On Pastoral Identity: A Theology of Jeans

On Pastoral Identity: A Theology of Jeans

By Adam Walker Cleaveland

The idea for this pastoral identity blog post came while having lunch with my good friend Tony Hoshaw, as we were discussing what it means to be a pastor today and what that looked like, specifically, for me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about pastoral identity. It’s hard to think about pastoral identity when you’re making decisions to leave your current call, without having the next gig lined up. It’s hard to think about pastoral identity when your pastoral identity is being challenged and questioned by some. Honestly, I was at a loss.

But yesterday I was talking with my new personal/professional coach Kevin Benson (a friend from Whitworth-days), and an anecdote came to mind which I think speaks directly to my thoughts on pastoral identity.

The First Anecdote

Before accepting my current call, I was scheduled to preach at a neutral pulpit in Lincoln, Nebraska. For those of you who aren’t Presbyterian, that simply means I was at about “third-base” with a church, and if that weekend went well, we would have been close to sealing the deal.

A month or so before the weekend visit, I had a few questions I wanted to ask the senior pastor at the church. We’d talked a few times before, and I felt like we had some pretty good synergy (his word). I still remember sitting in my car, parked at Lithia Park in Ashland, when I asked my last question: “So, can you tell me a little about what type of dress is required around the office? Is there any kind of dress code during the week?”

The senior pastor was quick to respond: “Well, Adam, in my 25 years of ministry, I can count on one hand the number of days I haven’t worn a tie to work. So, that might give you some idea of what I expect. Khakis are good. Jeans are not – jeans are sloppy.”

And it was at that moment that I started to think about cancelling the neutral pulpit. But it wasn’t until my wife Sarah and I were having breakfast with my good friend Steve that I knew what needed to be done. I told Steve that story and he said something to the effect of, “Well, you know you can’t work there, right?”

Yes, I did know that.

And so I pulled out of a neutral pulpit because I was told I couldn’t wear jeans.

As I shared this story with friends, I received two types of responses:

When I think about pastoral identity, I think about jeans.

And when I think about jeans, I realize that there is something deeply theological about jeans for me.

The Second Anecdote

At our staff Christmas dinner this past year, we read a letter that had been written to the staff by our new church soloist. She was so appreciative of finding our church and enjoyed being a part of our music program. But it was the first line of her letter that stood out to me:

“I knew this was a different kind of church when I walked into the church and the first person I met was Adam.”

I was probably wearing jeans.

A Theology of Jeans

It’s not that I can’t dress up. In fact, I clean up pretty damn well. During the summer I worked as a hospital chaplain, I wore slacks, a shirt and a tie to work every day. That was the male chaplain “uniform” for the hospital, and that was fine. So, I can totally dress up. And I own slacks, khakis, shirts and ties. But there is something deeply theological to me about being a pastor who wears jeans.

It seems like such a little thing, but I think wearing jeans helps give people a quick idea of the type of pastor I might be. That perhaps I don’t fit the traditional idea of a pastor (yes, I know that being a middle-class, privileged, white male is a pretty traditional idea of a pastor). I’ve always felt drawn to offer a different vision of ministry and the church to people who are not interested in, or who have been burned by, the church.

I think jeans are, perhaps more symbolically than anything, a subtle way in which I can offer people today a different vision of the church, of pastors and of the gospel.

As I consider what it means for me to be a pastor, I am not interested in dressing the part or putting on an act to be the type of pastor that some expect or want. Of course I’m trained to do all the normal pastor stuff (preaching, pastoral care, funerals, etc.), but I have a unique set of gifts, skills and ways of doing ministry.

I believe I will be a better and more effective pastor when I can truly be who God created me to be. I believe I will be honoring the call God placed on my life when I am living an integrated life and being fully Adam.

If I have to hide parts of myself, if I feel like I can’t truly be myself and pastor at the same time, if I feel like I have to appear a certain way to meet the expectations of a few…well, it’s just not going to work. I may be able to pull off the duties of a pastor, but I will be a fragmented self. I will be living a lie.

And for me, it all starts with jeans.

But it’s also more than that.

My pastoral identity is deeply wrapped up in my own personal identity. You don’t get “Adam the Pastor” without also getting “Adam the Person.” I know some who like to keep those two identities separate, who don’t want to share their opinions (political or otherwise) with church folk, who don’t want to be “friends” with their parishioners…and maybe that works better for them.

But for who I am, and for who God created me to be, that feels inauthentic.

I still have a lot of thinking to do about this whole pastoral identity thing. But I know for me, it begins with jeans. That’s a non-negotiable.

As you think about your own pastoral identity, what are your non-negotiables? What are the things that you find are intricately tied to the type of pastor you are or want to be?

Adam Walker Cleaveland is a father, husband, artist and pastor. He lives in the Chicago-area and runs this blog. If you’d like to give him a job, he’d be really grateful – go here for more info.

This post is the last part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers an abundance of courses and events for pastors and lay-persons seeking vibrant learning and cohort opportunities specifically created to build and enhance skills in Christian education and formation, church leadership, spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our courses are designed for people at all stages of their ministry. Check out our current classes here.

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