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Congratulations to all the graduates this time of year—pre-school and high school, bachelors and doctorates.
I want to talk especially to those ministers with doctorates—both Ph.Ds and D.Mins—who serve in the church. I’m glad for your work and accomplishment. Almost always it is a real asset for your ministry. But keep your titles and academic regalia out of the church.
My contention is that being identified as “Doctor Smith” when serving as pastor is pretentious, unnecessary, and a blurring of lines. Doctor is an academic title appropriate for academia. In the church, be “Mary” or “Pastor Mary” or “Pastor Smith.”
Perhaps in more formal, written usage—letterhead or a website—it’s okay to be listed as “The Rev. Dr. Mary Smith.” Or perhaps to write in a bulletin, “Today we welcome the Rev. Dr. Frank Jones…” But in day-to-day, in-house usage? “Dr. Smith will be leading a group to the Cubs game.” Please. Even more grating to me are ministers who insist that people refer to them as “Doctor.”
What I’m saying is true for both Ph.Ds and D.Mins. This isn’t intended to be a slam on Doctors of Ministry as somehow lesser. But it is true that the D.Min is a professional degree, not an academic one. That’s not to say it isn’t earned or valuable. But in my experience, academia is a tribe with pretty rigid borders. Rightly or wrongly, academics are always on guard for interlopers, pretenders, and wannabees, those who haven’t paid the same dues as they. When ministers with a D.Min use “Dr.” in an attempt to gain distinction and deference, I think the effort often backfires among those in the know, those who aren’t convinced a D.Min. is a doctor in their sense.
My daughter is a pharmacist. She holds a Pharm. D.—Doctorate of Pharmacy. But almost no pharmacist ever asks to be called “Doctor,” certainly not those with any degree of common sense, and especially those who work closely around M.D.s. I think ministers with doctorates, especially D. Mins, would be wise to have a similar attitude.
It isn’t as big of deal to me, but I’m also not a fan of the three doctoral velvet bars on the sleeves of ministers’ robes. Their significance is understood by so few, I’m less adamant about this. Again, it is a matter of context. You are in worship, not at commencement. I’ve heard that Calvin apparently wore academic robes in worship. I don’t care. I don’t have to imitate Jean on everything. Or, if you wish, wear a Geneva robe sans the bars. Wearing an academic hood in worship, however, is nothing but ostentatious.
The church is a place that values learning, but it is not academia. Yes, there is an appropriate place for respect in the church, even titles when used modestly. But let the church be a place that is not status-conscious and is not arranged according to degrees. Keep the unnecessary titles and academic regalia out.
Three random tales about “doctors.”
- Someone once told me never buy any book where the author is identified on the cover as “Dr.” or “Ph.D.” The back cover blurb may identify the author as “holding a doctorate from….” I think the impulse behind this advice is similar to my concerns above. If you need to flash your title that bad, you are already suspect.
- I wish I remembered the context better, but many years ago in a Bible study group with elderly women, the discussion must have been about health or medicine. Bernace, one of the women, said to me, “Steve, you’re not a doctor.” I stammered, smiled, and said, “Well, actually, I am.” She replied, “Yes, I know that, but not the kind that helps people.” We all had a good laugh at her inadvertent appraisal of Ph.Ds.
- The only person ever to refer to me as “Dr. Mathonnet-VanderWell” was my mother. That is how she would address my birthday cards. It made her happy and that warmed my heart. If your mom or spouse wants to address you likewise, I’m good with that.