Wednesday, 21 September 2016

What to Call Your New Pastor

Rev. Leonard. Pastor Leonard. Dr. Leonard. Bro. Leonard. Minister Leonard.

Here are some protocols for the use of titles for Baptist ministers--not that it matters, but just in case you'd like to know.

But preliminarily, the whole discussion must be nuanced by Baptist commitments to equality within the congregation. The indwelling of the Spirit upon every believer emphasizes that God can use even the least maidservant to help lead his people as anyone. Thus, there are no rankings within the Baptist church--at least there shouldn't be.

Titles serve merely a practical function. By referring to someone with the title "Pastor," Baptists simply recognize that Jim Leonard is the pastor of the congregation and not some other person. There might be a modicum of respect being expressed, but no more so than addressing your child's teacher as Mr. Smith, rather than as John. Moreover, sometimes titles are important when signing documents or writing formal letters to the city council or to the newspaper, for example. For this reason, Baptist aversions to titles should not be absolute.
  1. Not your own pastor: Rev. Leonard
  2. Your own pastor: a) Pastor Leonard; b) Pastor Jim
  3. Any pastor in an academic setting, assuming he has a doctorate: Dr. Leonard
  4. Any pastor outside a religious context with whom you do not enjoy familiarity, assuming he has a doctorate: Dr. Leonard (or anytime that you'd otherwise refer to him as Mr. Leonard)
  5. Citation in public writing: a) Rev. James M. Leonard, PhD; b) the Rev. Dr. James M. Leonard

For Baptists, it is always appropriate to call your pastor "Brother Leonard" or "Brother Jim." Pre-Reformation, "brother" and "sister" were ranked positions in the Catholic Church. It was a lower level rank, but still miles above the ordinary parishioner. Baptists democratized church rankings, based on their emphasis of the indwelling of the Spirit on every believer, and started calling each other brother and sister, thereby ranking every believer.

As an interim minister, I heard one church member complain that a prospective pastor did not address an older saint in the church with the polite title "Mrs." In that unique context, no one dare address elder church leaders without some title. I'd prefer to use a more distinctively Christian title. For this reason, I am in the habit of referring to our church members as Brother Smith or Sister Jones.

Jesus' warns about taking titles too seriously, emphasizing the importance of humility. Fair enough. Of course, Paul is not shy about assigning titles to himself and to his colleagues. In some contexts, he is nothing less than Paul the Apostle, even if he also self-identifies as a slave of Christ. He's happy to refer to Phoebe as Deacon of Cenchrae. He addresses deacons and elders in his letter to the Philippians.

So, it is important to recognize that whatever title that is bestowed on us Baptist leaders, we accept it in humility, understanding that all good things that comes our way is a gift. We should also note that if we've been given much, much will be expected.

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