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The Evolution of a Title

The Evolution of a Title

    Barack Obama had a pastor.  Is there anyone who doesn't know his name?  John McCain may not have a pastor in the strict church member sense, but the pundits continually refer to a fellow whose support the Senator has sought as his pastor, Hagee by name. 

    Whence cometh this sudden (so it seems to me) embrace in common parlance of "pastor" to refer to the ordained minister of a church?

    Clerical titles change almost as frequently as pulpit fashions.

    Back in antiquity when I began preaching, Connecticut Yankees referred to their ecclesiastical guide as "Reverend."  English teachers and others concerned with proper usage of the king's language regularly complained that "reverend" is an adjective, not a noun; and we should no more call the preacher "Reverend" than we would call the mayor "Honorable."  Besides, that adjective needed a definite article to make it proper.  Hence, when asked in years past how I should be referred to in the bulletin as a guest preacher, I would specify: "The Rev. Robert W. Howard."  Friends who couldn't resist kidding me usually added "Right." 

    Episcopalians, the guardians of proper ecclesiastical English (which seems only right, considering their heritage from the Church of England), back in the days when I was just plain "Bobby," would insist on calling their "ministers of the Gospel" "Mr."  When the rector of St. John's Protestant Episcopal Church in Stamford presided at a wedding in the living room of my home for Aunt Jane and Uncle Harry, he was identified as "Mr. Cunningham."  Today he would be called "Father Cunningham," which would, I suspect, considering his "low church" proclivity, give him apoplexy. 

    But Providence resolved the naming title for Bob Howard.  In 1956 the bishop unwittingly sent me to Brooklyn and a nest of former Lutherans.  Immediately I was called "Pastor Howard."  Immediately I liked it.  Far better than "Rev." or "The Rev. Mr. Howard."  I labored in the borough of churches for nearly eighteen years.  Among a few of the remnant of that congregation who still keep in touch with me, I sign off on letters with just "Pastor." 

    The title conjures up... well... a pastoral image, pleasant pastures, kindly shepherd, grazing sheep, Psalm 23, John 10, and all that. Besides it's not formal.  Somewhere while crossing the Atlantic from Nordic lands "pastor" was divested of the "Herr Pastor" rigidity I still hear in the greeting of old-school Lutherans.  In this new land pastor makes it personal, close, and endearing.  Why, I can even abide the kidding tribute in retirement to my former life by a locker room pal who greets me with a "Hi, Pastor Bob."

   The confirmation of the ascendancy of "pastor" as an ecclesiastical title in these United States comes now from the largest denomination. Whereas when Mr. Cunningham was "Mr.," the local Roman Catholic priest was always referred to as "Father."  But in this present ecumenical age, the senior priest in any parish is regularly identified as "Pastor."  No, not audibly, literally, as in the letterhead of the local parish.  My colleague in Valley Stream at Blessed Sacrament Church, for instance, was in print referred to as "The Rev. Fr. Gregory Cappuccino, Pastor." 

    Maybe my preference for "Pastor" derives from my general dislike for honorifics.  Call me "Dr.," as in an honorary degree, and I shall very likely look you in the eye and accuse you of sarcasm... even if you meant it as praise.  In the phone book you will find our names listed as "Bob and Barbara Howard."  The same goes for almost all of the several local concert program booklets listing contributors.  But my heart warms and a smile creases my cheeks when someone, anyone, who knows me from way back when as their pastor, addresses me that way.  It's like it's just between me and them... you?

    John Wesley bequeathed to United Methodist itinerants the motto, "The world is my parish."  In retirement I am trying to learn how the world can be my pastorate.  But that's another subject.


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