What’s in a Title? Just a Little Respect

In emails, I have started to sign my name with just my initials, “CBH.” That gets me away from having to send emails to students signed with my first name, suggesting we are on a first-name basis, or from having to call myself “Dr. Helsel.” We all know how that has been for Dr. Jill Biden. I don’t want to repeat the controversy here, but in summary: she was told to drop the “Dr.” in an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal, and the author also address Dr. Biden as “kiddo.” The op-ed hit a nerve with many across the country.

It is exhausting to have to defend your own credentials for why you deserve respect.

If you are not a child, you should not have to be referred to as “kiddo,” whatever degrees you hold. Respect is what we owe to one another as members of the human race. Respect is what we owe to one another, and yet, there are many members of our society who receive little to no respect because of the biases we hold against them.

I say “we” to emphasize that we all have biases, and that calling out the biases shown in an example of disrespect for another does not mean the rest of us are free of the same biases ourselves. We can even hold biases about ourselves.

One of the things I began calling myself after playing drums at a small church’s worship band was “drummer.” The label sounded so thrilling to me, and yet also foreign. I had only really seen men as drummers. This may sound like an insignificant bias; no one has ever paid me to play the drums or prevented me from playing the drums because of my gender, but it was an internal barrier that I felt for many years: I could not play the drums because I was not male. I didn’t start taking lessons until I was 30 years old, expecting my second child.

Using my initials also shrinks my identity in many ways. When my email comes from my work computer, it has my full title: The Rev. Dr. Carolyn B. Helsel, Associate Professor in the Blair Monie Distinguished Chair in Homiletics.

It’s a big deal to me to have this title–last spring I successfully went through the promotion review process at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. It means that I am now “Associate” professor, instead of “Assistant,” and I am now the occupant of a distinguished chair, named after a beloved pastor, friend, and colleague, who passed away in 2018. It’s a title that holds a lot of meaning for me. Blair Monie was teaching at Austin Seminary as the Louis Zbinden chair of Pastoral Ministry before his untimely death, and the chair he occupied was named after the minister who served the church I grew up in who baptized and confirmed me, who preached at my ordination service in 2006, and who died this past fall of 2020.

What goes into a title?

Titles are important to different people in different ways–we cannot know exactly all that went into earning their degrees or titles. As I applied for doctoral programs and interviewed at Duke, Vanderbilt, and Emory, I was flying with my second daughter growing inside my body, considering whether to cut a coveted interview visit short at Vanderbilt because of an upcoming snowstorm, not wanting to be away from my family should the baby come early. I started taking courses for my PhD program at Emory University with a four-month-old baby waking me up every hour of the night to feed her. I spent hours of that first fall in a bathroom designated a safe space for nursing mothers (way to go, Emory!), a unique spot that included a comfortable chair, allowing me to pump while trying to read for class. I remember sitting in an evening class taught by a famous Emory faculty member, barely keeping my eyes open, as he spoke in perfect academic prose–something I would understand if I had a chance to read it slowly and return to, but not as I processed it aurally with a brain on little sleep.

I completed my course work and then moved my family again, after my husband got a job teaching at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. Living outside of Boston, raising a kindergartner and toddler, I studied for my comprehensive exams and applied for job openings in my field in the area. I was selected a finalist for one position, and so I did the multiple rounds of interviews followed by an on-campus visit, before officially learning I was not selected. One of the reasons mentioned for my lack of success was that they doubted I could finish my dissertation within the following year, which is what I had promised. So you know what? I made sure it came true. I was defending my dissertation the following spring, graduating four years into my program, a rare accomplishment. And it was not until I walked across the stage, received the degree in my hand, returned to my seat and saw my name printed below the “Doctor of Philosophy” degree conferred applying to my name, that I took a breath and felt like it was real. I had earned my PhD.

But the sense of “realness” wears off fast. The experience of the “imposter syndrome” is rampant among PhD students and PhD holders, especially among persons who are also part of marginalized communities. It is not just that the internal voice within you (that bias we can hold about ourselves), but the sense that others see you as an imposter as well.

Unfortunately, this “imposter syndrome” is not always just in our heads. There are plenty of people who view those with PhDs as imposters, especially if they are women or people of color.

I teach preaching, which involves helping students consider their own traditions and visions for what good preaching entails (not just the image they assume a preacher should look or sound like). I want each of them to discover that they themselves get to choose how they will embody the task of preaching. I hope my students learn how to communicate liberating messages of God’s love and comforting presence, as well as clearly calling out what is “sinful” in the world today–the continuing injustices against oppressed communities and the refusal to care for God’s creation. I talk about preaching about racism, and how the sin of racism is embodied in our reactions to one another–our implicit biases that fuel how we respond and react to one another at a gut level. I help them craft sermons that will be specific in naming the pains of today, as well as tools for celebrating the good news that our faith can still carry us through the struggles we face.

How to Apply for My Job

In order to do this work, I had to get a job at a seminary that trains students at a masters’ level. To be considered for this position, I had to have a PhD (conferred from Emory University’s Laney Graduate School, within the Graduate Division of Religion, in the area of Person, Community and Religious Life. …This is why I just stick to “I got my PhD at Emory”). I also had to have a masters degree, which I received from Princeton Theological Seminary after I graduated from college.

I also had to be ordained. This is perhaps the biggest part of my title to me, that may not seem as significant, since it typically gets reduced to three letters: Rev.

Being ordained means that I felt called to be a preacher when I was fifteen, that I followed that call to study Christianity in college, that I experienced working in ministry settings such as leading youth groups and visiting sick patients in hospitals. To be ordained in my tradition, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)–[this is called a denomination, or a particular organization that distinguishes itself from other forms of presbyterianism, a word which means “rule by elders” since it is not pastors alone who get to be in charge but a group of laypeople as well–to be ordained in this tradition, I had to graduate from college and then attend graduate school at a seminary, as well as go through a separate credentialing process through my denomination which involved lots and lots of meetings, psychological testing, and finally, a call to a ministry setting.

In my last year of seminary, I was designated “ready to receive a call” by my ordaining committee in October. I applied to open positions in the area, and I had several interviews.

I remember one interview at a tiny church in Brooklyn. One of the members of their team designated to meet with the pastor candidates kept referring to me as “sweetheart.” I didn’t get the job.

Although I graduated in 2004, I was not ordained until 2006, when all the pieces were finally in place: I was working in a job in a church that “called” (hired) me to work as an “Associate Pastor,” a particular kind of position requiring that I be ordained (able to do the sacraments). The church I was working for had hired me a year before in a temporary position after losing their previous associate.

All to say, to finally become a “Reverend” took considerable amount of waiting and interviewing, constantly putting myself before others who were tasked with assessing with me my readiness and giftedness for ministry. To say this is a humbling process is an understatement. But as I mentioned above, our biases can be about ourselves, and self-doubt was already present within me. Who am I to speak for God?

What I’m trying to get at is that many of us, myself included, have faced obstacles and overcome a great deal of insecurity and challenge in order to hold the titles we do. There are some of us who have faced more than others because of our gender or race or sexual orientation or physical abilities. We would do right as a society if we recognized titles are part of a person’s story. Obviously not their whole story, but perhaps a significant part of it.

While not all of us have gone through great pains to achieve certain titles, we all deserve respect. Bottom line. And to tell someone who has earned a title, not to use that title, is an act of disrespect. Part of the challenge is that we are all struggling to respect ourselves, as well as one another. Title or not, each of us has to work to cultivate that self-respect, so that we can feel freer to recognize in one another the respect we all are due.

Know your gifts, and see the gifts of others.

In order for us to build this self-respect, we must be able to acknowledge the gifts each of us bring to this world. If you grew up in a cultural background like mine that suggested talking about ourselves positively was considered “bragging” and should not be done, then perhaps you are not used to naming the things you do well or the positive attributes you demonstrate. If you grew up in a Christian culture like mine that emphasized “pride” as the root of all evil, then you may have trouble taking pride in your own accomplishments.

But just as pride can indeed be a sin for some, so too can disregard of the self, a quality that people tend to have when they absorb negative messages about themselves from society. Persons from oppressed communities may have to work extra hard to believe in themselves and take pride in their work because of the many ways members of the dominant society discount their work because of their identity.

If part of your identity makes you a member of a dominant group in society, examine how easy it is for you to see members outside your group as gifted. If you are a black man, how easy is it for you to see a black woman as a powerful preacher? If you are able-bodied, how easy it is for you to see someone who is differently-abled as a gifted intellectual? If you are white, how easy it is for you to see the gifts of leadership in people of color? If you are on a hiring committee, how likely are you to see someone who is significantly different from you as fully qualified and gifted for the job? If it is harder for you than it should, then…

  1. Learn more about the stories of struggle that others have faced. We all go through hardship. If you know your own story and can respect what you have gone through, then take time to listen to the stories of others (and to the writings of people who are different from you) to hear their stories of struggle.
  2. Practice learning from people who are different from you. Not just hearing about their struggles, but looking to people who are different from you as authority figures who have something to teach you. Read books written in your area of interest by people who are different from you. See how their different perspective adds to what you could have known on your own.
  3. Treat people with respect. Period. With titles, or without titles. Speak to them respectfully. Remember that you yourself deserve respect from yourself.

-The Reverend Doctor CBH (BA, MDiv, ThM, PhD, wife, mother, drummer, and author of these books).

1 thought on “What’s in a Title? Just a Little Respect

  1. Michelle Neely March 2, 2021 — 4:23 pm

    Good article on titles and respect. No matter the titles although important and earned, respect all no matter title or not. I have always uttered that the greatest titles are B.A. (Born Again) and W.D. (Well Done).


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