Monday, February 15, 2010

Reverend First Name

A conversation arose on Facebook recently about the use of “Rev” in front of a first name. Reverend John. Reverend Jane.

The question was posed in terms of ministers using it themselves, as in signing a note, “Rev. Jane.”

I wonder, however, if this is being driven by the ministers as much as it is the parishioners.

Some history: if you want to be puuuuurfectly correct, not only is “Rev. John” incorrect, but so is “Rev. Smith.” Reverend is an adjective. So an envelope is addressed to The Reverend John Smith, and when you speak to him, he is Mr. Smith. And if you are not using the first name on that envelope or in an introduction, what is proper would be “The Rev. Mr. Smith.”

(a little background)

But language does change according to the needs of a society. Sometimes, a correction can take hold and stop the evolution. For instance, a few years ago, “penultimate” became the trendy word, but with incorrect usage: many used it to mean “beyond-ultimate” rather than correctly, “one shy of ultimate.” But then enough people spoke out to say, “No, that’s wrong,” and suddenly, it seemed, everyone knew the correct usage.

Other things are losing battles. I was one of those passionately explaining to all and a sundry that the year 2000 was not the first year of the new century, 2001 was. Guess what? I lost.

“Raised” is another one. It was not correct to say that you were “raised” UU, you were “reared” UU. But even William Safire had to give up that one.

And some are decisions of priority. I, an English major, fought against the increasing usage of “them, they,” etc. as a singular tense word to avoid the exclusivity of “him, he,” etc. when gender wasn’t specified. But eventually, I had to make the decision that inclusive language was more important to me than proper subject-pronoun agreement. A minister should understand that they have the right to be flexible …

So back to, for me at least, the important issues at hand – who/what is driving the “Reverend First Name” bus and does it fill a need?

I think “congregations” and “yes.”

UU congregations, especially those who haven’t always had a minister of their own, have two forces at work: on one hand, they understand that ministry is something we all do together. They are teammates with the minister; especially in small churches, the minister is not someone removed, several steps away from the laiety. He’s the guy in jeans next to you at the planning meeting, she’s the gal squatting down to show where the leak is in the nursery. So calling them by their last name would seem artificial, and a bit odd.

But, I am also seeing a move to set apart the minister. Perhaps because of that intimacy, perhaps as a reaction against the devaluing of ministers, (those who have ever been involved in a “why do we need a minister anyway?” discussion known what I’m talking about), a congregation wants to make sure everyone knows that this is the minister, and that the position itself is accorded a certain level of ceremonial respect. Hence, Rev. John and Rev. Jane.

I saw this happen in my own church. After a stretch with no minister, they got Rabbi Shaman. A bit to his surprise, they began calling him Rev. John.

It fulfilled two purposes. He was sanctified – set apart – but they also had the feeling that he was down in the trenches with them.

Was it that reasoned out? I don’t think so. I think it arrived fairly organically – we have a lot of children in our church, and being in the south, children here don’t call adults in church by their first names. They call them Mr. First Name and Ms. First Name. And so this was Rev. First Name. And it fit the adults’ needs as well. So Rev. John went with the flow.

Will this be one of those things where correction pulls us back to what is proper, or another evolution of language? I dunno. I kind of imagine it will be the latter. To paraphrase someone else’s remarks, Call me Rev. First Name, call me Rev. Last Name, call me Rev. Nickname, call me by my name. It’s all good …

p.s. And now you must excuse me to go play some music to try and get an pesky earworm removed. As I child, I was a fan of Mr. Green Jeans, on Captain Kangaroo. So when I heard, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” I thought it was, “Reverend Blue Jeans.”

Money talks
But it don't sing and dance and it don't walk.
And long as I can have you here with me
I'd much rather be
Reverend Blue Jeans.


James said...

I think its all about context.

If the minister isn't too worried about her or his position, has enough natural authority to do the job, then what reflects the congregation's sensibilities and aspirations?

I've always served "academic" congregations and if everyone used titles it would get silly pretty quickly...

James seems to work in almost every situation.

ms. kitty said...

I could be Reverend Blue Jeans! That I like a lot. My dad was always self-conscious about being set apart by the title, so he preferred being called Merritt or M.B. (or Dad, I guess). I've inherited that sense, I guess, for though I am comfortable in more formal settings with Rev. Ketcham and would certainly never tell anyone not to call me that, in my own congregation everyone (including a lot of the kids) calls me Kit, with no title.

I don't like (at least for myself) the title Rev. Kit. It just feels cutesypoo, a bit forced. But I'm not going to embarrass anyone by telling them so. I would never insist that anyone call me Rev. Kit either, which I think sounds egoistic.

We deserve the title, we've earned it. But that whole setting-apart thing kinda makes me feel weird, like we're supposed to be better than our flock.

Kristina said...

In our congregation, we follow the Rev. First-Name convention. I love it. True, there are doctors and the like also in the congregation, and we don't call them Dr. First-Name, but then, we're not in their office...but we are in Rev. Peg's office. She is not "just another parishoner", she is the leader of our congregation, and as such, I find it entirely appropriate that she is recognized by her title. New people know who she is even if she's not preaching. She's an amazing leader, and all of us turn to her, and I am glad to use this form of address, which is both intimate and respectful, in my view. (And, for the record, I live in Seattle where everyone goes by first names. When I worked at Microsoft, only the IBM guys called Bill Gates "Mr. Gates" - to everyone else, he was Bill.)

Earthbound Spirit said...

I confess that seeing "Rev. FirstName" printed in an order of service rubs my fur the wrong way.

There's an alternative, seldom used by UUs (at least the ones I know & have known): "Pastor." Pastor goes with FirstName quite nicely - it implies a closer relationship than "reverend," and clearly expresses that relationship. After all, we turn to ministers for pastoral care, yes? It is still a setting apart - but not of the "I'm better" sort. More of the "this is what I do" sort. A number of clergy colleagues of other denominations go with Pastor: Pastor Sue, Pastor Bill...

As one who will soon be "The Reverend EBS," I'd rather be "Pastor EB" but "EB" always works...