In the U.S. Army, three stripes designate a soldier who is a Sergeant (Grade E5.) In the U.S. Navy, it also means Sergeant. You’re a Sergeant in the U.S. Marines if you have three stripes plus two crossed rifles below. Three stripes and a star mean you are a Senior Airman in the U.S. Air Force.
In the academic world, three stripes on an academic robe mean you have a doctorate. It could be a PhD or a EdD or a DSM or (clergy’s personal favorite) a DMin. Law School graduates receive a J.D. but they use the designation of “Esquire” after their names rather than “Dr.” before their names.
I have a DMin from Columbia Theological Seminary in Christian Spirituality and – I confess before you and that excellent faculty – I am fine with never being called Dr. Edmiston. For me, it felt like continuing education with a degree at the end during a time when my children were very young and I needed time twice a year when I could read a book without distractions.
For congregations I’ve served, it meant something different. It meant “our pastor has a doctorate which means we are the kind of church who has a pastor with a doctorate.” They gave me my robe with three stripes and it’s the robe I still wear.
When a (usually male) Christian calls me a girl or wants to argue 1 Timothy 2:12 with me, I confess to feeling joy when I don that doctoral gown. (And if I have the energy, I invite that person to join me for an exegesis session in Greek.)
For those who’ve been chided for not being smart enough because of skin color or heritage, being called Dr. is evidence of serious academic chops. For others of us, it’s simply a feel-good title. (Note: in the church I served while I was working on my DMin, all three of my predecessors were known as “Rev. Dr.” when actually each of them had an honorary doctorate given by a Christian college that appreciated being included in the church budget.)
I wrote in yesterday’s post about a job called Astronomer Royal. That’s the actual job title for Queen Elizabeth’s personal astronomer. And I mentioned that it would be fun for each of us to add “Royal” to our jobs no matter what they are: Dentist Royal. Barber Royal. Meatpacker Royal.
And yet – for clergy – calling ourselves Pastor Royal feels like heresy. According to the Bible, we are a royal priesthood, sure. And also Jesus is the only King of Kings. We who follow Jesus as leaders, as disciples, as servants are called to be humble. Ministry is not about us. And yet I recently heard one seminary graduate tell me – when asked why they wanted to be ordained – say “I want to be called ‘reverend‘ so people will respect me.” Honest. But wrong answer.
I do not begrudge those of us who call ourselves Dr. Whatever. And also, some of the best pastors in my denomination do not have any version of doctoral degree and they don’t need it. I hope that congregations searching for new leadership do not misunderstand what a doctorate means and insist on calling a pastor who has one.
If your pastor has a PhD, it means they are academically inclined. They can speak and/or read multiple languages and they are experts in a field that they find fascinating and maybe we will too.
If your pastor has a DMin, it means they took extra courses to focus on a specific piece of professional ministry (preaching, teaching, administration, etc.) They may or may not be better pastors than those without a DMin. It’s not the DMin that makes a leader effective.
If your pastor has an Honorary Doctorate, it means they participated in a college or university graduation and it’s customary to gift them with a hood and robe. Ben Affleck has one.
Great leadership is not about degrees or honors. It’s about emotional intelligence and humility and curiosity. And if we are in fields that requires some sort of professional education (physician, engineer, cosmetologist, electrician, therapist, teacher, physical trainer, pastor) it’s our responsibility to be lifelong learners.
Have a Happy Labor Day Week.