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.