What’s in a name?

The names we give to our programs, initiatives and teams serve as a guide to our mission and goals.

When I was born, my aunt remarked that my name sounded like a mystery writer. This prophetic word guides my life, perhaps not as a whodunit storyteller, but as a member of the church who revels in the mysteries of faith in Christ. Names hold a power that shapes the stories we tell about our pasts and the hopes we have for the future.

Throughout the scriptures, names often carry a witness to God’s ongoing covenantal promises. We see this in the subtle shifting of Abram (exalted ancestor) to Abraham (ancestor of a multitude). His son, Isaac, is named for the laughter he and his wife, Sarah, let out when God foretold Isaac’s birth while making a covenant with Abraham.

At other times, they carry prophetic or foreboding witness. When a baby boy gripped his twin brother’s heel during their birth, he was named Jacob, meaning “he grips the heel” or “he supplants.” When they grew older, the supplanter supplanted his older brother’s birthright in a scheme and fled for his life. As Jacob returned to make amends with his brother, he spent a night wrestling with a mysterious man who renamed him Israel, one who strives with God. This new name acknowledged Israel’s past as Jacob and foretells the future of his descendants, the Israelites, whose story of striving with God fills the pages of scripture.

The narrative-shaping work of a name in the scriptures speaks to our institutional task of naming our work. Institutionally, we wrestle with the names of our new programs, initiatives, companies and teams. We want to accurately foretell our work without overstating it; we strive to sound current and relevant without dating ourselves. Yet it is the name of our existing work that often challenges us the most.

As the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation (DYA) underwent a thorough redesign of its program, the name provided guidance for the way forward. Any new iteration of DYA had to maintain its commitment to being a part of the Duke University and Duke Divinity School community, to overinvesting in young people, to providing a rigorous intellectual and academic challenge, and to forming young people in the traditions of the Christian faith like baptism, Eucharist, and practices of hospitality and communal life. Though the program design has been altered, the mission and vision of the work maintains continuity in the name.

Sometimes, we have to rename our programs to demonstrate the changing realities of our work. When a college minister renames the spring break mission trip a pilgrimage, she is acknowledging the realities of their practice and names a hoped-for outcome for her college students. Mission trip implies the group will work to save the people and the place that they visit. Pilgrimage denotes a sacred journey of confession and discovery. Pilgrimage reframes the work of the journey, placing the sojourners in a posture of receiving and listening from their hosts rather than delivering goods and salvation.

As we go about our daily tasks of pastoring, leading, administrating, teaching, caring and preaching, the names we give and the names given to us serve as a guide to our work, its mission and goals. From time to time, we must ask if we are holding true to our name, if we need to reimagine the ways we go about our work to remain faithful to our name or if we need a new name to narrate our future.