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It was the first day of the new semester in seminary. First days are about introductions and setting the expectations. Important, but I always get a little bored. After the professor went through the syllabus and shared the expectations from the curriculum, the professor then spent a good chunk of the time talking to us why it is important to call the prof Dr. XXXXX and not by his first name. My intrigue went up, it wasn’t so boring at this point. He expressed that while many professors were making the move to welcome seminary students to call their professors by their first name, he preferred Doctor. His reasoning was that in calling a professor by their title we were being more honest about the roles and functions of professor and student. At the time, I thought this was ridiculous. West Michigan culture is built on familiarity and relationship, and I thought the title put distance between student/professor relationships. In a not so mature move, I usually called the professor by his first name because I disagreed with his philosophy (plus I knew his family outside the classroom). He was the first one to teach me why titles matter.
At my soup kitchen in New York City I wear all black with my clerical collar. I am clearly communicating my role and function with my clothes. Some in my soup kitchen have never had a woman pastor before. I remember the first time “Texas” showed up. He looked me up and down and said in his thick Southern accent “You a Reverend?! Where I come from women aren’t Pastors. What your name?” I looked at him, quickly finding all the compassion I could find for myself and him and said firmly, “Hello, welcome to New York City where women and men freely serve as ministers. You may call me Reverend. Will we have any problems?” He looked at me, perhaps surprised at my direct response, and said, “No ma’am.” A year later and he still calls me Reverend. Titles matter.
My soup kitchen primarily serves men. Imagine with me a room full of 150+ men, most live on the street. It’s full of the beloved community of God. I greet each one by name, or if I don’t know their name, I offer a kind welcome. Each week I reintroduce myself “Welcome, I’m Pastor Jes, and we are so glad you are here today!” Yet some still call me “sweetie” or “honey.” When I hear that, I will often say, “You may call me Pastor, not sweetie.” Most respect my desire, but some go on and I’m called sweetie each week. It’s a little uncomfortable.
I’m not a stodgy minister. I think anyone who has read my stuff on The Twelve can pick that up by now. In fact, I probably err on the side of too common and at times irreverently reverent. Sometimes I even argue with myself and think, is it really that important to be called Pastor Jes and not just Jes? I am from a generation that questions authority and questions anything that keeps us away from being real with each other. I feel the internal tension in me as I write. So why the talk of titles?
I stirred up a conversation on Twitter last week about why titles are important. While the responses were diverse, consistently it was the women who respond with completely understanding why titles are important. We get that people are more apt to call us “honey” and our male colleagues “Pastor XXXX.” Some of my male colleagues on Twitter pushed back and said respect doesn’t come from the title it comes from how well I serve. While it is true, respect comes from putting in the years and faithfully functioning in my role as Minister of Word and Sacrament. I would argue that most men will not have to feel that same burden. One man pushed back and said that he questions titles because there is a “fine line between vanity and respect.” I pushed back and said “For women ministers who have not had the luxury of vanity as ministers for generations, it is about respect.” In a very patriarchal field, for women clergy, titles are important. Titles communicate, and acknowledge, the authority that has already been given at the day of ordination. This is not about power and nor is about ego. I think those would be harsh and false critiques and would communicate that someone doesn’t really get the gender inequality. This is actually about respect and care. Titles matter because when we are aware of our roles and functions we are setting ourselves up to live as a healthier and more loving community.
Thinking back to seminary, I’m grateful my seminary professor was the one to teach me about roles and functions and how titles help us to be in honest relationship to each other. Titles keep us accountable to our calling, too. Titles aren’t everyting, nor are they our primary idenity, but they do matter.
Thanks for this insight.
From a male minister who rightly keeps learning what it's like for women to be ministers,
Your title DOES describe your primary identity — while you are serving in the soup kitchen.
Jesus was called "Teacher," and I've been honored to be called by the same title. Some of my colleagues insisted on being called, instead, by their name (as in "Mrs. VanderWhatever"). While that may have worked for classroom teachers, it was very difficult for younger children to think through the long list of once-a-week "specials" for the teacher's proper name — and still remember their sometimes urgent question. Roles can change over time; someday these youngsters may call me by name. Someday I may be calling one of them, "Dr. VanderSomething"! If a friend becomes an elder, their role sitting in my living room would vary from previous visits, and I might call her "Elder Jane." A day might come when our roles would be reversed, and so our titles. It would help all concerned remember what they are called to do, in that role, at that time.