What’s in a name?
by Brett Buckner
May 12, 2012 | 3226 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lee Shafer has gotten used to the question.

As rector for Grace Episcopal Church in Anniston, Shafer has watched people politely struggle with how to address her. In the Episcopal Church, as within the Catholic Church, male clergy are often referred to as “Father.” Thus the curious question arises … what to say when your priest is female?

“That is a question I get quite often,” Shafer said. “Usually I tell people to call me ‘Lee.’ For some, that is too informal. Mother Lee is fine, although many female priests don’t like that.”

Not Shafer. “I don’t get too hung up on what folks call me.”

Although Shafer does remember a particular parishioner, before she came to Anniston, who insisted on calling her “Father Shafer” or “Father Lee.”

The question of what to call Shafer took on a new twist this month, after she completed her doctorate degree. Some have asked if she would now like to be called “Dr. Shafer.” To which she politely responds, “Lee is fine.”

In the Diocese of Georgia, the question of what to call female priests came to the attention of Bishop Scott A. Benhase. Since some did not like the title “Mother,” Benhase decided they should be called “Pastor,” a term that Shafer is not all together comfortable with.

“That is one I don’t really like,” she said. “Not that it’s not appropriate. That is one of our roles and a very important one. But it leans too far toward the post-reformation side of the church for me. Still, I have never corrected anyone for any title that is comfortable for them.”

It almost sounds like a joke: What’s the difference between a minister, a preacher and a pastor?

A minister is a Protestant, quiet and thoughtful.

A preacher is a Baptist, loud and full of praise.

A pastor is a meadow where the cows like to graze.

As pastor for Living by Faith in Oxford, Bob McClain is known by many names. But when people get confused, he’s got a joke of his own.

“Most of the congregation that I pastor, refer to me as ‘Pastor,’” he said. “There are a few people who call me ‘Apostle,’ several people call me ‘Brother Bob,’ and some of my closer friends simply call me ‘Bob.’

“As I’ve said many times, ‘Call me whatever you like ... just don’t call me late for dinner.”

Different denominations use different titles for their clergy. Reverend, minister, pastor and preacher are all Protestant names, with little aside from personal opinion and perspective to distinguish them.

Catholics use “Father” as a term of endearment for their priest. The title carries weight both within the church and for the priest himself, explained Bryan Lowe, priest of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Anniston.

“It began as an understanding that, as the pastor, you are the spiritual father who is there to guide the children,” Lowe said. “Because of the priesthood being celibate, our church is our family.”

Within the African-American community, respect is a linchpin of faith. That’s why those within the African-American church place so much importance on titles, and why most clergy are referred to as either reverend or pastor, explained Eugene Leonard, pastor of The Life Center Church in Hobson City.

“When it comes to the African-American church, titles have a lot to do with respect, and that goes back to our parents and grandparents,” Leonard said. “To call the preacher by his first name — for them and now for us — was just disrespectful, because he was in a leadership role. You wouldn’t call President Obama ‘Barack.’ You wouldn’t call Mayor Robinson ‘Gene.’ And you wouldn’t call Senator Shelby ‘Richard.’

“The same goes for pastors. It’s a sign of respect, something they’ve earned.”

Buddy Nelson, pastor of Anniston’s First Baptist Church at McClellan, is an admittedly laidback guy. He doesn’t get too caught up in pretense when being addressed by his congregation.

“Just call me ‘Buddy,’” Nelson said. “I’ve never had much time for formality. Buddy is my name. It’s who I am and how I’d like people to know me. I’d rather just be one of the people.”

The basic rule of thumb is for pastors to use whatever the congregation is most comfortable with, Nelson said.

“The congregation has its own approach. There’s no standard — at least not in the Baptist church … of course, there’s no standard in the Baptist church for much of anything,” Nelson said, laughing. “That’s why, when I meet a visitor for the first time, I simply say, ‘I’m Buddy Nelson,’ and we go from there.”

Contact Brett Buckner at brettbuckner@ymail.com.

A preacher by any other name


The most formal title used today, “reverend” began as an informal expression of respect or introduction for a cleric. “To say, ‘The Reverend John Smith,’ was like saying, ‘The deeply loved and respected man of God, John Smith,’” said Dale Robbins, author of “What People Ask About the Church.” In later years, ‘reverend’ evolved into a secular title of etiquette, used as a prefix in front of a clergyman’s name to indicate his ministerial vocation. Today, “reverend” is used most often in written communications or as a formal introduction.


“Pastor” literally means “shepherd.” Given the option, Robbins would rather be referred to as “pastor” instead of “reverend.” “I prefer to be viewed as a humble shepherd-servant, rather than someone special deserving of reverence.”


More a description of one’s ministry than a title. The best biblical example of a preacher is an evangelist, one who proclaims the Gospel. Eugene Leonard of The Life Center Church in Hobson City explained the difference: “A pastor leads a congregation and has his own church. You can be a preacher and not a pastor. But a pastor preaches.”


Also a biblical term, used broadly to refer to anyone who serves in ministry.


Also comes directly from the Bible; Christians are described as a family. “It is also the fashion the early apostles and disciples addressed each other,” Robbins said.
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