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Doctor! Doctor!

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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Tony Vis says:

    Well said, Doc! 😉

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The two Chinese characters that spell “duck” mean “quack-bird,” or so says my dry cleaner. I asked about these characters because sometimes he uses those to refer to me on my laundry slips. But the English spelling “DUCK” is what he has written in the collars of my shirts. Seventeen years ago, when I first brought him my custom, he asked me for a name. Something quick and easy. I thought of what the kids called me in Hoboken, “Doc,” I told him, and “duck” is how he heard it.

    Years ago, when I arrived in Hoboken, the youth in the church wanted to call me Daniel. I said, No, they had to call me something else. They didn’t like “pastor”. I said, “What do you call your teachers?” (They all attended private Catholic schools.) So Joy piped up, “We’ll call you ‘Doc’!” And so they did. And that became my name among all the kids in the neighborhood. (Sometimes “Dottore” at Piccinnini’s Salumeria.) I do use my full title when I sign my name, but I prefer to be called Pastor or Dominee.

    One quibble. The academic hood was originally a liturgical vestment. It came from the hood worn in chapel to keep you warm. I would argue that at services of Ordination and Installation, which are not sacraments but services of Prayer, the hood is the proper vestment, not the stole.

    I wear a collar and a cassock and surplice with preaching bands. But the most elegant, glorious, and impressive vestments I can think of is in photos of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: A simple black gown, a simple white shirt, a simple dark tie. I myself don’t have the stuff to be worthy of such vestment.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks,Tony. Daniel, aka quack-bird, as with about everything, context matters, so for your youth in Hoboken. I’m speaking for a generally understated and humble ethos, and against a tendency to strut our stuff and insist on being “titled.” About ordinations/installations, I get those. Somewhat like a commencement, those are times to pull out the stops and let flags fly. Wear you hood if you’ve got one.

  • UnitedPastor says:

    In the opinion of one who has neither a PhD nor a DMin, the matter with calling oneself “Doctor” is a matter of conversation. Someone with a PhD, having gone through a battery of certain discipline-approved testing, will be able to have a certain level of conversation, with a certain kind of depth. Probably a really deep depth. A D.Min. can certainly have conversations with PhD’s, but the depth will be different, as will have been the focus of their studies. I once urged a prominent person in the RCA who had earned a D.Min. not to use “Rev. Dr.” as a title, because it gave the wrong impression, and it would inevitably lead to his own embarrassment because he’d find himself in conversations he couldn’t handle. My advice went unheeded; so be it. At the same time, I know a few PhD’s in the ministry whose degrees couldn’t be farther from their vocation in ministry. They wisely don’t ask to be called “Rev. Dr.” – not because they don’t have a doctorate, but because it would send an incorrect message. It’s not a matter of respect or legitimacy, in my opinion. By and large, someone who has an earned academic degree or professional degree (in many cases honorary degrees) has earned it. But using it – that’s another story. Sez the guy who has neither.

  • James Schaap says:

    When my eight-year-old son got wind of the commotion surrounding his father’s becoming a “doctor,” his first question was when I’d be opening an office. When I explained the truth, he was clearly saddened.

  • (Rev. Dr.) Mara Joy Norden says:

    When you get beyond the world of white men, this applicability of this post gets much less clear to me.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    I have been grappling with this for two days now. Thanks, Steve! Like I have nothing else to do. First, I have to agree that if the title “doctor” makes one haughty, or if she or he uses it for theological one-up-manship it is best avoided. But I wonder if using the title doctor cannot be a good thing.

    Given the title, Reverend Doctor, the Reverend title is clearly the most important and overshadows the Doctor. If Reverend means a church’s ordained and installed pastor, that title is distinctive and superior. Why? The answer has to be what one is doing in service to the church. Some ministers formerly used the letters VDM. Verbi dei minister. Minister of God’s Word. Or better, “servant” of God’s Word. Would it be a bad thing for the minister to be acknowledged as a servant in the church? Surely Jesus taught otherwise. His call is for us to humbled and servant of all.

    Which leads to the question of what are the titles for? What is their function? Their function is FOR the church. Minister for the church. Pastor for the church. Reverend for the church. Servant of God for the church. And finally, doctor for the church.

    It is about the church. Not about the doctor. It is about the church, not about the reverend.

    In former times, far more ministers than today were granted Doctors of Divinity degrees. These were (and are) honorary, but they were given for some outstanding service to the church (and still are). Ministers were often called doctor, and if someone had a DD it appeared after their name. (E.T. Corwin, in whose parsonage I live is listed in his manual as having earned just the AB. It says he graduated from NBTS in 1856, but does not mention the degree of BD in his manual. He does mention that his son, Charles earned the BD. Corwin was awarded a DD and LittD from Rutgers.)

    If a church’s minister has a doctorate and insists on being called “Doctor,” clearly he or she has run off the rails and insisting on that appellation is more about his or her honor rather than God’s or the church. If, however, one has a doctorate better to be able to serve the church, then the acknowledgement of that within the church might not be such a bad thing.

    I have noticed in my region (mid-Atlantics) that at ordinations and installations, fewer and fewer clergy (none sometimes) wear an academic hood. Is that a good thing? In our reformed churches we place a high value on educated clergy. Is there something wrong with the recognizing that in our garb?

    When I received my DMin, the church treasurer asked how much of a raise that degree earned me. I was amazed at the question. Raise? The study, research and degree were earned for the church, not for me. I was given the privilege of that further education. Hopefully the ministry of our church was helped by my study. Interestingly one of my members who earned a PhD in public health told me after I was awarded the doctorate that now I had to give back for the opportunity and honor. I love that and have repeated his exhortation frequently.

    So what? I don’t think wearing the hood and chevrons on occasion, and being listed as Rev Dr hurts. It can help. But if it is vainglorious, then not so much.

    • stevemvw says:

      Thanks, Fred for your sincere engagement. It’s taken me a couple days to process the reactions. I trust it is clear that I’m not against all titles, and certainly not anti-education or anti-accomplishment. As others have pointed out, times like installations and ordinations are times for celebration and splendor. I agree there may be a few places in print to use “the Rev. Dr.” I was a bit surprised I didn’t get any push back from either the academic or medical communities, both of which I thought I quietly accused of being tribal and obsessed with status. Better, I think, for ministers not to be so insecure and grasping as to want to play their game.
      The reaction of your church treasurer may be instructive.The public expects degrees to be used for raises and pretentiousness, even though you, and really all the ministers with doctorates who I know, did it out of passion for the church and Christ. Still, that’s why I counsel modesty and humility. Are such terms like “humility” ripe for misuse, to keep down and deny the accomplishments of those who’ve never had their moment in the sun? Yes, of course. Despite that danger, I still believe we serve and represent one who was about self-emptying. Am I a voice of privilege counseling this? Yes. Even so, I think it is good counsel.
      “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you.”

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks, Steve. A local small “Christian” college lists several faculty with PhD’s from diploma mills. I have fun visiting the web sites of such bogus “universities” and the so called accrediting agencies. One accrediting agency asserts on its web site that work within the Christian community is distinct from strict definitions of study the academy. They aver that Christian work and accomplishments are every bit as valuable. No argument there. But then we must ask, why does the diploma mill award a degree called “Doctor of Philosophy”? They do not even award ThD’s! Instead they insist on offering a credential that the world esteems, the PhD. That is so hollow and so profane! (we will not get into why a minister spends his time spelunking colleges for bogus degrees) This is another warning to us all in tune with the points you made in your article. Signed, Dr. Muell – whoops, Fred.

  • MacPhast says:

    Hoping to complete a DMin soon.
    Although I’ve told my wife that she will have to refer to me as “the Doctor,” that request is limited to her.

    A few things to consider in the PhD/ThD academic vs DMin professional doctorates:
    1. DMin usally requires as much or more graduate level coursework (MDiv = DMin)
    2. While PhD dissertations are academically grounded, they do not require the practical research of a DMin.

    If doctor=teacher, the degrees are on par with one another. Those with DMin typically serve in the church where one has to convey theological truths to actual circumstances of Christian life in the world.

    Maybe a DMin would be out of his depth in a discussion regarding familiarity with current (or ancient) research topics, but a PhD might find herself out of her depth when helping a church member make theological sense of his circumstances. (Lot’s of engineers can design an engine, but don’t know how to turn a wrench or know to leave room between parts to fit a wrench.)

    The degrees are merely different.
    Although I agree that insisting that a congregation call me Dr. would be pretentious (with a DMin or PhD), it is likewise pretentious for a PhD to presume that a DMin lacks an equivalent educational standing, merely because their students are different.
    This is predicated on the DMin being conferred by a credentialed institution.

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