Whew! Back from retreat.

I appreciate the prayers and well-wishes while I sojourned with the Word of God at St John’s Abbey/University in Collegeville this week. The Conversatio retreat was a rich experience. I hope to be blogging a bit more on that in the next few days. You can also expect to see a slight shift in blogging themes in the days and weeks ahead. No worries–I’ll still be tackling controversial subjects and getting all arrogant on the Right. Just a little bit more in the arena of constructive spirituality–a hermeneutic of addition, if you will.

Before I head off to the parish to get ready for the weekend, I wanted to offer a few experiences and thoughts on titles. I have my first piece–a modest one–for Commonweal coming out in a few weeks, and I sent my usual tag when they asked me to identify myself for the readers. I sent along some throwaway line, that I “serve in worship and spiritual growth at St Thomas, etc..” My gracious editor floated back this suggestion from the other editors:

Can we use your title – e.g., “Todd Flowerday is Director of Liturgy and Music at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center at Iowa State University”?

Adopting a Benedictine spirit of obedience, I acceded.

But in the spirit of my retreat, I should reflect a bit on that. Over the years, I’ve had many titles. Right out of grad school, I was “Director of Music and Coordinator of Liturgy.” Then I went south where I was a “Minister for Worship.” Then I was at Michigan State where despite being specialists we all had streamlined titles like “Campus Minister.”

Next I was “Director of Liturgy and Coordinator of Music” because the parish had a lot of music groups and some independent leadership, and since I wasn’t “hands-on” with everything musical, I was supposed to just “coordinate” it. But “direct” the liturgy. Then I was in a rural parish as a “Pastoral Associate” which pretty much meant everything ministerial but the DRE.

Then something curious happened. I was hired to serve a Kansas City parish that had a very bad experience with their first and previous “Director of Liturgy,” so when I was hired, the bulletin said “Coordinator of Liturgy.” The pastor explained that he wanted to smooth over the bad vibe. Maybe later I could be “promoted” to director.

Now, I’ve long been aware of the distinctions between directors, coordinators, associates, ministers, and the like. Sometimes, it’s used to identify a person’s pay grade. Worst case scenario, it can be used to justify an employee’s salary. In 2002, I didn’t care too much, because I was being paid generously. I also agreed with the pastor that great sensitivity is needed when you’re cleaning up a self-identified disaster.

My friend Jim was our “Parish Manager,” so when it was time to change my title, I opted for “Parish Liturgist.” Simple. Direct. It was, I thought, lacking presumption while letting parishioners know for what I was responsible. I confess I have an ego, and it’s always an internal caution for me not to stimulate it too much, or allow myself to get into situations in which I get dangerous strokes for it. It might be interpreted (and I pondered this in my own mind) that after many years in ministry, I had transcended Title and could be called anything, so long as I did my job, and my salary was direct-deposited. Maybe I was a little arrogant to think I was above and beyond the silly monikers of director, coordinator, minister, chief, big cheese, and the like.

Pastor number three in KC openly mused, “I don’t know what a parish liturgist does.” I have to say I never really got that comment. He was my boss. Being a liturgist meant whatever he wanted it to mean. There was all the stuff we discussed one-on-one that had to do with liturgy: who’s preparing wedding ceremonies with couples, who’s changing server procedures, who’s teaching the worship content on adult faith formation, who’s working with organists and choir directors. He wanted new initiatives in adult formation and in the arts, so I did that too. Was he looking for a music director who had hidden jobs? I’ve had colleagues for whom their experience in parish ministry was like a Russian Doll experience. The deeper you got the more aspects were opened to you in the labor department.


Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing–necessarily. Authentic ministry will always be guided by the Holy Spirit, and if you want a real unfolding experience in life, just let God be in charge. But let’s cut to the chase: God doesn’t bait ‘n switch. We all realize upfront we disciples will be led to go places and do things we never imagined. I’ve known pastors who have assigned titles, then shift around the duties based on what they didn’t want to bother with, and sometimes justify unjust salaries in the bargain.

So back to titles. What do you think of them? I knew one priest who was appointed “administrator.” On the bulletin masthead, he kept his old title, and listed “Jesus Christ” as “pastor,” even though the diocese soon made him the ecclesiastical Head Honcho, so to speak. I worked with another guy, a really good guy, who listed himself as “parish priest.” But when it was time for me to depart, he conceded he was acting as “pastor” to inform me we were going to part ways.

Even when I was on retreat, I couldn’t get away from titles. At Thursday Vespers, the Abbot presided over a brief ritual in which a subprior was thanked for seven years of service and a new subprior installed.

As for my title, I suppose the reading public who doesn’t experience what I do in ministry really needs to know where this new writer/acquaintance is coming from. So what do you think? Is a title as important as the doing? Or a lot of fluff over nothing?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Titles

  1. Dino says:

    As one whose “title” is now “retired”, I learned a very long time ago that titles can cover a multitude of “sins”, and not really mean much anyway.
    In all of my occupations, mostly unrelated to each other, I had a shelf of “hats” not related to why I was hired…even Catholic Chaplain, even though I never spent a minute in a seminary. No, I did NOT try to celebrate Mass or hear Confessions. It was a title given at the request of a diocesan authority.
    With three careers behind me, at least I know what I am retired from!

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