried the collar out one Sunday. The reactions were immediate and uniform: “Oh, I didn’t even realize you were a minister!” “That’s right, you’re ordained!” And, my favorite Pinocchian comment, “Wow, you look like a real minister!”

I found my pastoral authority with these lovely people in a three-inch piece of plastic. Perhaps they gave that plastic more power because they knew I loved them, but still, it all changed the day I put that silly dog collar on. I was invited to preach with more frequency. People let me in as a pastoral presence in their lives, and began discussing theology with me. I’ll admit I got a delicious thrill from ordering wine at lunch in a pub after church while wearing that collar, to the bemusement of the bartender.

I learned to own the authority that little piece of plastic brought me: not a forceful, domineering sort, but a quiet authority that said to the world, “This is who I am: a minister. It is not all of who I am, but it is a pretty big part, and I’m not ashamed of it. I own it. ”

I don’t wear a collar much these days in my rural North Carolina church, but I don’t really need to. In fact, I think it might just work against me here, creating more separation between laity and clergy. But sometimes, when I’m going to be around pastor colleagues (and most certainly be the token young woman among them), I wear a collar. Not that old oversized, rough, rolled-up clerical shirt, mind you. I wear a lovely, comfortable clergy dress from London, made especially for us clergywomen and, glory of glories, it even has pockets! I put on some fabulous shoes and rock that dress with the plastic collar when I need to. But the rest of the time, that collar’s still there, even when you can’t see it. It turns out that the authority was in the pastor wearing it all along; the plastic was just a visible sign of what was already there.

Rev. Whitney Wilkinson is a Teaching Elder (Minister) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and serves as a solo pastor in a rural North Carolina church. She adores coffee, trees and her dog, and believes that Nutella is proof of God's love for us.

Image by: Whitney Wilkinson
Used with permission
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