By Drew Nathaniel Keane

The question of what to call the minister can be confusing. In many contemporary Episcopal parishes, a priest will be called Father or Mother, but this is a relatively recent development. I will briefly explore the options that are commonly heard today: Father/Mother, Reverend, and Pastor. I commend the use of Pastor to my fellow Episcopalians as the most reflective of the descriptions of the presbyter found in the New Testament and the prayer book rite for ordination.


In ancient times, Father was a title used only by bishops; later it grew within monasticism. In the East, non-monastics address monks (priests and others) as Father, while they call each other Brother. In the West, by the High Middle Ages it was common to call all in mendicant orders Father. For those speaking English, the custom of using Father as a form of address for all clergy seems to have begun first in Ireland.

Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Archbishop of Westminster (1865-92) — an Anglican clergyman who became a Roman Catholic in response to the Gorham Judgment and debates about baptismal regeneration — apparently began advocating that Roman Catholics in England use Father as an address for all clergy. Within the Church of England it was, of course, Anglo-Catholics who first began using this form of address, following Cardinal Manning’s recommendation.


This form of address has a varied history in other times and places, including among the Reformed. Historian David Holmes has shown that in colonial America and down through the 19th century New England Puritans and their successors, as well as Anglicans, called their ministers Mister or, as a formal style, the Reverend Mister (see “Fathers and Brethren,” Church History [Sept. 1968], pp. 298-318). But among the heirs of English dissenting movements outside of New England Puritans — i.e., among Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, German Reformed, Lutherans, and (later) Disciples of Christ — calling ministers Father was not uncommon, especially among missionary pioneers.

This seems to be based on Paul’s use of birth/parental language to describe his missionary labors in 1 Corinthians 4:15: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

Holmes shows that the usage arose out of popular affection or reverence for the minister. The minister did not ask to be called Father or use it as a formal style. The decline in this usage among other American Protestant bodies coincides with the growth of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the Protestant Episcopal Church, the influx of Irish immigration, and a dramatic rise in the number of DD degrees awarded by seminaries. By the late 19th century, Doctor was the most common form of address for Protestant clergy in the United States.

In the Church of England, Father generally remains a form of address only among Anglo-Catholics. The Anglican Church of Canada’s website continues to note it as an exception, advising that it not be used by default but only if clergy request it. However, in the Episcopal Church it seems to have become normative, though that was not the case until late in the 20th century. Some Episcopalians consider this the correct way to address a priest, simply because this form of address is all they have ever heard. However, it’s curious to make this usage a point of correctness. There’s nothing in our prayer book, Constitution, or Canons that indicates this is the proper way to address clergy. The custom is a recent one and not universal among Anglicans.

We need not be fundamentalists to think that Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23:9 ought to have some bearing on the discussion. I think the spirit of the prohibition lies in keeping the role of spiritual officers in perspective; they are themselves under authority, and are not authorities in and of themselves. It troubles me that Episcopalians are too quick to brush aside this Dominical proscription without bothering to ask what Jesus is warning against.

We do, however, have New Testament precedent for the use of the familial metaphor, as the passage quoted above from 1 Corinthians shows. Similarly, some argue that a spiritual interpretation of the fifth commandment — the injunction to honor our fathers and mothers — also lends weight to this usage. Parents in the flesh are analogous to parents in the faith. When St. Paul tells the Corinthians to think of him as “father” it is precisely because he was the person who “begat” them in the faith — preached the gospel to them and nurtured them in their infancy. But, it does not therefore follow that we should call all presbyters Father or Mother anymore than I would address all biological parents in that way beyond my own.

The use of parental language for those who have or do fulfill a parental role in one’s religious life seems highly appropriate, but the argument is less clear or compelling as a reason to address all ministers with that language. It seems preferable if the usage arise out of genuine relationship, affection, or reverence, rather than an insistence on a formal title.


In formal English, the Reverend is a minister’s honorific style. In recent times it has come to be used without the article as a title or form of direct address.  It might be an apt way to show respect for the office, which is an honorable service, as acknowledged in 1 Timothy 3.1: “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.” The phrase “good work” in this verse might also be rendered “noble task” or “honorable position” or “something excellent.”

The use of Reverend as a noun to refer to the office or the person holding the office sounds very odd to me — it would sound equally odd to call a judge an Honorable or an Honor.

My father — yes, my biological father and the man who raised me — is a minister in the independent Christian Church movement, as is my grandfather. He particularly dislikes being called Reverend or Reverend Keane because it implies he is worthy of special honor and expects others to refer to him in this way. My father thinks it better to be associated with servanthood than honor. I agree. It is also worth noting, as the Restoration Movement leader Alexander Campbell once did, that Matthew 23:9 applies just as much to the use of “the Reverend.”


Pastor, the Latin word for shepherd, entered into Middle English through Norman-French. It is also relatively common outside of the Episcopal Church to refer to the office of a minster and the person holding the office.

The rector and other ministers of a parish do indeed function as pastors, so the use of pastor as title and address seems entirely apt. In another article, David Holmes argues that among the possible forms of address for a minister,

one title may stand out from the others: “Pastor.” “Pastor” is at once biblical, historical, gender-free, reflective of a deeply caring relationship, and consistent with Reformation teachings about priesthood and vocation. It is also the most ecumenical of all possible titles, being used by Christian clergy from storefront preachers to the pope.

The association of Pastor with Lutherans and Baptists, among others, should not be troubling (in fact, I suspect that disquietude owes something to classism/elitism). I have known Anglo-Catholics to make the argument that the bishop is the only pastor of the diocese. That strikes me as ridiculous. This argument applies to the use of Father as well, which arose as a form of address for the bishop (as noted above). Pastor is one of the normative biblical metaphors for the office of presbyter/episkopos (two words for the same office at that early stage in the Church’s development), and pastor/shepherd is perhaps the image most often associated with Christian ministry in the New Testament. This passage from the first letter of Peter (one of the options for the epistle lesson in the ordination rite) is fairly representative of how the New Testament describes ministry in the Christian Church:

The elders (presbyterous) which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight (episcopountes) thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. (1 Pet. 5:1-3)

Rather than a title of honor like the others, pastor speaks to the function of feeding the flock. Since the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), the Anglican rite for the ordination of a priest uses the language of pastor/shepherd to describe and refer to that office and ministry. The first option for the Epistle lesson in the Ordination service is Acts 20:17-35, in which the people of God are referred to as flock. One of the three options for the Gospel is John 10:1-16, in which Jesus explains his own ministry by analogy to a shepherd. In the Examination, the Bishop identifies the priest as pastor (along with messenger, watchman, and steward).

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer Book draws even more heavily on the shepherd analogy. In that rite, the Bishop says to the candidate: “Now you are called to work as pastor, priest, and teacher, together with your bishop and fellow presbyters” (p. 531). He asks, “Will you undertake to be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve?” (p. 532). When the bishop lays hands upon the candidate, he prays, “Make him a faithful pastor, a patient teacher, and a wise councilor” (p. 534).

Considering this evidence, perhaps the custom of calling the priest Pastor warrants more consideration among Episcopalians. It reflects the language of the New Testament and of the prayer book, while also avoiding the potential problems involved in other options.

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer at Georgia Southern University and a member of St. John’s, Savannah, Georgia. 

19 Responses

  1. Fr Ian Wetmore

    In my experience, “Pastor” is the form of address that’s least off-putting to most Christians. And it, along with a clerical collar, opens many, many doors that might otherwise have remained tightly shut.

  2. Regina Christianson

    When I was ordained, I asked my interfaith group of psyche patients, for whom I was chaplain, what they would like to call me. Due to location, many were Roman Catholic, many were “kitchen Baptists”, many were untouched by any formal religion at all. They all agreed on “Pastor”. I was pleased and humbled that they would think so.

  3. Kit Carlson

    I am called Pastor around here, for all the reasons listed above. “Reverend” is grammatically incorrect, and “Mother” is just a second-hand way of trying to come up with a female correspondence to “Father”. Plus, when I got ordained, my children reminded me that they, and only they, are entitled to call me Mother, and they reserved that privilege to themselves.

  4. Ephraim Radner

    Finally, a sensible discussion on this matter! The sooner Episcopalians (and Anglicans more broadly, and other Christian groups) cease worrying about what to call themselves as ordained ministers, and focus more on their humble and exhaustive calling — as pastors, granted a vocation by the Great Shepherd of the sheep — the sooner they can begin to hold their ministries in the more accountable context God requires. Well done.

  5. Julianne Ture

    “Reverend” is an adjective, not a title or noun, and should not be used as a title, and I will make that point with my last breath. That said, as an Anglo-Catholic layperson, I have no trouble with “Father” or “Mother”, but “Pastor” simply does not resonate. This may well change as the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions continue to integrate.

    A modest alternative proposal: if one is not comfortable with “Father” or “Mother”, there is nothing wrong with the common forms of respectful address – “sir” and “ma’am.” In fact, addressing a (male) priest as “sir” goes back to medieval times in England and survives in some liturgical formulae, such as “Bid, sir priest, a blessing.” Yes, that is a quaint relic, but I suggest that “sir” and “ma’am” are perfectly acceptable terms of address.

  6. Mark Preece

    Interesting article, and I, too, like pastor. But it’s odd that there’s no consideration of how forms of address have developed outside the church.

    I’m sure this varies by region of the country. In the midcentury midwest, where I grew up, adults would call each other “mister Smith” unless they were actually friends. Here in 21st century New England, the only people I regularly call “Mr.” or “Mrs.” are my kids’ school teachers.

    And this is true among lay people at church, too. In the churches I grew up in, people used “Mr.” and “Mrs.” until invited otherwise. I don’t recall for sure, but my guess is the priest called some people — visitors, at least — “Mr.” and “Mrs.” But everybody in my parish now expects to be called by their first names, both by each other and by me (and I try hard to remember them all!)

    So, part of this question involves whether my parishioners will use a whole different level of formality for me than they expect me to use with them. In my two decades of ordained ministry (in Philadelphia, then New England), there have always been a few people for whom using an honorific with the priest is important. And the few times I’ve been asked to actually make a policy about this question have always involved children: what should they call me? I’ve generally gone with “Father Mark,” since the adults who want to use an honorific usually want it to be “Father” and all the other adults are already using my first name.

  7. Rev Harvey Bale

    This article is discouraging. When the Church is fraught with aging congregations, declining attendance and schisms space is given over to a discussion of ministerial appellations! Who cares, given that this matter will be handled according to local traditions and personal preferences. And anyone who pays attention to how they are called has misplaced priorities going beyond this!

  8. Brian Turner

    While I agree very much with this article’s conclusions, I know there are some clergy who are quite adamant that pastor is an inappropriate and incorrect title for clergy, based on its association with Jesus as the Good Shepherd. I have an old British priest colleague near me in Florida who insists to clergy and parishioners alike on this point, recalling what he was taught when he was in seminary by an old experienced priest many, many years ago. He writes: “First, despite what the Ordinal might say about being pastors, we are not pastors. A pastor is a shepherd and there is only one shepherd, the Good Shepherd. By definition, anyone accepting the title, pastor, must be a bad shepherd. Secondly, we are ordained, so we are no longer of the laity, the sheep. We are the sheepdogs, which is why we wear a dog collar!”

  9. Dale Coleman

    I find that the usage of Father for the priest and shepherd of the Eucharistic community one serves, makes the most sense. When I came into the Episcopal Church in 1976, all priests were called this. It was not simply an arbitrary choice, but reflected the meaning of what a priest is and does, and called into his or her vocation by God for shepherding a part of the Body of Christ. There was also the “call me Bob” school, which seemed to me a failure of nerve both for the priest, and for one’s parishioners. I am first of all a priest, because of my celebrating the Eucharist, hearing Confessions, (bless me Bob for I have sinned… this doesn’t cut it), baptizing new members of the Body of Christ, officiating and blessing at a wedding, taking the Body and Blood of Christ to those hospitalized or shut in. I find myself in numerous situations proclaiming the Gospel to various individuals who need someone to tell the Old, old story. And our proclaiming the Gospel to the church community is central to who I am as a priest. I believe all this for ordained women priests, and I simply say Mother. Our church has said Mister, Parson, Doctor, and all show a lack of discerning the nature of the church, and of the one set aside by God to build up the Body of Christ. Here is my general thought about all this: When the Church has forgotten what it is, then clergy lose the sense of who they are, and look for some way to gain respectability- Counselor, Myers-Briggs guru, Booster, Political Activist, CEO, Academic, and many more. Archbishop Ramsey in the Gospel and the Catholic Church, dug the well all over again, and took his cue from Romans 15:16 in which St. Paul calls himself a priest, hiereus, of the Gospel. Pastor, Mr., Bob do not rise to what a priest is about.

    • Randy Melton

      I agree with Fr. Coleman for many of the same reasons. Pastor is but one function of a priest, as is preacher. I don’t see Father or Mother as authoritarian titles but rather as relational acknowledgements as the spiritually nurturing leader of a spiritual family. Father and Mother encompass all of the functions of the ontological, sacramental nature of priesthood without overemphasizing one function over another.

  10. B. Todd Granger

    I agree with Dr. Radner, Drew: well done. A good and profitable discussion that rightly orients ministry and honor, the latter proceeding from the former. I add my voice to the Revd. Ms. Carlson’s (you see what I did there), viz. that the use of “Reverend” as a title is a solepcism. I am reminded that the current Crockford’s Directory, in its discussion of how to address ordained ministers in the CofE, stiffly and with an at least slightly supercilious air comments that the use of the honorific “Reverend” as a title is “inappropriate on this side of the Atlantic”! Well, it’s wrong on our side of the Atlantic as well.

    At the risk of sounding hopelessly archaic (or even romantic, something I heartily dislike), I suggest another entirely appropriate word for the parish minister: parson. Parson, used first in Middle English and referring to the vicar or rector of a parish, derives from the notion that the priest is the persona (Lat., person -> parson) of the parish, that is the person who represents the Church to the parish itself and to the world. (This needn’t be understood in any way that is clericalist or that diminishes our common calling as Church.) While perhaps not appropriate for every presbyter/priest, it is eminently suitable for the parish minister, whether rector or vicar, and has a venerable tradition of use in our own country into the early 19th century––witness all those references to Virginia parsons.

  11. Ron Mecklin

    Matthew 23 v 8 & 9 You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have one Master. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father and he is in Heaven.

  12. Michael F

    I’m not opposed to the use of “pastor”, and it is both theologically and biblically appropriate. But these honorific titles have long been used in the church, while women were excluded from the ministry. I make an especial effort to address my female clergy as “Rev. so-and-so”, because finally they have the opportunity that men have had for an age. I’d rather not drop the honorifics just yet until our collective memory is all one in which “the Reverend” does not automatically bring up images of men in cassocks.

  13. Douglas Carpenter

    I’ve been happy with “Mr. Carpenter” since my ordination in Alabama 58 years ago. Some clergy think I’m too informal. They call my parish in Birmingham “Mr. Stephen’s” instead of “St. Stephen’s.” I’m also happy with “Douglas,” the name given to me at Baptism in 1933 in the parish of the author of this article, St. John’s, Savannah.

  14. Jeffrey Cave

    Best to call clergy, whether deacons, presbyters, or bishops, by their Christian names. Perhaps “bishop” is an exception, since it means “pastor” anyway. Bishop Jane, Bishop Samuel. Father and Mother is strictly monastic. And gender-differentiated. Pastor is terribly Lutberan! Mr or Ms never incorrect. Somd clergy will do all they can to set themselves apart from the flock. Awfully silly.

    • Douglas

      Why do we need to call our clergy in a special way? We don’t have special ways to call our lawyer, or our mail carrier, or our architect.

  15. Dirk Reinken

    I remember Archbishop Donald Coggan visiting a TEC Diocesan Convention sharply correcting some Americans who seemed overly enthralled by addressing him as “My Lord”and “Your Grace” by saying “The only title any of us can rightly claim is ‘Slave of Christ.’” I find that perspective helpful.

    There are generally as many reasons against as for any particular option. In my mind, it should never be a faux pas to call a fellow Christian by their baptism name. It would only seem disrespectful to me if some priests were called by one title and others by another (Father Peter and Pastor Mary, for instance). I invite people to use my first name and ask them to use Father if they feel a more formal usage is necessary. I also have more important things to worry about than correcting someone who comes up with their own title (as long as they aren’t using it in a published fashion).

    • Douglas

      Some of my less educated neighbors call me Preacher Doug and Brother Doug. I find both of these complementary. The children in the Pre-School call me Mr. Doug.

  16. Greg Clark

    I can only what imagine what would have happened if I had called any of my priests “Pastor”. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be here as I would have been struck by lightning. I shudder to think. Fr Greg does seem appropriate for the kids, or somebody who wants to address me more formally. This is what people have called me throughout the vast majority of the time I’ve been a priest. With all due respect, I don’t’ see the logic in “we disagree what to call priests to let’s all use this form of address used by Baptists” (no disrespect intended, some of my best friends etc)?” “Pastor”? No, no a thousand times no! As for the Anglican Church of Canada website, well bless their hearts.


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