An advertisement in a local English paper read: "This Saturday the guest speaker at Christ Church will be Edgar Jones, A.B., B.D., Litt.D., LL.D., Ph.D. Topic: Humility."
I was reminded of this anecdote one day last week while seated at my desk preparing the director's report for the Yokefellow Institute's quarterly board meeting. My secretary was taking a well-earned vacation, and so I was left to answer all telephone calls. The Yokefellow Institute is, primarily, a continuing education center for pastors, and so we receive a lot of calls from religious professionals, that is, the clergy. On this particular day we had our usual calls re questing material on certain workshops, but when I asked one of the callers, obviously a pastor (I say "obviously" because of the preachy style of conversation!), for his name and address, he said, "This is Dr. Thomas Jones," with an emphasis on the Doctor.
I found this to be a bit unnerving, but it wasn't enough of an impetus for me to sit down and write this article. What happened next was. As I was opening the mail, I found a letter from a man who wanted the institute to sponsor a work shop he wished to lead. This man opened the letter with the personable salutation "Dear Jim." But he closed it with "God bless, Dr. Smith."
I work with pastors, and the need for recognition so many of them have constantly amazes me. In some ways I can understand this need. We live in a society that at best is indifferent to the work pastors are called to do, and at worst, downright denigrates it. If the media portrays pastors at all, it makes a point of depicting them as hucksters or as inept, milquetoast persons who are either ineffectual and unnecessary or always interfering where they don't belong.
Recently I was struck again by Holly wood's avoidance of using a pastoral character in a serious role when I viewed the television version of the movie Terms of Endearment. This is a story about a young woman who is stricken with cancer and the struggles through which she goes in preparing her family and herself for death. It is a very moving story, and the deathbed scene is beautiful and touching. The way in which she says goodbye to her young children would bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest of personalities. But here is my point: Throughout her entire hospital stay, and up to the time of her death, there is no indication of any pastoral care whatsoever. You don't even see a pastor or priest near her room or roaming the hospital hallways none at all! An oversight by Hollywood? Perhaps, but I would guess that this is just another example of how the media feels about pastors they are not necessary.
It is not easy to be a pastor in a society that continually questions one's work and worth. Thus, I suppose, the need for affirmation that so many pastors have. But then, pastors aren't, or shouldn't be, in the ministry in order to receive affirmation.
Jesus spoke the most revolutionary sentence of all time when He said, "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve" (Matt. 20:28).* This pronouncement of His purpose turned the world's understanding of leadership completely upside down. Jesus was indeed a leader. His followers called Him "Master." He was, however, a "servant leader" and a "servant master, "† I have sometimes wondered whether Jesus would want to be called Dr. Christ if He were walking the earth today. Somehow that just doesn't sound right.
Somewhere along the way before accepting the call into the ministry, the prospective pastor should learn that worldly recognition is not to be expected. Receiving such recognition should not comprise even a part of the reason one goes into the ministry. Every human being needs affirmation, but pas tors should receive that affirmation from within the community of faith. And no one should expect it from either the world or the church because of a Dr. in front of his or her name.
I do not mean to say that receiving a doctorate is unimportant. But I am saying that before embarking in doctoral studies, pastors ought to evaluate care fully why they want that degree. If they are undertaking the work because they feel a need to improve their ministerial skills, then they ought to pursue it. If, however, in total honesty they see obtaining the degree as a means of improving their social position or of receiving a higher salary or of being called to a larger church, then they should question seriously which master they are choosing to serve.
"We may as well think to see without eyes or live without breath," wrote William Law, "as to live in the spirit of religion without the spirit of humility." And yet this is what so many Christian leaders are trying to do. They seem to be blind to the greatest paradox of spiritual growth, that the more we grow spiritually, the more dearly we see how far from spiritual perfection we are. The words of the apostle Paul give insight into this truth of the Christian faith: "Do not become proud, but stand in awe" (Rom. 11:20). "I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Rom. 12:3). "Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited" (verse 16). " 'Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.' For it is not the man who commends himself that is accepted, but the man whom the Lord commends" (2 Cor. 10:17, 18). "Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one an other" (Gal. 5:26). "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves" (Phil. 2:3).
These words directly contradict the ways of the modern world, which is immersed in an all-encompassing narcissism. The apostle does not mean that we are to browbeat ourselves. He means, in stead, that as we grow toward the full stature of Jesus Christ and as we become servant leaders for the Servant, guiding others toward this full stature, we will see that all of our own self-originated or institution-invoked recognitions are as nothing under the design of the Al mighty. This is the difference between negative pride, which produces, via worldly plaudits, the feeling of superiority over others, and affirmative pride, which produces the desire to become a more learned person because of the more effective ministry it enables.
Hungering for the world's plaudits
And yet so many of today's "servants of the Servant" hunger for the plaudits that the world gives to its most revered citizens. This problem has been with us a long time. The first ministers of the gospel, the twelve disciples, were the most common of men. (It is interesting to note that Jesus did not choose one priest to be a member of the chosen twelve! This fact alone should humble all persons who are engaged in professional ministry.) It did not take long, however, for the twelve to start arguing about who was the greatest, and then later to professionalize what had been an amateur operation. The Christian movement soon had its own class of religious elite who would clamor for worldly recognition of their gifts. The holy men were "pedestalized" (my term for being placed 10 feet above contradiction), and reverend (to be revered) crept into our religious language.
Today the term reverend is becoming outdated. The last thing most pastors want to be considered is quaint, and so now that the world no longer reveres reverends, they have discovered that the title Doctor can capture the world's attention.
In the end, capturing the world's attention is not the Christian's purpose. Rather, the Christian purposes to be faithful, to be a servant to the Servant. The world rejected our Master and nailed Him to a cross. In that event more than any other throughout history, we see the ultimate success of what the world calls failure, and the ultimate failure of what the world calls success. The Servant Master has turned the values of the world upside down, and we are called to minister as the "least," for only then are we great. The world does not understand these things, for its values are built upon the sandy foundations of pride, power, and prestige, all of which the Servant Master rejected. Are we not called to do likewise?
*All Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the Revised Standard Version.
†See Robert Greenleafs excellent book on this theme, Servant Leadership (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1977.