One of the quirkier aspects of working as a church pastor is that you are addressed by those around you in a number of different ways. Over the years, for instance, there have been varied circumstances in which I’ve been called Reverend, Pastor, Father, Padre, Rabbi and even the more biblically correct version of that title, Rabbouni (although that one, admittedly, was the moniker given me by a bemused organist with whom I worked as a young pastor, and had less to do with my skill as a teacher of scripture than it did my first scraggly attempt to grow a beard!). And this is to say nothing of the many little children who, not really knowing what to call that strange man at church who wears the robe and plays guitar, have referred to me as “that God guy,” or occasionally as Jesus himself (which, while flattering, was most definitely a flagrant case of mistaken identity!).
Ironically, with all these potential professional labels at my disposal, even as I was asked about it upon my arrival at this church I’ve never been quite sure how to answer this question of how I should be addressed. When I was first out of seminary and newly ordained, I much preferred the title of “Reverend,” and without wishing to sound arrogant about it, I still do; for me, it provides at least one link to my academic and ecclesiastical training, as well as my denominational standing within the United Church of Christ; moreover, in this particular vocation there are indeed instances when the “Rev.” before my name provides a needed level of authority and boundary. However, to always be referred to as “the Reverend” can not only come off sounding overly formal and a bit stuffy, it also perpetuates an accepted, but nonetheless glaring, grammatical error (to wit, if you were to meet the Honorable Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, you wouldn’t greet him by saying, “Hey, Honorable!”).
On the other hand, while a title such as “Pastor” is simpler and does have the benefit of describing my job up front, any pastor will quickly remind you that one’s ministerial calling can and does take many forms, and that the average local church pastor will likely wear a variety of hats in the course of engaging in his or her “pastoral” ministry. In a broader sense, then, there’s also the question of how one differentiates among those whose pastoral ministry is primarily focused on worship and preaching, and others who are counselors, or Christians Educators, or Youth Leaders, or Church Administrators, or Musicians and Choir Directors; surely to refer to any of these simply as “Pastor” falls short of a proper and respectful title – but perhaps I’m overthinking this now!
Actually, in the several congregations where I’ve served as pastor over the past 30 years, this matter of how I should be addressed has ended up taking care of itself; forged in the history and tradition of the local church and nurtured in and through the relationships that are formed between the church family and its pastor. And I’m pleased to say that such are the depths of those relationships that while in most pastoral circumstances I’m appropriately addressed by any and all of the names listed above, generally it’s just “Michael” (or, if you go way back with me, “Mike”); and I must confess that pastorally speaking I wouldn’t have this any other way.
However, there are times when the title, whatever it happens to be, affirms the identity of its holder. On my office door here at East Church is a name plate that reads simply “Rev. Michael Lowry.” It was an ordination gift from one of the youth of the congregation I served as a student pastor. Jonathan Lowery (who, as it turned out, was actually a distant cousin of mine) was not only one of the first group of kids I led through the process of confirmation, for a time he was also a guitar student. Indeed, I did show him a few chords, but the real value of those lessons came in the deep conversations we had along the way about life, living and faith. Jon always seemed particularly interested in what had driven me to decide to become a pastor and what I was planning to do with that as the future unfolded; which, looking back on it now, made perfect sense given that his own plan for the future – to join the army after graduation and make it a career – never wavered; indeed, he saw this as his own calling from God. That’s why when I finally finished seminary, he was determined to give me something with the “Rev.” figuring prominently, because it represented the commitment, hard work and faith that it takes to do what you know you’re meant to do.
I’ve carried that nameplate with me ever since, a cherished memento of my early days of ministry that has graced the doors or walls of several church offices over the years; it’s also taken on added significance since 2007 when I learned that Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan A. Lowery had been killed in Iraq while serving his country during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sadly, as is often the case when pastors move from one parish to another, I’d lost track of where Jon was and what he’d been doing in the 20 years since he’d been that gangly 16-year-old struggling to get his fingers to make a B-chord; but by all accounts, he’d not only been a good soldier, he’d been a good man with a family who loved him. And even in the greatest sacrifice, he’d proudly answered a call, truly earning that title by which he was regularly addressed in life and beyond.
It serves as a good reminder of my own calling, and of my hope and prayer that by God’s good grace, it will also be said of me that I earned the title that graces the nameplate on my door.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry