Saturday, May 28, 2011

Welcome to the Ministry. Please call me “Dave.”

Even though I’ve never known anything else, in a professional sense, the culture of the LCMS clergy seems strange to me. I sit somewhere on the edge of the Autism spectrum in these things so this may not be necessary for most of you. It is unsettling for me when I don’t know what the social expectations are. Here is what I have learned, or think I have learned, about being a pastor in the LCMS regarding these things and hope they can help some of you not make the mistakes that I have made.

How to Address Brothers in the Circuit

For the most part, within the Ministerium of the LC-MS, first names are assumed. It is generally best, however, especially when you are in your first years of the Office, to address brother pastors in the circuit as “Pastor Jones” until, or unless, you are invited to use first names.

New guys are viewed with some apprehension. No one likes the new guy putting on airs. There is also some suspicion that the new grad will be a zealous idiot who makes problems for everyone. At your first call, at your installation Service and/or your first circuit meeting be very deferential and wait to be invited to use first names. I would also call your home pastor, your vicarage supervisor, etc., by title, as you have for years, until you are invited by them to use their first names.

After the first year or so you can take a few liberties in this regard reserving the honorifics for retired pastors, the district president, and faculty members. Most pastors actually call everyone by their first names. But I find this uncomfortable. I try to speak to the DP and SP by title and honorific even though I knew them both on a first name basis before they were elected.

At the same time, insisting on formality and titles can seem distancing even if you mean it respectfully. If either the DP or the SP invited me to call them by their first names, I would do it. I would rather they didn't, and so far they haven't, but I have learned that it is nearly as rude to continue to call someone “Pastor Jones” after being invited to address him by his first name as it is to assume a casualness that isn’t deserved.

How to Address and be Reintroduced to Pastors Beyond the Circuit

Please introduce yourself by name unless you really are well-known to the other person. When you see a pastor at some meeting larger than the circuit, stick out your hand to shake and say, “Hello, Pastor Stuckwisch. Dave Petersen.” He will probably say, “Of course, I know you.” But he might be being polite. No harm has been done by giving him your name and you might well have made him more comfortable and saved him a little mental struggle or embarrassment.

It seems to me, as well, that the first meeting of someone like Stuckwisch, outside your circuit, even if you have been calling him by his first name, is formal. I am pretty good friends with Stuckwisch. So I wouldn’t do that. But if I sat down with Marty Noland, whom I have met and know by reputation but don’t know personally, I would say, “Good morning, Dr. Noland. Dave Petersen.” He would say, “Of course, I’ve read your stuff in Gottesdienst. How are you?” And then I would probably call him Marty for the rest of the meal. Weird. I know. This is foggy ground for me. There are real but invisible class distinctions within the LCMS. I can feel them, but I can’t define them. We aren’t supposed to draw attention to them, but we are supposed to recognize them. Dr. Noland, no doubt, is super polite. But if I sat down and put on airs with him, assumed a relationship and equality immediately that I don’t deserve, the other people at the table would stiffen. They would do the same, by the way, if I made a big fuss over him and acted like he was a war hero. There is an appropriate line were we acknowledge who he is and what he has done for the cause but don’t embarrass him. Some pigs, like Stuckwisch or Evanson or Noland, are more equal than others. If you figure this out in a way that can be explained, please let me know.

How to Act in the Circuit

For my part, I totally blew it with my first circuit. The first names confused me. I misunderstood my relationship to them. I thought that I would be entering into an atmosphere like that of coffee at CTS after Chapel. I thought we would engage in heated, lively debates about Theology and practice. I thought I was in a semi-scholarly environment. Not only was I sorely disappointed, but worst of all, I let it be known in my verbal and body language. I was disgusted with them, disrespectful, arrogant – fulfilling perfectly the Ft. Wayne stereotype. Fortunately for me, they were gentle and kind. They disliked me but they tolerated me and eventually I calmed down and they befriended me. I was surprised to become their friends but I did. That was to their credit, not mine, and I am thankful for it.

What should I have done? I should have shut up. I should have listened quietly and patiently. I should have been more sympathetic. I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. They knew more than I gave them credit for. I was looking for them to be my classmates and to continue what I loved about the seminary. They weren’t. But they were a pretty accurate cross section of the LCMS clergy roster. They had a wide array of skills, interests, and experience.

If you’re like me and have trouble figuring out relationships and social things and are new to the Ministry, I suggest you enter into your first circuit meetings like you would an LWML meeting. Treat them as gently as you would an uncatechized, but pious, widow in Bible class. Even if they are only a few years older than you, defer to their experience. Recognize that they are your brothers, are struggling and striving to be faithful. Withhold judgment. It will take several years to get to know these men. Your first impressions are probably wrong. Everyone says stupid, even heretical things, from time to time in circuit meetings. They are meant to be a safe place to be stupid. Don’t dismiss a man simply because he lets his guard down there and can’t recite the Small Catechism, etc. Withhold judgment. Don’t be that Ft. Wayne guy. Wait. Pray. The Lord created the Office and placed these men into it. You are not wiser than God.

Preparation versus Reality

Being in the Office is very similar to being married. It doesn’t matter how good your pre-marital instruction was – it was mostly worthless. Not because it was worthless in itself but because you were in no frame of mind to hear it. You thought you were. You nodded along. You agreed with all of it. You probably thought you could have come up with it yourself. But marriage is learned in being married. Being a pastor is learned in being a pastor. Newlyweds embarrass themselves when they give marital advice to senior citizens – even if the senior citizen has been divorced twice. Fortunately, senior citizens tend to be very understanding. So are the senior pastors of the LC-MS. So don’t be scared. If you make a fool of yourself, it won’t last. It is sort of expected and it will be forgiven and maybe even forgotten. It is not that your seminary education was lacking, though of course it was, it is just that you are a newlywed. That doesn't mean you aren't fully a pastor or lack authority or ability. But it does mean that you aren't yet fully formed and will learn as you go.

And if you're a Ft. Wayne grad, the voice you will hear in your head, again and again, is that of Dr. David Scaer. You will say, "Holy smokes! I had no idea he was soooooo right."

Call him "Dr." Scaer, and even though he always calls me "Dr." Petersen, to draw attention, I suppose, to my utter lack of any advanced degrees, you can call me "Dave."


  1. Thanks for putting some parameters around this. I also am uncomfortable at social situations where I don't know what the protocol is, but I know there is a protocol. The advice given to me by a more seasoned pastor was simply to treat everyone like my equal; as you know, this is NOT the expected social protocol. Having been out 4 years now it is really to late to go back, but like you, I am ever thankful for kind, gracious and forgiving brothers in the Office.

  2. I wish someone had given me sage advice like this when I first entered the field. Instead, I charged ahead and began calling Dr. Scaer himself, of all people, "David." I soon realized how awkward this felt, and told him so in a letter. He graciously replied by signing his reply "Frater," a kindness I will never forget.

  3. Pastor Petersen, Being a dentist I find the first name versus formal title with last name crux to be very similar in the dental world. What you've said is really identical to the "rules" that one finds in dentistry. But imagine how difficult it is for a layman to swim in the pool with a bunch of pastors. Sometimes pastors introduce themselves to me by their first name. I usually still address them as "Pastor" unless we have some unique commonality such as fellow bloggers. Even some pastors whom I consider personal friends I usually address by their title. I find it especially annoying when parishioners call their pastor by their first name. It just doesn't fit. The Office is one that should be respected. The first time I met Dr. Noland, his reaction was "So you're a real person?!" Hmm. Apparently he thought my writing was so outrageous I had to be operating under a pen name. I guess us laymen just can't get any respect :>)

  4. Thank you, that was wonderfully helpful, even if I am not among the ordained.

  5. "Dave," :)

    I recommend the little book, "Ideas Have Consequences," by Richard Weaver, a tidy dissection of the fall of western civilization which poignantly describes the problem you've identified as an endemic social phenomena within our culture, owing its root to our rejection of the order of creation but creating the effect of living in an age in which no two human beings know how they should act toward each other because no two human beings know how they stand for/against each other because we're all entirely and totally "equal," don'tcha know.

    Good read.

  6. Dear "Jonathan":

    Thanks for the Weaver recommendation. I was introduced to him a couple of years ago by Dr. James Tallman. I agree with your assessment of Weaver. but I hadn't thought about this exactly - my confusion comes from the idea of absolute equality and is not unique to me. Thanks.


    OK. Enough with the quotes.

  7. To take this a step farther: a faithful layman of my parish was on a district board for three years. He couldn't figure out who was ordained and who wasn't because everyone called everyone by first names and none of the pastors wore a clerical collar. He is a PK and wanted to call the pastors, "Pastor," but didn't want to ask, "Are you a pastor?" to all the men on the board. I wear a collar to district events for this reason. Some lay people actually want to know if you are a pastor without having to ask you if you are.

  8. Just don't make your parishioners call you Pastor Dave

  9. Wow! That's sounds extraordinarily complicated. I'm glad I'm a lay person and don't have to deal with that. Before I became a Lutheran I was at a church with a pastor who always insisted that everyone just call him by his first name. After he kept insisting, I eventually did a couple of times and then I got chewed out by the elders for doing so. I said, "I'm perfectly happy calling him Pastor XXXX. He just told me to call him by his first name and so I did." They said, "He tells everyone that but you should never do that. It's very disrespectful."

  10. Excellent advice, Fr. Petersen.

    In addition to what you've covered here, I would add that proper protocol calls for a pastor to introduce laity to other pastors by title. "Joe Layman, this is Pastor Petersen, who serves at Redeemer in Fort Wayne. Pastor Petersen, Joe Layman." Then, Joe Layman says, "Nice to meet you, Pastor Petersen." I know that should probably go without saying, but, in various gatherings over the years, I've witnessed pastors introducing laypeople they're with to other pastors by first name, and it's always awkward. "Joe Layman, this is Dave Petersen from Redeemer, Ft. Wayne. Dave, Joe Layman." And Joe Layman says, "Hi, Dave." Awkward, indeed.

  11. This is a problem not just between pastors and pastors and laymen. We have our children call all their elders Mr/Mrs/Miss/Dr/Pr So-and-So. People hate it (except the parents who also have their kids use titles). We can't be intimate relatives or friends with the whole world. It was easier when everyone was "Title Lastname" except family and the very, very closest of friends (my mom remembers in the 60's calling some closest-of-friends of her parents Aunt and Uncle).

    The same confusion exists in the academic world. I had a coworker who relieved the pressure he got from his more egalitarian associates by having his students refer to him as Mr. Benson, and he in turn called his students Mr. and Ms. Lastname. He got a lot of teasing for it (he was a 24 year-old TA, not an old respected curmudgeon), but it really worked for him.

    I guess my post is a long version of Pr. Fisks. Good post, and a perennial problem.

  12. Could you offer some rubrics on when or when not to wear a collar at circuit/district/synod events? This is just a perplexing to me as how to address my brothers in the ministry.

  13. K - Here's my MO. At circuit I always wear clerics because it's a work day and I'm always on the run and just need to be dressed for work.

    Ideally, we would display our seriousness about General Pastor's Conferences by dressing professionally. However, they are often billed as "retreats," which calls for other dress. So I split the difference. I usually do the first day in clerics, again, I'm coming from work. The second day its often camo for deer hunting and ducking out early for the same.


    PS: At the 2007 convention I went one day incognito with a red button up shirt. Sure enough, after I went to the mic to argue for a resolution overturning lay ministry I was mentioned in the ALPB live blogging as "some layman. . . "

  14. Minority opinion: When I became a pastor, I called all of my fellow pastors in the circuit by their first name. Why? Two reasons.

    First, because I went to the University of Virginia. There, like some other schools, all professors are addressed as Mr or Mrs or Miss—and never Dr.

    Why? Out of respect to Mr Jefferson. Who, heretic that he may be, was still highly educated and acclaimed. But he never obtained a doctorate. So everyone was Mr/Mrs/Miss and no one was Dr.

    To me, this makes sense. So, I just see the whole title thing a bit differently.

    Second: southern culture. Being in the South gives you a whole additional opportunity for respect. You call people sir and ma'am.

    This combines to the following position: You want to show respect to the pastors in your circuit?

    #1: Call them by their first names. Why? Because you're equal. Colleagues call each other by their first names. That is what it is to be on the same level. And as a pastor, now you are on the same level. At least you'd better be...

    #2: You want to show respect to the fellow pastors in your circuit? Call them sir.

    Of course you have to mean it—otherwise it comes across as sarcasm or something like that. But southern culture is entirely helpful here.

    #3: In public, use titles. When I tell my children to get their mom, I don't say "Go get Terry." Or "Go get Mrs Louderback." Both appropriate for me but not for them.

    I call most of you guys by your first name mentally (except for Father Hollywood—nicknames supersede titles) . But here on the board, I go by the nomenclature. Mostly.

    Private e-mails—once again, we're equal. We are all in the same boat.

    The funny thing is, this is actually pretty well demonstrated at the Sem. Professors refer to one another as "Professor This" or "Professor That". But most of the profs call each other by their first name.

    (note: if you want to show someone respect, but they have not written the declaration of independence or the statute of religious freedom, you can't call them "Dr" —that would not be respectful. But, if you called them "Mr" that might seem disrespectful also. So then you call them "Professor". Or just "sir". There is always a nice option.)

    The whole idea of this is the combination of respect and equality.

    But I think that the BEST advice that Fr. Petersen gives is to not be a jerk. I mean, at the core, you can use all the respectable language that you want—but if you are a jerk to others—arrogant, dismissive, etc, then it doesn't matter what you call someone else.

    (And, in the other way, don't be suspicious of the new guy in the circuit. Show up at his installation and tell him to call you by your first name. Be open and vulnerable in your circuit meetings and expect collegiality and respect from others.)

    My serious question for the brothers here is "How do you start calling guys in your circuit "Father Curtis" or "Father Peterson"? And do you introduce yourself as such?

  15. Fr. Louderback,

    "Father" is what is called for in the Gottesdienst style guide, so that's what we use at the journal and here at the journal online. This is, of course, a traditional term for Christian clergy within Lutheranism, especially of the Scandinavian sort, and is an especially useful in our day of female "clergy."

    Almost everybody in my parish calls me "Pastor," that's the usual title for Lutheran clergy here in the Midwest. A couple call me "Father" mostly because they grew up Roman Catholic. I have a friend who went to serve in Brooklyn, NY, and he has been "Father" from day one. This is mainly a regional/cultural distinction it seems to me.

    I think it is a idea for us to keep all of the traditional titles - Reverend, Preacher, Pastor, Father - alive and well because they each confess something different about the Office of the Ministry. As I stated above, I think Father has special use in our day in forming the bulwark against women's "ordination."


  16. Pastor is usual for most folks in my parish, Father is used by those with whom I have a special relationship often because of being with them in some time of trouble or sorrow, Reverend is for those who seldom see me, and Brother is for those who can't shake their Baptistocostal backgrounds.

    I have had retired Pastors in my parish and I called/call them all Pastor except at the rail when I say "The body of Christ for _____ (first name)." I never refer to another Pastor by anything other than "Pastor" when I am in public. In the circuit, I began by calling them "Pastor" and when they requested I changed to their first name.

    I agree with Fr Peterson -- wait, be patient, be forgiving, be understanding, and be slow to judge... not only as new man in your circuit but as new Pastor in you parish... wise counsel for sure.


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