“Dodle Dom Date.” As a child I had a speech impediment and that was the best I could do at pronouncing my own name. I have a clear recollection of one of the older boys at church dragging me over to his friend to have me recite my name for their amusement during the coffee hour. And how badly it stung is evident in the fact that I still remember the event.
But, at the same time, it became a term of endearment in my family and when my mom or dad called me “Dodle Dom” the name conveyed all sorts of affection and fondness. The specific names by which I have been called mean a lot less to me than the meaning expressed by the one using that name.
Joel. JTT. Joel Tom. Mr. Tate. Pastor. Pastor Joel. Pastor Tate. Papa. Preacher. Vicar. Reverend. Pastry Tate (thank you, Nate Stansberry, for that particular sobriquet.) Even “Pastor Potato Chip,” for reasons that were never clear to me. And there are probably some others that I am forgetting. I have gone by a lot of names and will probably collect a few more before it’s all said and done.
As a young pastor I was pretty particular. I wanted to be addressed as “Pastor Tate” by children and in formal settings. I felt that I owed that to the dignity of my office. It was pretty stuffy of me but, in my defense, I was afraid that my natural impulse to casual informality might undermine my effort as a young shepherd to lead a flock of varying ages and backgrounds. I imagined Paul addressing me as he did Timothy and telling me not to let anyone despise me for my youth. So it was “Pastor Tate,” thank you.
But, while I am happy to call any of my colleagues by any designation they prefer, I have finally arrived at the place where I am happy to be called anything that anyone feels comfortable calling me, with a slight preference for being called simply “Joel.”
There are those whose preference for addressing me as “Pastor” or “Pastor fill in the blank” expresses a desire for connection with a tradition and even a hunger for the benefits of a formal shepherd, to have someone acting in the priestly role. And that is a legitimate desire, which is why I would never discourage anyone from using that nomenclature if it feels right on their tongue. I am, after all, a pastor and I’m in no danger of forgetting it. I have walked into hospital rooms where everyone present has only ever known me as “Joel,” but it hasn’t prevented me from approaching the bed of the dying soul as a “priest” with spiritual authority.
One of the things that would shock 18 year old me about 48 year old me is the fact that my own children call me “Joel.” It didn’t start out that way. They called me “Papa” when they were little, but they learned that in situations where there was a lot of noise competing for my attention they could cut through all that noise by calling me by my given name. It was strangely arresting.
And then, when foster kids came into our home, children who called me by my given name, my own children would refer to me as “Joel” in talking to their foster siblings. And by degrees a switch took place. And I never resisted it. When my children called me by my name it wasn’t insolence, or disrespect, and it didn’t signal a change of relationship. I was still indisputably their father. They just call me by my name. That’s all.
And it’s a strange reality now that the people in my life who are most likely to call me “Papa” are not my children (by blood, anyway.)
I understand that some of us have a little bit of insecurity about how to address me. Some of us first knew me when they were children and it feels very strange and presumptuous to call me anything other than “Pastor Tate.” Some of us bring expectations from more formal religious traditions and it feels vaguely sinful to address me in familiar terms. And for some of us I am pastor in one context, friend in another, and in other contexts something along the lines of a father figure; no one designation seems to fit all of the different roles. It can be confusing.
So here’s the good news: you can not get my name wrong, and you can not get it right.
You can’t get my name wrong because I have a good idea of who I am and of who I am to you and in the Lord, regardless of what name you use to address me. Shucks, you can introduce me to people as “Dodle Dom” if you want to.
But you can’t get my name right because I don’t even know what my real name is. My parents gave me the name “Joel” when I was an infant and I’m glad they did, but it’s not the name by which I will be called a thousand years from now in glory (Revelation 2:17.) My name is a good, solid name, but it’s kind of like the sealed envelope that is only valuable because of the letter it contains and which can be discarded after the letter’s been opened.
And, praise the Lord, that’s as true of the people in my church as it is of me. We are all sojourners on our way to a better, more enduring identity in Jesus. And, while we are on the journey together, you are welcome to call me by whatever name you prefer.
Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church Blog