When most people accept the challenging but rewarding call to ministry, they also accept a title, especially upon ordination.
Titles, however, have caused controversy among some observers in the Christian community. Debates have flared in recent years over which titles should be used by particular individuals in the ministry.
Is it appropriate for a person to be referred to as minister, pastor, reverend, bishop, elder, evangelist, or prophet/prophetess? Should someone who oversees a congregation be addressed as “pastor” or “reverend”?
“Many of us get caught up in what title somebody has, but a title indicates only what someone is, like attorney, doctor or engineer,” said Pastor James Jackson of Fervent Prayer Ministries in Indianapolis. “But it should not be more important than your service.”
Bishop Larry Grinstead, pastor of Puritan Missionary Baptist Church on the near Westside, agreed.
“It’s proper protocol to address people by their titles, but I believe we put too much emphasis on titles and not enough emphasis on the work that needs to be done in the kingdom and community,” Grinstead said. “If the person has the title and is not doing their job, then what’s the purpose?”
In recent years, more clergymen, especially those who are younger or serve in non-denominational churches, have opted to call themselves “pastor” instead of “reverend.”
“Pastor actually describes the job that I do,” Jackson said. “Reverend is short for reverence and is not really a biblical title. We should have reverence only for God, not other servants in the Kingdom.”
Pastor Cooper P. Abrams III, a nationally-recognized expert on ecclesiastical titles, noted that many ministers, including himself, prefer the title “pastor” because it comes from the Greek word “poimhn” (poimen), which means shepherd, or someone who oversees a flock. In Ephesians 4:11, Abrams said, the word “shepherd” is translated into “pastor.”
“A pastor is the Lord’s under shepherd and overseer of the Lord’s congregation,” Abrams noted. “He is called a pastor teacher, which means he is shepherd of the Lord’s flock and a teacher of God’s word.”
Some clergymen have quietly moved away from using the title “reverend” because they see it as too reverential for their status.
“They are beginning to understand the difference,” said Samuel Sumner, presiding elder of the Fourth Episcopal District of the AME Church, which includes 24 churches in Central and Southern Indiana.
“Reverend is what people think of you, but pastor, assistant pastor, bishop, monsignor, suffragan bishop, archbishop – those are all positions you actually hold,” Sumner continued. “I refer to myself as Elder Sumner, not reverend, because that is the office I hold. As the pastor of a church I had associate pastors who called themselves reverend, but I referred to myself as pastor because somebody at the church had to be the pastor.”
Sumner added that the kind of title a member of the clergy has largely depends on his seniority and the kind of denomination they are with. However, the title should not define their contributions.
“I’m Samuel Sumner first and foremost,” he said. “I just happen to be a district elder.”
In recent years, some clergymen who were ordained in denominations that do not have bishops have been honored with such titles by their own congregations, or groups of ministers within their community.
“I’ve heard some people express concern whenever a Baptist pastor becomes a bishop because they say the denomination doesn’t do that,” Grinstead said. “Well, the word bishop is not a denominational thing. It is a biblical office.”
Jackson finds it ironic that some Christians debate about titles when, in the New Testament, neither Jesus nor the apostles used ecclesiastical titles to describe themselves.
Grinstead said he is not caught up in titles, and will answer to “Mr. Grinstead” if that is what someone wants to call him. “The most important thing is whether someone is called by God to work in the body of Christ. We have some people with titles who are not doing any work while people are suffering,” he noted. “I think we all can appreciate a guy called pastor, reverend, bishop, teacher or just mister, as long as he is actually doing the work.”
Sumner agreed, saying he has the presiding elder title, but it is “a lot of work” helping two dozen pastors with their own ideas stay within the AME’s framework. “It really is not about the titles,” he said. “It’s about being able to do the work Christ has called you to do.”