What shall I call you?
Martin B. Copenhaver ponders whether he should be called “Martin,” “pastor” or some other title, such as “The Very Right Reverend Doctor Julius W. (‘Who Are You To Question My Authority?’) Johnson III.”
August 11, 2009 | Pastors have money issues, marriage issues and identity issues. They also experience joy, grace and mystery as they live out their call.
In “This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers,” the Revs. Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver explore all these aspects of the pastoral life in a series of essays that offer an honest look at their lives as working pastors.
Daniel, a blogger for Faith & Leadership, has served since 2004 as senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Glen Ellyn, Ill., in suburban Chicago.
Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wellesley, Mass.
In “What Shall I Call You?”, Copenhaver talks about the significance of the various forms of address for pastors.
What Shall I Call You?
By Martin B. Copenhaver
All the pastors/ministers/preachers I know have distinct preferences for how they are addressed and how their vocation is described. There are titles we embrace and others that make us cringe. We may be able to interpret our preferences by using the most sophisticated theological analysis, but for the most part our reactions are shaped by associations we have with various titles, so the preferences largely are impervious to the influence of reason.
For as long as I can remember, my father was known in his congregation and beyond as, “Dr. Copenhaver.” The association of that title with his name is so strong for me that, to this day, if someone mistakenly calls me, “Dr. Copenhaver” (I do not have a doctorate), I almost have to fight the impulse to turn around and see if my long-deceased father has entered the room. Even if I were to obtain a doctorate myself, I am quite sure that if people were to begin to address me in that way I would feel forever like a young boy in the attic trying on his father’s clothes.
I have never really settled on a title that works for me. “Reverend” -- a title that is available to me by virtue of my ordination -- can seem problematic for a number of reasons. For one, although “Reverend” is an adjective (meaning “revered”), some people are always trying to make it a noun. So if someone says, “Hello, Reverend,” that person actually is saying, “Hello, Revered.” It would be like saying to a judge, “Hello, Honorable.” Likewise, because “reverend” is an adjective, it is improper grammatically to call someone “a reverend.” To complicate matters further, because this adjective also is a title, it can be used properly only if it is accompanied by the article “the.”
Even if folks were able to negotiate the grammar, it sounds beyond egotistical to refer to oneself using that title, which is equivalent to saying, “Hello, I am Martin Copenhaver, the revered one.” Then there are those who, by virtue of their office, are given additional honorifics that, when strung together, begin to resemble those medals given for Sunday School attendance that would drip down the chests of those who never missed a class, titles like, “The Very Right Reverend Doctor Julius W. (‘Who Are You To Question My Authority?’) Johnson, III.”
Early in my ministry I got around this ambivalence about titles by asking that people simply call me Martin. After all, I reasoned, most of the folks in the congregation are considerably older than I was, so why should they address me in a way that sounds so deferential? This reasoning is an example of how our ambivalence about titles is a reflection of our mixed feelings about the sources and uses of authority.
Each title used for clergy refers to a different source of authority. Since the title “Doctor” is conferred in the academy, it points to academic status as the source of one’s authority. “The Reverend” situates the source of one’s authority in the esteem in which one is held. “Pastor” and “Minister” each refer in different ways to the authority that is vested in a particular office of the church. The title “Preacher” points to a particular, and in some ways defining, pastoral task. I just wanted to be called Martin.
Of course, being called by one’s first name is not the perfect solution, either. If everyone is invited to call you by your first name, even when they first meet you, it can sound overly familiar, like the way people might introduce themselves at a sales convention: “Hello, I’m Martin.” “Good to meet you, Martin.”
Some of us may try to avoid titles like “the Reverend” because they seem to stress too much the ways in which the pastor is set apart from others. Nevertheless, when we seek refuge in our first names it can be an attempt to deny that which is finally undeniable: there are ways in which the pastoral role actually does set us apart. When I ask to be called Martin, it is a way of saying, “Hey, I’m just one of the guys.” But there are ways in which, as a pastor, I am not just one of the guys. It is not that pastors are a different breed of person, of course, but the pastoral role is different from the role others play. Titles can be a way to honor the role, rather than the person who plays that role. But people are not always clear about such distinctions and I am quite sure that I could lose sight of such distinctions myself. So, through the years, when people have asked me what I would like to be called, I have said, with a bit of aw-shucks awkwardness, “Just call me Martin.” It is not the perfect solution, but at least I feel addressed when I hear my name. I know that the person is talking to me.