Some years ago, I learned that a name is a powerful thing. For example, while working to complete my undergraduate degree in education, on various occasions my professor would observe us as we taught lessons in classrooms at nearby schools as we prepared for the time when we would have our own classrooms. On one particular occasion, I was teaching a group of students whom I did not know very well since I was only at the school a few times and only for short periods of time. As a result, I did not know the students’ names. My professor picked up on this immediately. In her critique of my teaching, she admonished me for my lack of connection to the young people. “Rob, you cannot reach them if you do not even know their names.” That lesson has resonated with me for over twenty years.
Everyone and everything have been given a name. These names signify an actuality, an existence, a being. The one who gives us our names has a certain power over us. Many of us receive our names from our parents. The names that my wife and I gave our own children came through careful prayer and reflection. The naming of our children was a sacred act we took seriously. If someone were to come along now and try to change their names for some reason it would be an attempt to disrespect not only our son or daughter, but also to undermine the parental role of name-giver.
A name is a social reality. Referring to someone only by a racial category, by a class identity, or by a statement of (in)ability can be an attempt to dehumanize the individual. Categorizing them without recognizing their individual humanity can be a move towards mere objectification. Consider the biblical accounts when a person’s name is removed as a signal of a “social death” and even an attempt to remove their existence from the community (e.g., 1 Sam 24:21; Ps 9:5; 109:13).
In a world where evangelism and discipleship are increasingly personal and always highly relational, truly loving someone in Christian ministry means knowing, and using, the person’s name. It may seem like an easy thing, but I encourage us to be honest with ourselves. How many times, at least in our own minds, have we referred to someone as “the lady in the back pew” or “the guy with the beard who comes to the soup kitchen”? They have names that are precious to them and to those who gave it to them. We honor their humanity when we actively work to learn—and remember—their names.
The use of someone’s name acknowledges them for who they are, it brings honor to them, it signifies a personal respect, and it recognizes their humanity. Referring to someone in a manner that does not use their name can objectify that person. For example, calling him “the guy next door” all the time or merely referring to her as “the lady in the wheelchair” fails to embrace the individual who is created in the image of God that is before us. People are more than the titles we try to impose on them.
Leaders, pastors included, may sometimes try to disconnect their own name from the title and role they hold. There is a great example in the American television show, The West Wing. In this fictional story, the US president is faced with a difficult moral decision. He calls his life-long priest to the oval office to advise him. The priest, who has known President Jed Barlett since he was a child, is in awe of the powerful position that Jed now holds and does not know how to properly address him. He asks whether to refer to him as “Jed” or “Mr. President.” Bartlett’s response in poignant. He asks to be called “Mr. President” so that he can be reminded of the separation of the person he is and the office he holds. The decision before him is difficult and he does not want to be personally held responsible. Therefore, at least in President Bartlett’s mind, being called “Mr. President” excuses him personally from what he is about to do.
Those who serve in Christian ministerial leadership do well to remember that we bear a name that cannot be separated from our own. By our baptism and our call, we bear Christ’s name in our ministry. We have a new status: we were once dead, now we are alive. While we may not have been given a new name, we do bear Christ’s name in a way that cannot be separated from our own being (e.g., Rom 6:2; 1 Cor 1:2; Acts 11:26; 2 Pet 4:16).
There is just something about a name: our own names. There is a beauty in the name that we bear. And there is a beauty in looking past what we see on the outside of the person before us, and instead see the name they have been given. We have been called to reach them with the love of Christ, and we just will not be able to reach them until we know—and embrace—their names.