Rev Phil badgeWhen I first began as a Prison Fellowship chaplain out at Capricornia Correctional Centre I was issued with a name badge, reading Rev Phil Walters. Being a bit embarrassed by the ‘Rev’ tag – I was neither officially nor in character ‘Reverend’ – I covered it up and ordered a new badge, more appropriately reading ‘Pastor’ Phil Walters. However, having mislaid that badge, I now need to order a new one. Which brings me to a slight dilemma. Because I have come to a stage, with all my recent questionings of modern church practice, where I’m not comfortable with any titles, be they Pope or Pastor.

I must say that I have never really been comfortable being called ‘Pastor’. Perhaps it is because I’ve always struggled with the clergy/laity thing, which is an awful division that developed in the church very early on, creating a false old-covenant style division between the professional ordained elite and all the rest. A hierarchical model of leadership which is foreign to the New Testament.

Jesus made it clear that we are not to get hung up on titles. Surely this was his intention when he said

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. Matthew 23:810

I suspect that he knew very well our propensity to exchange the lower-case ‘function’ for an upper-case ‘office’ complete with title. So that someone who pastors become Pastor Someone. Then Senior Pastor Someone. Or Associate Pastor or Youth Pastor or Worship Pastor etc etc. The church is full of it. Apostle This, Bishop That, Most Reverend The  Other.

Where is such use of titles in the New Testament? Did Apostle Paul write to the Corinthians and tell them he was sending Pastor Timothy and Youth Pastor Titus to catch up with Senior Pastor Aquilla and Associate Pastor Priscilla? It’s a nonsense. And it perpetuates an unhealthy divide. Nowhere in the New Testament are people addressed by their functions in that kind of a way.

Of course the excuse we make is that it is a way of ‘honouring’ our leaders. But if we need a title in order to be honoured surely something is wrong. Should I not be honoured for what I am regardless of title? My son-in-law is a much respected and sort after plumber but we don’t need to call him Plumber Dennis. Why should he not be ‘honoured’ in similar vein to how we ‘honour’ pastors? Is his profession less honourable?

Pastor Only Parking2On the contrary I can hide behind a title, use it as a smoke screen to hide my insecurities or the flaws in my character, even pull the old ” Do not speak against the Man of God” thing.

No, no. The people I serve, in whatever function I have been called, are my friends and my fellow companions in the work of the Kingdom. This was Paul’s attitude to those around him and it should be mine. They knew him simply as Paul (or at the most ‘brother Paul’, a term he uses for Peter as well) and so I should be known simple as Phil.

So goodbye ‘Pastor’ Phil. And hello Phil, a pastor … and a father, husband, lover,  prison chaplain, events person, radio presenter, blogger, brother in Christ and friend of all, etc etc.

(Thank you Jon Zens for the photo, from his latest book A Church Building Every Half Mile)


This is so good that that I need to post it. It’s by Ron Nickel the President of Prison Fellowship International.

            “When exactly did you give your heart to the Lord?”

            His question hung suspended between us like a frozen pendulum; I hesitated, wondering how best to reply.  If he had asked me how long I have believed in the Lord, I could have told him that I have always believed – for as long as I can remember I have more or less believed.  Of course there was a period of time during my studies at the university when I talked and lived like an agnostic, but deep down I still believed.  I was born into a family of believers, and was raised believing, in much the same way as I was raised Canadian.  It is who I am.

            The question of heart is a much more difficult question for me than the question of belief.  I have always been a Canadian and have never had to make a decision to accept being or becoming Canadian, because I was born one.  However, I have friends who, as immigrants from other countries, made deliberate decisions to relinquish the citizenship of their birth and become naturalized Canadian citizens.  But I have never been tempted to become a citizen of another country; and I have never seriously considered being anything other than a Christian believer, even though I’ve been criticized for being closed minded, unscientific, and archaic.

            Believing in Christ is not only where I come from, I just don’t see any better alternatives – especially when I view the world through the bars of a prison cell.  Unbelief has nothing to offer when human dignity is denied, decency destroyed, and depravity celebrated.  There is no way out of such human degradation and guilt, and alternative beliefs fall short of the unmerited grace, forgiveness, and love by which God triumphs over evil. 

            So, yes, I believe

            When, exactly, did I give my heart to the Lord though?  I struggle with this question all the time.  To me “heart” implies something infinitely deeper than thoughts or beliefs or even feelings and inclinations.  When we speak of “the heart of a matter” we refer to its real essence, its core, and its very centre.  The heart of a person is that most vital organ which keeps blood, life itself, flowing to every fibre of his or her being.  Without a heart, life ceases.  When a heart is diseased, life suffers.  Giving my heart to Jesus implies that I am not just turning my thoughts toward Him; I am turning my core reality over to Him – to let my heart and life be infused with His.  That isn’t just a matter of the mind, or of believing.

            For me, every day involves the struggle of yielding my heart to the Lord.  It is not a once-and-for-all, done deal, like a decision I made to buy an insurance policy.  Of course it began with believing, but it continues day-by-day in allowing my heart to flow with the essence of Jesus’ life.

There is an image that I find both compelling and disturbing, an icon depicting the “Sacred Heart of Jesus.”  The icon shows Jesus with wounded hands exposing his pierced heart, a bleeding heart surrounded by a crown of thorns, a heart aflame with fire.  The heart aflame represents the essence of his life – that passionate love by which he willingly laid aside His own interests and prerogatives for the sake of giving life to the vilest of scoundrels and sinners.  When I meditate on the message of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” I know that far too much of my heart still belongs to me and that as much as I believe in Him, I am still in the painful process of giving my heart to Him – of turning away from selfishness and pride and turning with love and mercy toward others.

Lord our God

Grant us the grace to desire you with our whole heart

That so desiring, we may seek and find you;

And so finding you we may love you

And loving you we may hate those sins

From which you have redeemed us.

— St. Anselm of

Conversatio Morum is brought to you weekly by Prison Fellowship International Ron Nikkel is the president of Prison Fellowship International  To comment on or subscribe to Conversatio Morum, e-mail  © 2007 by Prison Fellowship International

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