“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.