A number of years ago I started a campus ministry at a secular university in Canada. I quickly discovered that one of the great things about starting a ministry is that you get to name everything . . . even yourself!
During the first few weeks of work, I sat at the computer with a business card template open in Microsoft Word and pondered what to put behind my name. Should I call myself a pastor? Reverend? Chaplain? Minister? Leader? Catalyzer? Eventually I settled on the catchy title “pastor to university students.”
However, it didn’t me take long to realize that for many, the title on my newly-minted business card was a conversation stopper.
When I grew up the words “pastor” and “church” were very positive. I had pastors who were great leaders and mentors, and over the years the church that I experienced, although far from perfect, was a place of encouragement, hospitality, and grace. But for many people the title “pastor” and the word “church” are dirty words. Sadly, perhaps the word “Christianity” is the dirtiest of all—a word many associate with hate, abuse, control, and politics.
Recently I sat down to have my hair cut at a beauty school. When the hairdresser asked me what I did for a living, I decided to take a different approach to see what would happen. It went something like this:
Hairdresser: So, what do you do?
Sam: I journey with people and help them explore spiritual questions.
Hairdresser: Wow. That sounds interesting.
Sam: Yeah—it’s a great job. I get to ask people the questions that no one else will. Questions about life’s purpose, what happens after we die, how to cultivate hope, and what makes for a meaningful life.
Hairdresser: I bet you have some great conversations and people tell you some pretty deep stuff.
Sam: Yeah, they do. It’s an honor, and I’m humbled by what people share with me. I can’t believe I get paid to do it!
The conversation continued, but the lights went on for me. Recently I talked with a mentor who advised me to use titles that open up conversation rather than to shut it down. I took his advice and I began to notice that whenever I led with the words “pastor” and “church,” the conversation closed down. But when I explained what I did using different language, the conversation began to open up.
“Pastor” is a word that I like. I have good associations with it, and sometimes it’s helpful to use because it opens the door. But sometimes I have to let it go and find more creative and colorful ways to communicate what I do, my role, and the kind of community I belong to. For many, the word “pastor” conjures up images of shady TV evangelists rather than warm, gentle, and thoughtful spiritual guides who help people notice, name, and nurture their deepest longings.
Using language that opens up conversation is an act of hospitality. It’s finding the best tool to nudge open the heart, to invite curiosity, and to encourage a different way of looking at reality. It’s about being sensitive to how some language can make people feel excluded and how other words can invite people to consider their place in a grand story of God’s determination and sacrifice to love humanity through the ages—a story we call Good News.