What do people call you at church? Does it really matter to you, to them, or to God? Titles seem to be more important to the modern church than they were to the first century church. For example, consider how the Apostle Paul typically introduces himself (and his team) in his letters:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. (Philippians 1:1, all verses CSB)
The term servant used here could also be translated slave, which was the lowest place on the social ladder in Paul’s world. For that matter, Paul wasn’t even his real name. Like several of the other church leaders, they took on new names (Saul/Paul), or nicknames (Joseph/Barnabas), or abbreviated their names (John Mark/Mark).
It is obvious that Paul loved the Philippians, but he wasn’t lifting them up by calling them saints. Nor was Paul putting Timothy or himself down by using the term slaves.
Here are a few tips that I hope will help you navigate the sometimes awkwardness of ministry titles.
Remember your calling.
If you are grounded in your calling, you won’t care so much about what you are called.
God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)
Augustine said, “No one can be a good bishop if he loves his title and not his task.”
Consider your context.
Paul was not shy about his apostolic credentials or his seminary training, but he was missional, or at least flexible, in how he adapted to each context he served in.
I can see why it is somewhat confusing for people to hear about the twelve patriarchs and the twelve disciples, or was that apostles…wait, I think they were actually pastors. Then there were the seven original deacons. Or were they elders? Two of the deacons were actually preachers—so does that mean they were pastors?
I’m an interim pastor of a Nashville metro church. In this neck of the woods, I am usually called “Pastor Mark.” For the first half of my ministry I was mostly called “Brother Mark.” In 1995 I earned a doctorate, but never felt comfortable being referred to as Dr. Dance in a pastoral setting. But, when I minister on seminary campuses every year, that title is not uncommon or uncomfortable. The context makes the difference.
Check your motives.
You likely already know that you are not the star on Sundays. It sometimes helps to get a reminder.
For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5)
[W]hoever wants to be great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to first among you will be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
Communicate your preference.
My wife Janet is an avid backpacker. On a recent trek along part of the Appalachian Trail, we met several interesting “thru-hikers” who were backpacking the entire 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia. AT backpackers prefer to use trail names instead of their real names. We shared campfires and food with Lux, Spoon, Silver Fox, Wasabi, and Country.
Ministry titles can be as personal as our own names and nicknames, so don’t be shy about using the title you are most comfortable with. When I am introducing myself in any setting, I just simply refer to myself as “Mark.” It does not bother me when someone uses a ministry title that I don’t prefer, because at the end of the day, I am simply a slave.