“Are you Pastor Tom?”
“Yes, I’m the pastor, but you can just call me Tom.”
And depending on the person’s cultural background, that introduction comes as a relief or it just seems weird.
I don’t go by my first name to be strange, difficult or novel. Nor do I do it because I want to downplay my role or responsibility as the pastor. No, I go by my first name because I’m convinced that titles do more to separate us from others than support relational and spiritual growth. Maybe there was a day when titles helped, but I think that day is long gone.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t refuse the title of pastor if it’s necessary for people. Certain folks find it difficult to call me Tom only; their cultural background demands the title of “Pastor” out of respect or deference. Others instruct their kids to address me as Pastor Tom as a way of teaching them respect (kind of like using Mr. or Dr.). Past the first introductions, I don’t correct them or insist on my first name. In short, I don’t get hung up about it.
But if I have my way, especially when I’m meeting new folks and setting expectations, I encourage the use of my first name without my title.
Why do I prefer my first name only? Well, beyond my basic conviction that titles separate more than support relationships, I can think of at least four more reasons.
- People might not see me as one of them. And it’s important that they do. This is particularly true in our post-Christian society, where more people are self-identifying as spiritual “nones” (as in, spiritual affiliation=none). The title of pastor, esteemed and valued as it might have been historically, is not helpful to our mission to help people far away from Jesus find and follow him. But I also think it’s true within the church, too. Christians need to see me as one of them, toiling in the same trenches as a Jesus-follower, Christian, father, friend, husband, brother and fellow traveler in the faith.
- I don’t want to run the risk of people interacting with me as a position rather than interacting with me as a person. By front-loading who I am rather than what I do, I am able to make that personal connection more direct. This is especially true when I’m out in the community, but as more and more new-to-church folks connect with us, it’s critical when we gather for worship, too.
- I want to break down walls and establish personal trust. Depending on people’s background, they may have visceral or negative reactions to my “position”. I want to build personal trust, and my title could hinder that.
- The pastoral pedestal is a problem. This is particularly true within the church. The more people see me “up there”, the less I’m able to really help them. And the more I see myself as “up there”, the more I am in danger of pride, self-deception and power.
In 20 years of ministry, I can’t think of a single instance where using my first name hindered my ministry as a pastor. But I am acutely aware of how many times using my first name helped build bridges and nurture relationships, particularly with those far away from Jesus. So, while there might be some kind of loss in the rejection of this moniker, I’m willing to accept the losses for the sake of the greater missional gain.
“Hi, I’m Tom. What’s your name?”
“Yes, I’m the pastor here. And you can just call me Tom.”
Do you think titles are important? Why or why not?
Do your unchurched friends find the title of “pastor” more or less helpful in their spiritual journey?