Grammar Lesson for Ministers (Honorifics and Titles)

Caution: Rant ahead.

It seems to me that more and more my colleagues in ministry are encouraging members of their congregations to call them “Reverend First-name” as in “Reverend Duane.” And even doing so themselves. Or worse, pronouncing it as if “Rev” was a whole word and not an abbreviation! On top of that I’ve heard some referring to having gained “the title Reverend” by virtue of ordination. My head hurts as my eyeteeth and the hair in my ears grow long and my “huffles” get up.

Hold on, dear colleagues. “Reverend” is most assuredly not a title. Professor, Doctor, General, and Saint are titles. Father and Bishop are titles. But “Reverend” is not one. It is an honorific adjective. It is grammatically parallel to “Honorable.”

 An honorific adjective is properly used with “the” and only with one’s last name (or first and last names). Thus “the Reverend Fickeisen” or “the Reverend Duane Fickeisen.” Should one also hold a doctorate, it would be appropriate to say “the Reverend Dr. Smith” or if one was both knighted and ordained, “the Reverend Sir Smith” would be fine. It is also fine to say “the Reverend Ms. Jones” or “the Reverend Mr. Fickeisen.”

 The Chicago Manual of Style (remember that?) permits omitting the “the” and abbreviating “Reverend” to “Rev.” when making a list of names where saving space has merit. In formal text however, it is proper, the style guides admonish, to always use “the” and not to abbreviate, thus “the Reverend Duane Fickeisen” is fine, but not “the Rev. Duane Fickeisen” in formal usage in print (or online, in my perhaps not-so-humble opinion). And, yes, I’ve been a party to violating that rule.

One would surely not refer to a judge as, e.g., “Honorable Sonia,” but rather as “the Honorable Justice Sonia Sotomayor,” right? Right. Duh. Of course.

And one does not invite an adjective to an event, thus “I invited the reverend to the ball game.” is grammatically incorrect — rather like saying “I invited the underpaid to the ball game.” I presume you would never say “I invited the honorable to the ball game,” would you? You would? Oh my.

Try this instead, “I invited the underpaid Mr. Jones to the ball game.” Of course you might substitute another adjective, like “overworked” or “reverend” or “beloved and appreciated.” I hope you were leaning toward the latter out of your own lived experience.

That leaves the question of how to refer to oneself and how to sign one’s letters. There are good arguments that one ought not use “the Reverend” self-referentially, as it is self-serving and pretentious to apply an honorific adjective to oneself.

If your name appears in the byline of your newsletter column, you might (reasonably) argue that the congregation is the publisher, not the minister, and thus use of “the Reverend Smith” is appropriate and clearly indicates that the author is, in fact, a minister. Likewise in the listing of the worship service for next Sunday, presuming your congregation lists the name of the preacher or worship leader/liturgist. (The pros and cons of listing names might very well be the subject of another post.)

I have sometimes signed letters with “(The. Rev.) Duane Fickeisen” where it would be appropriate to signal my ordination, for example in a letter to the editor of a newspaper, and in hopes that the parentheses would also signal a certain formality of reserve. It would be sufficient to simply sign them “Duane Fickeisen, Minister Emeritus” (or the like) when using church letterhead.

I worry that we demean our calling by misusing the honorific in such grammatically incorrect and informal ways, despite the apparent popular usage. It diminishes awareness of the power differential between minister and congregant. And I know that’s what some of my colleagues and many congregants would like. But nevertheless, there is a power differential, and it matters. A lot. So we ought not condone things that appear to negate it, but rather embrace it and learn to live and act and minister within it.

Is it any wonder both congregations and ministers struggle with boundaries and with the difficulties of separating when the minister leaves the beloved community?

Are you listening, Ministerial Fellowship Committee? Does this suggest a question of candidates? I hope so!

Yes, of course we want to have appropriate and friendly (as distinguished from reciprocal friendship) relations with the good people we serve. Of course we want to speak informally with them. There is nothing at all wrong with calling me “Duane” in informal conversation. I much prefer that, in fact. And I have encouraged young and old to do so. But in public media, social media, newsletters, publications, and the like, please make it “the Reverend Fickeisen.”

Will you help me tame my hackles and put the werewolf back to sleep? Terrific, then no more “Rev Jane” or “Rev Jim” please!

In faith,
(The Reverend) Crankypants

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One Response to Grammar Lesson for Ministers (Honorifics and Titles)

  1. Jay Atkinson says:

    Thank you, Duane, for this appeal to preserve a modicum of elegance in our rapidly deteriorating English language. I find myself outdoing you on curmedgeonliness on at least two points:

    1. It’s never correct in formal or standard English to use “Rev.” with the surname alone. One must always say, “The Rev. James Luther Adams” or “The Rev. Mr. [or Dr.] Adams.” Simply “Rev. Adams” and “the Rev. Adams” are both equally wrong, wrong, wrong, besides just sounding awful — and I don’t mean aweful, or awesome.

    2. With persons who are knighted, one conventionally uses either the full name or the GIVEN name alone, but never the surname alone — thus: “Sir Winston” or “Sir Winston Churchill,” but NEVER “Sir Churchill.” Your example of a knighted clergyperson, “the Rev. Sir Smith,” would thus NOT be appropriate, and on two different grounds. First, the theoretically correct term would be “the Rev. Sir John [Smith].” But it’s a moot point, since knighted clergy are, in British tradition and protocol, not permitted to use “Sir” at all!

    The equally reverend, wearing even crankier pants,
    Jay Atkinson

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