Call me “Doug”


“What titles are we going to use – Reverend, Doctor, Pastor, or some combination like Reverend Doctor?”

The question was asked because we weren’t being consistent.  One pastor on my staff preferred one thing, another pastor preferred something different.  So, what titles will we use?  A fair question, except that I was conflicted about the subject.

The first time someone called me “Reverend Brouwer” – I’ll never forget where I was and who said it – I felt awkward and uncomfortable, which the person who said it surely intended. (Thereafter, he would call me “padre” to get a similar reaction.) True, I was newly ordained, but for heaven’s sake I was 27 years old and didn’t think of myself as all that “reverend” – and all that that word implied.

I have never liked “reverend” much.  Now, mostly funeral directors call me that, the ones who don’t know me very well.

Then came “doctor.”  I liked that one better.  For a while.  Not many people called me “Doctor Brouwer,” but when I heard it, I thought, “That has a nice ring to it.”  Kind of academic and smart.  My elementary school teachers (and some of my high school teachers) would have been surprised to hear it.  In fact, I think that’s why I liked it.  I had proven something to myself, if not to any of them.

But “Doctor Brouwer” is not very pastoral.  It doesn’t project the sort of warmth and caring and approachability that I imagine in myself.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, describes such deference as “well intentioned…[but also] as distancing as a velvet rope in a museum.”  Most pastors I know hate the thing with the velvet rope.  Taylor left the ministry altogether because of it.

To beat some of my readers to it, I should mention the term “dominie.”  It’s a term the Dutch Reformed often used for their pastors, usually not in an endearing way.  From what I’ve heard these men – and they were always men – didn’t care much about their warmth and caring and approachability, so the term has come to suggest a sort of distant and cold pastoral identity.

I’m no dominie, thank you very much, at least I hope not.

A few years ago I was serving a church where titles seemed to matter a great deal to church members. I could understand titles meaning something in a business or work setting, but not at church.  I wondered why we used them so often in newsletters and other publications.  So, I mentioned in a sermon that I had taken my diplomas down from the wall and put them in a closet.  I wanted to claim my baptism as my most important credential.  I even referred to the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 3 about his own accomplishments and how he counted “all these things as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

After the sermon, a church member confronted me in the Narthex, more loudly than necessary, about how much his degrees meant to him and how hard he had worked to get them.  After that I didn’t press the issue.

But I still wonder about titles at church.

When my children were growing up, I told them to call grownups “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” unless those grownups told them it was okay to use their first names.  So, what about grownups who are pastors?  Over the years most children have called me “Pastor Doug.”  When I first heard that, I wasn’t sure I liked it, and for a while I wore it uneasily, but gradually it grew on me.  Just the right amount of respect, but little of the unapproachability.

I think of myself as Doug.  You’re welcome to call me that.  If someone wants to give me a title, let it be “Pastor” Doug.  I like that too.

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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10 Responses to Call me “Doug”

  1. Jim Monnett April 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Great column. As you may remember I provoked discussions about this at your last church. As a youth pastor, I think teenagers and children need to refer to their pastors with a title of respect. But the new resident ministers couldn’t imagine being called “Rev…” or “Pastor…”as they still felt 27 like you and I did back in our first calls.

    My wife’s Dutch grandfather did always call me Dominie which I liked up till I learned all the assumptions that went with it. I’m only Dutch through my marriage and Hope College.

    I settled into a nickname of “RJ” from Rev. Jim, but I have often been called simply Pastor.

    Every church needs to find their way with this. But staff consistency is important. No easy answers for an issue that probably bothers us clergy more than it does anyone else.

    • Doug April 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Your grandfather had a good sense of humor, since you don’t remind anyone of a Dominie. Which is a good thing. I’m glad to hear from you, Jim.

  2. Carl Wilton April 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Little-known fact: “reverend” means something like “revered.” Its meaning is therefore quite different from “reverent” (which focuses on the spirituality of the person being described, rather than others’ respect for that person as an officeholder). That one letter makes a big difference.

    Not many of us in ministry are comfortable with being revered, Which is a good thing, because it does smack of the idolatrous. In its (little-known) literal meaning, “reverend” actually does more to string the dreaded velvet rope around us than perhaps any other ecclesiastical title.

    I’m with you. “Pastor Carl” is fine with me, but “Carl” is even better.

    From Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

    1. In its general meaning, reverend means ‘deserving reverence’, and is most often found in clerical contexts even when it is not a formal title, whereas reverent means ‘showing reverence’ in wider contexts:

    He also formed close links with the network of local Puritan ministers…whom he described in his will as ‘my reverend and pious friends’—Dictionary of National Biography, 1993

    You can get away from the reverent hush of the concert hall—Times, 2005.

    Reverential means ‘characterized by reverence’, and the main difference in meaning between it and reverent is that reverent describes a feeling or attitude and is judgemental whereas reverential denotes a connection with reverence and is informational:

    When she walked into a village the Africans would often clap their hands in a reverential way—W. Green, 1988.

    2. Reverend, abbreviated Revd (no full stop) or Rev., is most commonly found as a title applied to certain members of the clergy.

    Read more:

  3. Doug April 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I’m more reverent at my current age than I was at 27, though even then I was hardly wild. Just wanted to be!

  4. Jim Brazell April 24, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

    It seems to me that the issues of authority and authenticity are falsely held in tension. No one around Doug, and certainly himself, is likely to forget that he is a teaching elder. He’s always under that scrutiny, so how best to live with the expectation? I agree that Pastor Doug is among the best responses. I have preferred Rev. Jim for myself because I tend to see the office of ministry as revered, not me. In this I try to be congruent with other magistrates – the honorable, ‘Your Honor,’ etc. But I do tend toward outlying solutions. The other way I have dealt with that was, “Never late for supper,” which tends to display a humanity and humor that are more true than I care to admit. Blessings.

    • Doug April 25, 2013 at 3:04 am #

      This is helpful. Thanks, Jim.

  5. Jennifer Sansbury April 24, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    That sermon remains one of my favorites.

    • Doug May 28, 2013 at 8:52 pm #


  6. Ericka Kilbourne April 10, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    I remember when I served as an adult for the first time with the Wheaton Church on that mission trip to Wyoming. I was coming into my own understanding of myself as an adult. You told me, “Ericka, you and your mother are the only people left in the church who still call me Dr. Brouwer!” I don’t think I called you Dr. Brouwer again. I do remember, though, when we got the information about you when you candidating back in the ’90s and my father remarked, “wow, and he wants to come and be our pastor?!” Your credentials made us feel better about ourselves. I have to remember that when my congregation wants to introduce me as Rev. Dr. or have my title up on the sign of the church. They are proud of me. I’m proud of you…Doug and proud that you were once my pastor. Peace,

    • Doug April 13, 2014 at 9:30 am #

      That was wonderful, Ericka. Thanks for writing. I sorta/kinda remember the conversation. I remember feeling uncomfortable with the Dr. Brouwer. To explore your point, I’m remembering a National Baptist pastor who became my buddy. He drove a new Lincoln (I drove an older rusting Toyota). He wore an expensive watch and well tailored suits. And more. He told me that his largely African American congregation needed him to look good because they felt better about themselves. And he thoroughly indulged their need, but I wondered then if there was not more he could have done to change the culture of that congregation.

      By the way, I’m proud that I know you and so pleased about your ministry.