Just call me Curt

We live in an area with an extremely transient population (at least the expat population). I know it’s common for many churches today to watch members of their church family move away, but what we’ve seen here in Puerto Rico far exceeds anything we’ve experienced in other places. Many of our people―even those on our leadership team―will stay here for only 2 or 3 years and then move back to the States. That’s a part of ministering here; we’re used to it.

But with a church our size, that means the make-up of the congregation can change dramatically. And it does. It’s amazing how fast our church gatherings can begin to look very different, and even feel different. Something I’ve been noticing over the past few months is the number of people here now who seem to feel the need to call me “Pastor” or “Pastor Curt.” We’ve had people in our church family before now who have referred to me this way. This is traditional for many believers. I understand this, and I’ve tried to be gracious and not make it an issue. For the past few years, we’ve been able to not address this and still maintain our informal, family dynamic.

But with the latest class of WithoutWall’ers to join us (brothers and sisters for whom I am deeply thankful, btw), we run the risk of seriously altering the DNA of our church family. 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 nature of a 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 still 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 should not 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 all of God’s people are to serve in ministry. We speak of the call to ministry as if it’s something specially reserved for pastors, but each member of the body is called by God to serve. By giving a title of honor to only one part of the body, we falsely distinguish that part from the rest. In our church, we don’t believe in distinguishing Christians as “clergy” or “laymen.” 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 involves more people than just me. We have others in the church who minister pastorally. Cecy Barbosa shepherds the children. Monty Smith has a group of people he shepherds. We usually don’t call everyone who shepherds others in the church “Pastor,” even when they officially serve in a pastoral role. (How many call the youth pastor in their church “Pastor”?) In our church, we have a team of elders who pastor the whole church, with no designated senior or lead pastor. At different times, this team has included not only me, but Steve Lantz, Darren Draper, Ken Sanner and Sam Murphy. Currently, Nino Caceres and Kurt Ziegler serve as elders,  co-pastoring the church with me. In the future we hope to add to our elder team. So it’s simply not accurate to refer to only me as “Pastor” or even “our pastor” (as in “I’d like you to meet our pastor”).

Some of you may be thinking, “Yeah, Curt, but you serve full-time. I call you ‘Pastor’ because that’s what you do.” But do we do this for anyone else in the body? When was the last time you said, “Hello, Professor” on Sunday morning? (We have a number of professors in our congregation.) 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 California. 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. (At least one of our ministry leaders, when greeting me as “Pastor,” has had me respond “Hello, Ministry Leader.”)

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. Not long ago, I was in a public place talking with someone, developing this kind of rapport, when someone from our church came in and greeted me enthusiastically: “Hello, Pastor!” I could feel the tone of our interaction change immediately as this person 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 elders/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.

19 thoughts on “Just call me Curt

  1. First let me say that this blogging thing is great! Now I understand a lot better the “no titles thing” that I have used on ocasions. I appreciate the information because I used to think that you were just being modest, now I know it is a biblical fact, thanks! See ya’ at church bro’ ! 🙂

  2. I always felt a little uncomfortable when I hear you being addressed as “Pastor ” in the past and have often wondered how come you never corrected it …..I’m glad you gave biblical reasons why it was not accurate and some practical reasons why it is not wise.
    I grew up in a congregation where everyone was called either sister so and so or brother so and so. It also solved the dilemma for the younger people (calling an elder person who happen to be a christian also, by their first name only, which was unheard of! The tittle of Brother or Sister is a great and beautiful one, after all- we are family! Great blog!

  3. Comment by Paul Raymond moved here by Admin.

    Great blog! That “Pastor” thing will be a hard habbit to break, but I will work on it. I’d never heard those points, but they’re convincing.

  4. Thanks, guys!

    Elke, I, too, grew up in some churches where they referred to each other as Brother Smith or Sister Jones. This might be better than Pastor or Reverend in some ways, but it’s actually the same kind of thing. We have pastors and teachers in the church, but we don’t call them by those titles. In the same way, we are brothers and sisters, but we never see in Scripture anyone referring to ‘Brother Paul’ or ‘Sister Mary.’ They didn’t use any special, Christian appellations for each other. They seemed to just call each other by name. But thanks for the encouragement, sis!

  5. Comment by Paul Raymond moved here by Admin.

    I didn’t title that last comment. It wan’t the point of my post. But on the subject of “Pastor,” there are at least three professions where titles are used and expected, doctors, professors, and political office holders. The first two are because of the many years of education and the difficulty of being certified (e.g., bar exams, boards, etc), and the last because of the dignity of the office, e.g. Senator Coleman, President Obama. Pastors typically have as much education as doctors or professors, and they must be ordained, so that is why they are usually called by title. But the Scriptures you cite are more compelling, and I will certainly respect your wishes and try to call you Curt, or at least Brother. You really should have said something sooner.

  6. Thanks, Paul! It’s true that some professionals are called by their titles at times. Interestingly, we usually don’t do that in the church. As I mentioned in the post on this, we have a few professors in our church—but everyone routinely calls them by their first names. I’ve seen the same thing for physicians. I’ve never attended a church with a senator or president, so I can’t speak to that. But I see the professionalization of the pastoral role in the church as a negative thing, not a positive. In the New Testament, all of the elders of a church are the pastors of that church. Seeing one pastor as a professional (in distinction from the other elders/pastors) has diminished this truth. But thanks for being willing to change!

  7. Curt, I love how you put that. I have noticed the same familiarity beginning in the work place. When I was working at Stanford I often found myself not referring to the Doctors and nurses as Dr._____ or Nurse_____ I just seemed to call them by name. And I did the same at PBC instead of Pastor Steve it became Steve or Doug or Scott. Somehow it just felt right, though I think some people might of thought I was not being respectful, but I think it is just the opposite because you are not putting them up on a pedestal. (They are only human…and put their pants on the same way I do…one leg at a time.) We don’t want to create idols of our pastors/elders/ deacons.

    I like your BLOG!
    We miss you and kelley!
    -Audrey Ling

  8. Thanks, Audrey! I was the same way at PBC. It seemed so natural to just call Steve, Doug, Rich, Scott, Danny, etc. by their names. I’m sure there were some, but I don’t remember hearing anyone calling Steve “Pastor” or “Pastor Steve.” But they were still very respected as pastors and leaders.

    We miss you and Gordy too!

  9. It really helped in understanding to read this article, Curt. I just need to practice not calling you Pastor, Curt. I am sure that in time I will be able to change but I have just become accustomed to the idea of “head pastor” being called “The Pastor” and I see it more clearly now, Curt. There! I can do it! I will call you Curt!! : )

  10. Thanks, Lori! I’m glad this was helpful. I’m going to write more later about the whole ‘head pastor’ thing, and hopefully that will be helpful to people too.

  11. Whenever in the past I called you Pastor is was out of of respect,but after reading this article I too understand. So Curt I will respect your request. By the way this blog is awesome.

  12. Wow! What an awesome post Curt!

    It’s been so very, very difficult for me to understand some of these things but to find NO ONE thinking about these things anywhere else much less wanting to do anything about them.

    Ironically the Lord has led me into the very kind of church you apparently came out of. Calvary Chapel. It is the last system of churches that I would have EVER even considered being a part of because of what I consider to be a very traditional, Sunday emphasizing, Pastor exalting, way of being church but here I am.

    Thanks so much for your willingness to share these things through your blog. I know that takes time to write things out Curt.

    May the Lord bless you for your efforts doing so.


  13. Thank you, Carlos! I’m sure God will use you where you are. I’ll pray for you in this church setting. I know it can be lonely to go against established church tradition; I’m very glad if my posts have served to encourage you.

    Blessing to you!

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