June 20, 2014

My Response to 'Our Father'

Editor's note: Just before Father's Day, ECFVP posted Our 'Father' or??? on our Facebook and Twitter feeds and invited comments. Victor Sarrazin tweeted about his experience working without the title and we invited him to share a few of his thoughts and experiences with our readers...

Personal Experience

When I was ordained in 1990, I found myself a bit uncomfortable with the experience of being called "Father.” I do not mind being introduced as The Rev. Victor Sarrazin, especially when the occasion called for others to be introduced as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so. However, being called father in informal and everyday conversation felt wrong and seemed to create distance. I felt the call to be a servant leader, not a priest on a pedestal.

I decided that I would introduce myself simply by name, especially on Sunday mornings or when wearing a clerical collar and my role in the local congregation was obvious. When someone addressed me as father, and the occasion allowed me the opportunity, I would say, "please just call me Victor.” If they objected, which was rare, I simply accepted it without further debate.

This practice has produced "good fruit" in a couple different ways. It has given a unique authenticity to efforts at leading congregations away from top-down ministry structures into collaborative (shared) ministry. I have especially seen this manifest with individuals using their own creativity and initiative to launch new ministries; seeking me out not for "permission" but for input and shared discernment. I have also experienced a personal affirmation of this approach when people mention to my family that they appreciated me as "approachable" or "a priest who is one of us.” Both of these dynamics told me that my approach was succeeding.

Lessons Learned

Titles and Leadership Responsibilities
Titles have great symbolic power and are appropriate in the right circumstances. However, when used on a daily basis have a tendency to stratify relationships in a vertical manner rather than encourage relationships on a horizontal or communal plane. On the opposite end of the balance beam is the question of role identity and leadership responsibility. While I am an advocate of leading from the ground floor, I have also learned it is important that one does in fact lead. Each individual priest needs to find that balance in which they neither sit over the congregation nor abdicate their leadership responsibilities.

Do Not Fear or Excessively Love Titles (or Clerical Collars)
Formal occasions and public introductions which call for the use of any other title, Dr. Prof., etc., are appropriate occasions for you to use Rev. If you would go to the event dressed in formal business attire then where your caller. Sunday morning services included. Leaving newcomers to the church wondering whom you are and what you are when you introduce yourself to them is not welcoming. I have adopted the practice of saying "hello my name is Victor; I'm the Rector here at St.…, thank you for joining us today."

Of course there are times and places when these things need to be put aside. Showing up in your collar on the parish cleanup day is silly. Everybody taking part in the work knows who you are; break out your jeans and T-shirt and leave the titles at home. 

Accept People for Who They Are
Some individuals will be uncomfortable addressing you without your title; accept it. My experience has been that many people who address you in this manner will stop using your title as they get to know you better. Others have a high cultural or personal value for signs of respect and will not let go of your title. Accept them for who they are, forcing your values upon them is not an act of Christian love.

Avoid the Clergy Pedestal
Over the past 24 years of ordained ministry I have witnessed an inflated ego become the destruction of more than one good priest; and do great harm to their congregations. You will occasionally encounter individuals who insist on trying to push you up on the pedestal, i.e., trying to make you into their surrogate father or mother. They may gush with syrupy sweetness over every Sunday's sermon or lavish unending praise over your Bible study. Do not fall for it! You are competent, successful in your ministry, loved by God and by God's people; you are not perfect nor are you the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Keep yourself in balance with healthy Christian humility.