My degrees are all in communication. More accurately, in rhetoric, which considers how persuasion works. That training, and that kind of reflection, can get me in trouble.
For example, the college where I worked had a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building. After the ceremony, there was a meal. Nancy and I were standing in line. In front of us was the architect with a couple other people. He turned, and I wanted to introduce him to Nancy. “This is Nancy,” I said, and stopped. Inside my head, I was trying to figure out how to avoid saying, “my wife” in an effort to not be possessive.
“With whom I am married” is what I thought to say, knowing that it was completely awkward sounding. It would have been less awkward than the silence. I think Nancy finally said, “his wife.”
And we had a conversation later in which we agreed that I could say “my wife” without Nancy feeling possessed. Since Andrew and Hope were born, I’ve seldom called them “my” son and daughter. They are ours.
At any time when I’ve had supervisory responsibilities, I’ve resisted, as much as possible, talking about the people who work for me, or referring to anyone as “my secretary” or “my assistant”. We work together for the good of the organization and the people we serve.
I’ve spent much of my life around church, including sixteen years on staff. In those years, I have heard many people use the phrase “my staff”, “my secretary”, “my church.” I’ve been in many meetings where males assumed that all men hunt and watch sports and all women shop and go to the spa. Every time, I cringe. In my quiet way, I’ve tried to suggest alternatives that take into account people rather than categories.
Before God, our speech matters. The way we honor one another with the way we talk about and with each other matters.
Yesterday, our daughter shared yet another article about a youth pastor who sexually assaulted a student several years ago. She said that pastors need to speak up about how this doesn’t represent Jesus. She’s right.
I think that part of that speaking up must include creating a culture which stops treating people as possessions, even at the level of basic language. That’s not sufficient, of course. But every time we say, “my students” rather than saying “the students I’m privileged to serve”, we are reinforcing a sense of ownership rather than a sense of responsibility.
And that is wrong. And dangerous.