Years ago, I was fortunate to serve Tennessee Baptists as collegiate specialist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I loved the students, faculty and administrators I worked with, and those 10 years were a blessing to me.
I often attended a gathering of church leaders at First Baptist Church Nashville for the regular associational pastors’ conference. I made friends there – good friends – but I quickly learned the importance of getting titles right. Several men made clear to me their desire to be addressed as “Doctor.” I accommodated them. Their churches were financially supporting our ministry and it cost me nothing to call them whatever made them feel better.
After returning to my Vanderbilt office after one of those meetings, I found a note in the mail with a Chinese return address. The personal note of greeting was from Dr. Joseph Hamilton, who at that time was chair of Vanderbilt University Department of Physics and Astronomy. He earned a Ph.D. from Indiana University and was an active Baptist layman. Dr. Hamilton was graciously writing to say hello and tell me about his latest visit to China.
While chair of physics, Hamilton also taught as adjunct professor of physics at Tsinghua University. Tsinghua is often ranked ahead of MIT as the world’s greatest technological university. In addition, Hamilton was one of the discoverers of element 117, tennessine, which is named after the state of Tennessee because of his contribution. Hamilton founded the University Isotope Separator at Oak Ridge.
When I saw his curriculum vitae years ago it listed more than 500 articles to which he had contributed as a researcher. He has countless professional honors plus honorary doctorates from prestigious universities around the world. He is a renowned physicist, honored faculty member and beloved member of the community.
Dr. Hamilton, of all people, could be addressed as “Doctor.” He signed my note — “Joe.”
On Vanderbilt’s campus, faculty members were generally not addressed as “Doctor.” Many preferred to be addressed by their first names or by their role title within the administration. Students were expected to address faculty members as, “Professor.”
Running in these two spheres, the church and the academic, the irony to me was that church leaders, who might have a D. Min. or Ph.D. from a seminary, a school they may or may not have stepped foot on, wanted to be called “Doctor,” while those who had esteemed academic degrees from world renowned universities wanted to be addressed as “Professor.” Professor was their vocation, their calling. They were glad to be known for that to which they had given their lives.
Within the Southern Baptist Convention, we have created a religious leadership culture around the issue of titles. It seems strange. Many church members don’t know or care if we spent five years earning a Ph.D. from Princeton or printed a D.Lit. diploma yesterday on our office computer. Somehow our church culture pressures church leaders to state they have educational degrees, degrees which require titles. Everyone wants to be introduced as “Doctor.”
Don’t get me wrong. I believe strongly in education and preparation for ministry.
I believe strongly in continued education throughout the life of ministry. I personally fear too many of us are under-prepared and that seminary training may be weakening, not strengthening. Online education does fall short of years spent on campus, where we learn face-to-face with colleagues and high-quality faculty.
And certainly, many individuals serve faithfully and effectively with little or no formal education, but Paul did encourage us in I Timothy 4 to “train … be diligent.” I am not arguing for less training. There is a time and a place for titles, but I am arguing for a decreased emphasis on titles and a hierarchy based on those titles.
We have grieved in recent days as former SBC interim-Executive Committee President Willie McLaurin’s dishonesty has been exposed regarding his educational credentials. While it by no means excuses Willie’s failure, our church leadership culture has created an environment in which everyone feels pressure to have esteemed titles.
How did we get here? Has our emphasis on titles to some extent become idol worship? Has the culture we’ve created fostered humility or arrogance? This is a collective challenge for all of us within the SBC, and one worth considering if we are going to recapture a passion for humble service versus vain formality.
I remember in the early 70s a man coming to lead our East Tennessee church and letting it be known he desired to be addressed as “Doctor.” He followed a couple of great men who never needed that title and were glad to serve God and be known as “Pastor.” In that situation, I preferred the “Pastors.” B&R