Since Kelley and I came here in January, some have been surprised that I prefer people to not call me “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” For people who are accustomed to using this kind of title, it’s a little odd to call a pastor by just their first name. So I thought I’d explain my reasons for preferring this approach. It’s not just because I’m so incredibly humble!
The terminology we use affects how we and others understand the church. And misperceptions that aren’t corrected, but instead become a common (mis)understanding of the church, can eventually change the DNA of our church, or at least cause conflict if we seek to clarify the issue too late. Now, I understand this isn’t some heretical teaching that will draw us away from the truths of the gospel. But I think it’s still a significant issue for us, and one that affects the tone of our church life and ministry. So let me suggest five reasons why I prefer not to be called “Pastor.”
1. It’s not biblical
Jesus once told his disciples, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.” But in Matthew 23:8-10, he instructed us regarding what we should, and should not, call each other:
Don’t let anyone call you “Rabbi,” for you have only one teacher,
and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters.
And don’t address anyone here on earth as “Father,”
for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father.
And don’t let anyone call you “Teacher,”
for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.
We could plug “Pastor” into this, and the same principle would apply because it is the Lord who is our Shepherd/Pastor (1 Peter 5:4). This passage doesn’t mean we don’t have people in the church who teach or lead. Other Scriptures make it clear that this is so. But we are not to refer to these people by honorific titles such as Rabbi or Teacher. In the same way, we have people in our congregation who pastor, or shepherd, others. But we shouldn’t refer to them by a title. It’s interesting that Peter and Paul are frequently identified as apostles of Jesus Christ, but they are never once in Scripture referred to by that title. No one seems to have called them “Apostle” or “Apostle Paul” in the way we sometimes use “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” They just called them Paul and Peter. This seems like a good example.
2. It perpetuates a different class of Christians
One of the principles that was boldly proclaimed during the Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers.” The idea (a very biblical one) is that as the New Testament church we no longer have a separate priestly caste. We don’t have to go through any other person to come to Christ; we can go to him directly. All believers are called saints. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Unfortunately, many of the reformed churches retained the exalted status of the pastor and essentially made him into a protestant priest. Only the pastor was to baptize, serve communion, officiate weddings, etc.
We still often make the same distinction today. Only pastors are referred to by their title. We have Sunday school teachers, but we don’t call them “Teacher Sue.” We have small group leaders, but we don’t call them “Leader John.” It’s rare to hear someone called “Deacon” or “Elder” in place of their name. We reserve this honor only for pastors. Why? We speak of pastors being “in the ministry,” when each member of the body is called by God to serve in ministry. By giving a title of honor to only one part of the body, we falsely distinguish that part from the rest. There is nothing scriptural about distinguishing Christians as “clergy” or “laity,” as if we have first-class and second-class followers of Christ. The only one who should be distinguished from the body, and honored above the body, is the head of the body―Jesus Christ.
3. It isn’t really accurate
As I mentioned before, Jesus is the Pastor of the church. He does call others to share in this ministry of shepherding the church, but this is supposed to include more people than just me. As we’ve recently studied and discussed, the biblical pattern is for us to have a team of pastors shepherding the whole church, with no designated senior or lead pastor. We plan to be building this pastoral team in the near future. So, fairly soon, it won’t be accurate to refer to only me as “Pastor” or even “our pastor” (as in “I’d like you to meet our pastor”). We usually don’t call everyone who shepherds others in the church “Pastor” anyway, even when they officially serve in a pastoral role. (How many call the youth pastor in their church “Pastor”?) I may be the only teaching pastor for some time to come, but “Teaching Pastor Curt” is quite a mouthful to say!
Some of you may be thinking, “Yes, but you work full-time as a pastor. I call you ‘Pastor’ because that’s what you do.” But do we do this for anyone else in the body? I’ve been a part of churches with college professors as members of the church. I don’t recall anyone calling them “Professor.” If someone in law enforcement was part of our church, would you call them “Officer” or “Agent?” Years ago, a friend of mine was a pastor in Fresno. A man he knew well fell into the habit of greeting him “Hello, Pastor Keith.” So he started reciprocating, “Good morning, Banker Bob.” It didn’t take long for the man to understand that it’s really kind of silly to call someone by their vocational title, especially in the church. (A ministry leader in our prior church kept slipping back into greeting me as “Pastor,” so I would respond in kind with, “Hello, Ministry Leader.” It seemed to help!)
4. It makes it harder for me to interact naturally with people in the community
You can ask any pastor and they’ll tell you that identifying yourself as a pastor often causes people to start acting artificially around you. The man sitting next to you on the plane starts explaining that he ordinarily never drinks three scotches. People begin internally editing everything they say so they won’t shock the ‘man of God.’ Of course, pastors shouldn’t hide what they do, but we do try very hard to develop a natural rapport with people in the community. I work to get to the point where they’ll interact with me as a real person instead of some religious icon. Some time ago, I was in a public place talking with someone, developing this kind of rapport, when someone from our previous church came in and greeted me enthusiastically: “Hello, Pastor!” I could feel the tone of our interaction change immediately as the person I was talking to slipped back into be-careful-this-guy’s-a-pastor mode. Religious titles unnecessarily build walls between pastors and other people. It’s hard enough for us to rub shoulders with non-Christians. So, help us out a little!
5. It doesn’t fit with the church as a family
The family of believers has only one Father―and it’s not the pastor! The pastors of a church are not to be fathers to the church; they’re more like spiritually older brothers. What do you call your older siblings? Do you have some exalted title that you bestow on them? Or do you simply call them by their names? Maybe a ‘bro’ or ‘sis’ now and then. So, if it’s too awkward to call me simply by my name, I guess an acceptable, familial substitute would be “Hey bro!”
After reading this, if you still insist on having some official title to call me, then I actually prefer “Your Magnificentness.” Oh, and don’t forget to kiss the ring.