Don’t Call Me “Pastor”

Seth Merrin said that having no titles is symbolic, but it really works. (Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

When I talk to journalists, I regularly need to ask them not to refer to me as “Pastor Tony Jones,” or “Tony Jones is a Christian pastor…” That’s because I am not, currently, a pastor. Call me a “minister” or a “clergyperson” or a “theologian-in-residence,” but not a pastor.

“Pastor” is a role, not a title. Even better than a noun, it’s a verb, and if one is “to pastor,” then one needs a congregation to pastor. Deriving from the word for shepherd, a pastor needs sheep.

But, as you might guess, I’d rather do away with titles in church life altogether. I am firmly against hierarchies — bishops, synods, general assemblies, district superintendents, etc. — because they are bad for the gospel. They may be good for organizational proliferation, but the gospel has absolutely no interest in organizational proliferation.

Last weekend, the New York Times reported on Liquidnet, a brokerage firm that has recently done away with all titles. Seth Merrin founded Liquidnet, and the interview with him is fascinating — and should be studied by pastors, church council members, and denominational employees. Here are some money quotes:

Q.Tell me about some of the values of your culture.

A. One is personal responsibility. I tell this to our new people during orientation, but if you see something that we’re not doing right and you don’t say something, then it’s on you. If you think that everyone on the leadership team is taking into account everything that could possibly go wrong, you’re wrong. It’s everybody’s responsibility to help us run this company better than we can do it by ourselves.

One of our philosophies is that I would much rather have everyone assume that everything we do here is wrong and that it’s your responsibility to help us fix it. That eliminates all the ego, or it should eliminate all the ego. Since we’re trying to constantly improve ourselves, you’re helping us by giving us some suggestions about what we can do better.

Q.Some people must be a bit skeptical at first. It’s one of those policies that sounds good in theory, but how do they know you mean it?

A. Well, first of all, we don’t have any titles. And the reason is that I do not want a junior vice president to be at a meeting and not say anything because they have a senior vice president in the room, which I believe happens quite often. Having no titles is symbolic, but it really works. Just to give you one example: we had an intern, 19 years old, and there were a bunch of us in a meeting. I was giving everyone my latest and greatest idea and he took me on and he disagreed with me. It turned out he was right, and I told him he was right at the meeting. So we have to practice it at the top.

Q. But you must have some hierarchy.

A. Everyone has managers, but the elimination of titles means that everyone has a right to state their opinion. We define levels by the responsibility you have in the company. So I am a “shape.” Most of the folks on the leadership team are shapes. We help shape the direction of the company. The people next level down are “guides.” The level below that are “drives,” and below that are “solves” and then there are “creates.” A working group came up with those levels. I just think they nailed it.

Q.What else about your culture?

A. We have something that I call a very efficient organ-rejection mechanism. If somebody comes in and just does not fit the culture, we reject them. Firing is a very big and an important part of who we are, as well. I think firing is much harder than hiring but it’s every bit as important. If you make a mistake, try to fix the mistake as quickly as you possibly can.

Of course, many church people will read this and say, “Well, we do that. We listen to interns and we have egalitarian roles.” They’ll say that as they affix their clerical collar around their neck and make sure that it says “Rev. Dr. Joe Schmoe, M.Div., D.Min.” on the bulletin each Sunday.

There are systems, Merrin admits, and there is leadership. His decision to eliminate titles at his firm was exactly that: an act of leadership. But titles are not about leadership, they are about power. Get rid of them, and watch the power dynamics in your church change. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/2TrakMind Kevin Burgess

    I was appointed the “leader” of our adult “connections” group at the church we’ve attended. It was a group of our peers and I had no real authority, per se. I set out to model the environment of the early church and worked hard to create a forum where anyone could introduce a topic for discussion and everyone was encouraged to contribute freely. I made every effort to draw people out and after several months of trying to get people to talk, it occurred to me that the simple fact that I had been appointed as the leader, automatically set up a barrier between us. The expectation was that I was the “teacher,” and they were the student, and in school, the student doesn’t contribute, or offer their opinions, or perspectives, especially if they differ from the teachers. I came to the place where I felt God was leading me away from leading that group, as they weren’t ready for an open forum, but really wanted a teacher to feed them. I find it ironic that they’re called “connections groups,” as no actual connecting happens there, or within the broader church in general, for that matter.

  • http://twitter.com/ggbolt16 Greg Bolt

    “So I am a “shape.” Most of the folks on the leadership team are shapes. We help shape the direction of the company. The people next level down are “guides.” The level below that are “drives,” and below that are “solves” and then there are “creates.”

    So they do, in fact, have labels and hierarchy. I wonder if the “creates” oppose the “shapes” often or is that anecdote about the 19 yr old an anomaly.

    People in my context (I am a pastor with a congregation) call me Pastor Greg. I ask them to call me Greg. They chose that “title” for me. I can keep pushing against it or I can accept my role in this community and accept that sometimes people are looking to me to make a decision.

    I also can, concurrently, work to create an environment where voices are heard and ideas come from all angles. (I hope that’s what’s happening now.)

    Also, in the church world, we do this thing where we change the name of something but not the role. Like in a book I read by Anthony Robinson about changing church culture he suggested that you have “teams” instead of “committees”. Which is all well and good but when I asked him about that (he came to a seminary class) in almost every way a “team” functioned like a “committee” It seems absurd and confusing to just change a name or in this blog “do away with titles” even if everybody is just going to keep acting the same.

    [rant done]

  • Alex Shea Will

    The idea that removing titles “eliminates ego” is just absurd. What I would contend is that this renaming of titles, as it should be called, breaks people out of their normal routine. People might begin to see themselves as something more than their title, or perceived relationship to another’s title. Ego is never destroyed or diminished in these instances; rather, our ego is transformed when we consider the new things that might be possible in our life. That must be what Mr. Merrin is referring to. However, once the new titles get old and familiar patterns big to play out, the destructive edge of ego will return. The Gospel calls us to cut to the heart of our ego, not to wallpaper it over with renamed titles.

  • http://twitter.com/benyamen Ben Kramer

    I’m the lead pastor at my church, but I refuse to be called such because it results in enforcing the dangerous hierarchies we’re trying to do away with. Anytime someone calls me “Pastor Ben” I tell them just to call me Ben. If they persist in calling me Pastor I resort to calling them “Parishoner _______” until they realize how silly this whole title thing is. Leadership comes through winning people’s hearts, not enforcing authority through title and office.

  • http://www.facebook.com/victorcalvin.hoe Victor Calvin Hoe

    Rev. Tony Jones, a church is part of th structure that Saint Peter establish on earth to foever, honour the funder of whom, we folow and vow to observe as the Lord in our lives. The very rejection of who we are is to demean our heritage, the linage from Jesus to Saint Peter on.
    Self proclaimed clergy or apponted, not revered clergy, to me have an unaccountable linage built on sand. However, the whole foundation becomes unstable by those who work to weaken that structure.
    The glue that holds us to the structure is our faith and sacrements.

  • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

    This baffles me. Catholics are inclined to call their ministers “Father”. Protestants tend to dislike that, presumably because Matthew reports Jesus as saying that no one on earth should be addressed as “father”.

    But in that whole passage, Jesus is warning about the dangers of honorifics: rabbi, teacher, father, and the attitude of mind of those who demand these things. “Pastor” strikes me as falling into the same category. Trying to distinguish roles from titles is futile in practice; it’s not how vernacular language works.

  • toddh

    I think titles really do matter. At my church, the pastors don’t have any special designations like “lead” or “associate.” They are just pastors. It says something real to people in the congregation and community. Although, people always want to know who is the “lead” pastor. Despite the lack of titles, people still try to find the hierarchy, and there are also informal power dynamics that shape the situation. Things like hierarchy are slow to change in churches, but we have to keep trying!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ReneeAxtell Renee Axtell

    I think it’s interesting that just when women are able to claim the title “Pastor” in significant numbers, the men no longer want it.

  • Bob Ramsey

    Titles matter, but not in the simplistic way Merrin claims. I’ve recently returned to pastoral ministry, and I’m struggling with being called “Pastor Bob”, but that’s the practice here.

    But the real reason I’m commenting here is your use of the word “pastor” as a transitive verb. That drives me wild. So people – am I the only one? Or, are you with me?

    Say no to using “pastor” as a verb!

  • David Hayward

    I like that. “Don’t call me ‘Pastor’. Call me ‘Shape’!” ;)

  • Pingback: Don’t Call Me “Pastor” – Patheos – Patheos (blog) | Pastor Leaders

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    Thanks for speaking up. I’m not somebody’s project, huh?

  • http://catholicismforcutters.wordpress.com/ Broken Whole

    I must confess that I’m suspicious of the claim that losing labels means losing power dynamics. I’m a grad student who regularly teaches Freshman Comp; I ask my students to address me by my first name and I address them by theirs, but there is clearly still hierarchy in spite of this—its presence is just slightly more muted. Similarly, just because we sit in a circle in my class doesn’t mean that the power dynamics have been eliminated simply because I’ve gotten rid of the “I stand/you sit, I address you/you all face me” seating arrangement.

    I agree that there can be benefits to avoiding particularly indulgent or explicit displays of power, but there is also a risk. The less visible a power structure is the harder it is to push against it.

  • mountainguy

    Not all pastors are authoritarians assholes, but I think there are enough to make abuse of authority an important problem.

    BTW, first time I read the title of this thread I was reminded of Madison Avenue’s “Dont call me baby”, hehehehe

  • jeskastkeat

    Three thoughts:

    1) I agree with your reasoning why you don’t want to be called “Pastor Tony Jones” in publications. Pastor is a verb and it is about a specific group of people who have given you the authority to enact the role of pastor.

    2) I disagree with eliminating titles. Let me offer a feminist critique on that first. When I became the Reverend Jes Kast-Keat I was highly aware of the many women before me who did not have this opportunity even though they were called. Our ecclesiastical system is currently structured in a way that there are titles so this title affirms my role in the structure as much as my male colleagues.

    3) Finally, titles clarify our roles and functions. I used to fight this in seminary when a professor was adamant about us calling him Dr. I went to a seminary where everyone was on first name basis and I loved the illusion of equality. Now I understand why he preferred Dr. ____ When we eliminate titles we deceive ourselves into thinking that we all have equal access & equal power. The truth is we don’t (a reality I don’t like). I know the intent is that we want to believe that everything is equal and we think in eliminating titles that it will play out that way but we deceive ourselves in thinking that.


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