Reverend Doug Robinson-Johnson
Whenever Norm Peterson enters “Cheers,” he greets everyone and everyone responds “Norm!” His name isn’t actually “Norm” or even “Norman” but actually “Hillary.” He’s named after his grandfather, but no-one in the BackBay bar calls him Hillary. He’s “Norm”.
Whenever I enter my Holden barbershop, the daughter and son owners always turn and greet me with “Hey, Rev!” I’m not sure he knows my real name, and I pay with cash, so there is no cheating with the name on the check. I also doubt he understands exactly what makes me a “Rev” or a “Reverend.” Few people know that this title, this odd honorific which suggests that there is something in my profession to be revered, has less to do with hands I have held than it does with tests I have passed.
1. I had to be an active member of a United Methodist Church for at least a year, and the pastor of that church had to believe I was a passionate enough Christian to recommend I start a process called “Candidacy”.
2. A select group of leaders from that local church had to agree that I had potential for professional ministry.
3. A small regional committee had to agree that I had enough confidence, charisma and faith to formally begin the Candidacy process. I would have to return to them annually so they could monitor my progress.
4. An assigned mentor, meeting with me for a year, had to approve of two-hundred pages of highly personal journaling and then support my candidacy in committee.
5. A Psychiatrist had to test me and agree that my personality was at least harmless.
6. A sub-committee of a large ministry board had to read my dissertation on faith, view a sample of my preaching and review a sample lesson plan for one assigned book of the Bible before pressing me with questions about the nature of my spirituality and my integrity as a human being.
7. The large ministry board had to accept the positive recommendation of the sub-committee and agree that my ministry would be fruitful.
8. A gathering of almost six hundred “Reverends” as well as “laity” had to listen as I promised to maintain a high moral character and be diligent in my professional responsibilities and the gathering could ask questions of me before voting whether or not to receive me as “Clergy,” a category expressed by barbers and congregations as “Reverend.”
Still, nobody calls me “Reverend” until the name appears on a sign in front of a quaint church in Illinois: “Rev. Doug Robinson-Johnson.” Outside that rural church they see me wearing a stole, which is a colorful, ornate strip of fabric that only “Reverends” wear, and members of the congregation greet me after service asking me “Do you go by ‘Reverend’ or ‘Pastor?’”
Pastor Doug Robinson-Johnson
Two young children hang from the woman’s sleeves like pine cones from a sturdy evergreen while she searches for the proper honorific. She hears the old-timers address me as “Reverend,” and yet, although she is most likely to call me by my first name, she wants to know how her children should address me. Reverend Robinson-Johnson? Pastor Doug? Mr. Robinson-Johnson?
Well, I have a Master of Divinity degree. Actually, the degree in divinity is a bit of an embarrassment. I would much prefer a degree in ministry, a Master of Ministry, but I suppose too many Master of Education graduates with their blue-lined hoods would snicker at our “MoM” degrees.
When I consider that I’ve mastered divinity, I do not maintain that I understand divinity in the Eastern or Native American sense. I was never encouraged to juxtapose globally diverse conceptions of God. Rather, it means that I’ve learned to interpret divinity using a cognitive kaleidoscope which houses the mirrors of tradition and peers through rotating disks which I call feminist and liberation theology toward a bright and changeable light called panentheism. The disks rotate around a firm but sometimes sticky rod called the Bible. To say that I’ve “mastered” divinity is to say that I know what all of those terms actually mean. For this and for maintaining a decent GPA, I received a black gown which featured a red-velvet-lined hood drooped across my back. I looked like a Jedi-Knight. My diploma was my light saber. So perhaps the small children could call me “Master Robinson-Johnson.” Train them, I will…
Or they could use a title that doesn’t feel as wonky as “Reverend” or heretical as “Master.” Pastor. They can call me pastor. The title comes from the Latin word for shepherd. That is what this role often feels like:
- I ran across the pasture when a father had to identify his fatally wounded son at the morgue. I used my shepherd’s crook to support his fainting weight.
- I ventured out into the nighttime to chase racist wolves back onto their three-wheel ATVs which they had used to peel the sign of the swastika into the yard of the newest black resident in town.
- I found a soft patch of meadow beside still water where a woman dieing of cancer received from me her last request of being baptized.
- I perched on that rock, wearing my white tab collar clergy shirt, there in the juvenile courtroom, trying to influence the judge to hand down a lesser sentence for a member of my flock charged with armed robbery. He had used a rubber gun to feed an oxycontin habit initiated by his High School coach.
I’m a lot like a shepherd. So when the kids say “He’s a pasture?” we can respond, “Close enough.”
Rev. Doug Johnson
Kids rarely pronounce each syllable in “Reverend” so it is little wonder they struggle with every syllable of “Reverend Robinson-Johnson.” The same is true for some adults. One adult church member justified his abbreviation of my name to “Rev. Johnson” reasoning that I was sent to “Rev-up” the church! Then he cranks the imaginary handle of the Harley and then gooses the invisible gas pedal mouthing “vroom, vroom!” I think he gifted me one Christmas with a Matchbox car. But “Rev. Johnson” expresses two inappropriate abbreviations.
First, we don’t call doctors “drs” or gentlemen “mrrs” so why would we call reverends “rev?”
Second, when a well meaning person calls me “Reverend Johnson” I want to sing the Ting Tings song “That’s Not My Name!” It’s not. I married a woman whose birth family name is Johnson. My birth family name is Robinson. When we created a new family we hyphenated our names to Robinson-Johnson. The pharmacist never knows to look under ‘R’ for Robinson or ‘J’ for Johnson and our name rarely fits on box-letter forms. It generally appears thus, “Doug Robinson-Johnso.” Is it worth the aggravation?
I used to cringe every time I heard a pastor pronounce a couple married, introducing them as Mr. and Mrs. (Man’s Name). The bride entered the ceremony as the star and in that brief supernova moment her family flamed-out and she vanished. I didn’t want that to happen to either of us nor to our families. So every time I politely reject abbreviation of my new name I am advocating for two important families as well as for women everywhere who may wonder why they have to “give up” their name when they marry. They do not.
Some people will search Google for Doug Robinson and they’ll find a journalist in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a Podiatrist in Campbell, California, both of whom look about my age and actually look a little like me (with more and less hair than I have). Searching for Doug Robinson on Facebook leads to Doug the writer from Iowa and Doug the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation guy. I like these guys. We seem to have similar sense of humor and interests. I friended the Parks and Recreation guy.
A few will go looking for the Doug Robinson they knew from Church of the Covenant youth group or Comeaux High School marching band in Lafayette, Louisiana. Some may look for the Doug Robinson they knew as a youth minister in Shreveport, Louisiana or in Troop, Texas. People may Google Doug Robinson searching for that guy who lived in Yellowstone National Park in 1993.
With any luck a search for Doug Robinson or Rev. Doug Robinson-Johnson will offer more than a glimpse of my life at one or two former churches through my newsletters or details about committees I served or sermons I preached. Maybe it will lead here. If that is the case, and you have made it all the way to the end of this lengthy, self-serving, post, thank you! Why not write me a note to say hello?