Rev. Mr. Fenn weighs in on “Rev.”

Researching this Sunday’s sermon found me going through the church archives to look up an obscure point, and in the process I found a letter dated October 31, 1944, from Reverend Dan Huntington Fenn, then the Director of the Department of Ministry at the American Unitarian Association. It appears that Reverend Orval Clay, a brand-new Unitarian minister just settled at North Unitarian Church in New Bedford, had sent along a church newsletter, asking Mr. Fenn for his advice and comments.

As is still the case in smaller churches with no office staff, Mr. Clay was writing, typing, and printing the entire newsletter himself. No wonder he, a brand-new minister, wanted an older, experienced minister to look it over and offer advice. However, I’m not sure he got quite the advice he wanted. In the first paragraph, Mr. Fenn compliments Mr. Clay on the many activities reported in the newsletter. But the second paragraph offers this advice (which, by the way, directly contradicts the current advice given by the Unitarian Universalist Association):

I recognized the frequent typewriter slips but one which caught my eye was where you referred to yourself as Reverend Clay. That is one thing which always does bother me because it should either be Reverend Orval Clay or Rev. Mr. Clay, or just Mr. Clay, but it is not accurate to say Reverend Clay. I have always fought with every newspaper in every community I have been in trying to get them to give up the practice but they have a persistency which I haven’t been able to yet break down. This has become, therefore, a little pet obsession of mine but it is founded upon the requirements of accurate and good English.

The current practice of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to refer to ministers as “the Rev. Firstname Lastname,” upon first reference, and then as “Lastname” alone (with no honorific) for subsequent references. I have never liked this practice; I see no need to include a direct article prior to the word “Reverend.” Now I have the weighty Mr. Fenn weighing in with a different formula which he says is “founded upon the requirements of accurate and good English.” Of course, that’s basically what the advocates of “the Reverend” claim.

As is so often the case with the English language, there is no right answer. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

10 thoughts on “Rev. Mr. Fenn weighs in on “Rev.”

  1. dwight

    Just my opinion – the use of the title “Reverend”, particularly on the part of religious liberals, has always struck as a bit pretentious.

    (I should disclose that i’m ordained through the Universal Life Church. However, i only make my roommate call me “Rev.” when i’m feeling uncontrolably holy, which is roughly once a year.)

    But seriously – if a newspaper runs a story about a clergy person, why not just state at the top of the piece “Joe Schmoe, who is the pastor/minister/deacon/groovy wizard/etc of Inaccurate Contraption Church” and from then on refer to him as “Schmoe”? That is, after all, what a newspaper would do with any other church staff member or volunteer, or the employees of practically any other organization.

  2. Jess

    Not counting the Universal life church ordinations, most ministers go through a heck of a lot to EARN the title of Reverend, and it is a sign of respect to use it appropriately. Respect for the process by which a person earns the title, respect for the importance of the work of professional ministry, and respect for the sacrifices made in doing the work of ministry. Ordination is not something to be taken lightly.

    That said, I think Rev. Mr. is taking it a bit far, and Rev. Ms. just sounds weird for the female version.

  3. Dan

    Jess and dwight — I suppose I should have stated my own personal preference. I spent a few years attending a Quaker meeting, and imbibed a certain amount of their theological view that honorifics and titles of any kind tend to cover over the fact that we are all equally human. I’ve extended that from my own Universalist perspective:– believing that each person is of infinite value, I have little interest in making one person sound more valuable than another. Thus, for theological reasons, I usually don’t even use “Mr.” or “Ms.” and (though I’m an ordained minister in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association) I only use “Rev.” on rare occasions when it is useful to indicate a professional affiliation or in some specific religious contexts (e.g., on our church letterhead I am listed as “Rev. Dan Harper”). So I don’t agree with Dan H. Fenn, nor with the UUA, nor really with either of you. As the saying goes, wherever there are two or three UUs, there ye shall find five or six opinions.

  4. The Eclectic Cleric

    And then, of course, there are always those of us who are “Rev Dr.” And this leads us into a whole new range of issues around, well, professional “entitlement.” Are we expected, for example, to place the appropriate initials behind our formal appellations, so that those of us who have had it Piled Higher and Deeper can distinguish ourselves from mere D. Mins? If “Rev Schmoe” is considered either a sign of respect, a marker of elitism, or an indication of gramatical illiteracy, might “Dr. Schmoe” yet run the risk of being called upon to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a 19 cent ball point pen? And don’t forget, it’s not just about us. After spending more than half my adult life in college, I have at least learned that they don’t actually grant you the title until it stops meaning anything to you. But I’ve also discovered that for every person who thinks it’s pretentious to indicate one’s professional titles, there is another who feels vicarious pride in knowing that there is a real “professor” filling the pulpit.

    Et moi? Well, over time I’ve evolved two very different personae: “Dr. Jensen” and “Rev. Tim” — one of whom would NEVER use a word like “personae” in front of children, and the other…well, the other just tries to keep reminding himself that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, because he knew that he knew nothing….

  5. JMC

    As someone who is working towards joining the UU ministry, I have to say I look forward to the day when I can place “Rev.” before my name. That being said, I have to agree that it is a bit pretentious to demand to be referred to as Reverend all the time. Some people like to wield their credentials like a weapon, which dishonors and cheapens the title for the rest of us.

    – John

  6. Rev. Jack Ditch

    Not counting the Universal life church ordinations, most ministers go through a heck of a lot to EARN the title of Reverend

    I’m more bothered by the people who would make ministers through hoops to EARN such a title; it reminds me of when I was in high school, and I would get my friends to do what I want by promising them titles in my super-secret club of cool people. Also, as a ULC minister, I have to EARN my title with every person I work with; I do not demand they call me such, they rather call me such because I have shown myself worthy in their eyes.

    I think the UUA could be a lot less stingy with that title, and instead recognize that everyone has a bit of Reverend in them, and focus on bringing that Reverend out in everybody.

  7. peacebang

    I don’t mind being called “Reverend Weinstein” in person but it makes me nuts in formal written documents ’cause it’s WRONG!
    I learned the proper usage long before ordination and tell everyone I’m actually “The Reverend Miss Victoria Weinstein,” but that really, they should just call me Vicki. I’m surprised by some of these responses. We don’t earn the title Reverend by going to school or jumping through hoops, but by being ordained by a congregation. Having an “Rev.” before our names isn’t evidence of anything we did, but a title bestowed upon us by a religious community who discerned together that we should be thus burdened and honored. When I earn my D.Min. I have no intention of answering to “Dr. Weinstein.” In my opinion, there’s no reason to go by the title “doctor” when serving in ministry. Save it for the university classroom or the medical practice. Why in the world would a pastor ever need to go by “doctor” unless he or she is flaunting academic credentials and book “larnin’?”

    Not to knock the D.Min. degree, but it’s not nearly as rigorous as the Ph.D. So I’ll probably go ahead and sign off as the Rev. Dr. VW after I graduate but I’ll sort of be rolling my eyes when I do!

  8. Dan

    peacebang @ 7 — A related anecdote: Someone I know has a doctorate in science from a prestigious university. I’ll call him Mr. So-and-so. Mind you, he has a doctorate, but he never calls himself “Dr. So-and-so.” Some years ago, a new school superintendent came to his town. Mr. So-and-so was at some parents’ meeting with some of his friends. Someone introduced Mr. So-and-so to the new school superintendent, saying, “Meet Mr. Pompous, our new school superintendent.” The school superintendent said, “Please, that’s Dr. Pompous.” “Oh,” said Mr. So-and-so, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Dr. So-and-so, and this is Dr. Smith, and that’s Dr. Jackson….” Turns out just about everyone standing there had a Ph.D. Which put Mr. Pompous in his place.

  9. Frank Mandt

    As a UU, I have mixed feelings about the use of the title “Reverend.” In the first UU church I attended with any regularity, the title of Reverend was rarely used when referring to the minister. Normally, everyone called him by his first name. I found this very refreshing. Twenty years later, now living in the Pacific Northwest, where one would think the local liberals would be even more laid back, “Reverend” is used more than I would expect. I have noticed a trend with our last two ministers (the current one being an Interim) that I really dislike: the use of “Reverend” with the first name only, as in “Reverend Jack” or “Reverend Jill.” I find this abhorrent, and feel like it diminishes the title, while at the same time is also pretentious. I wonder if it is a sign of insecurity. At first I thought this was being used only with children, which I can understand. But then it started showing up in board minutes and newsletter article submissions. As newsletter editor, I edit these references. Has anyone else noticed this as a trend, or is it a local aberration?

  10. Dan

    Frank @ 9 — “Rev.” plus first name only is a big trend right now. However, Dan Huntington Fenn would say it’s improper English. Vicki @ 7 above tells us some of the theology of the title “Rev.” is, and I feel that “Rev. Firstnameonly” glosses over the theological implications Vicki brings up. Personally, I feel it’s a little too preschool, not unlike having someone call me “Mr. Dan” (which is what kids were calling me when I did do preschool stuff).

    I’m going to stick my neck out here, at the risk of seriously annoying some other ministers out there, and say that for these reasons ministers should not be called “Rev. Jack” or “Rev. Jill.” Those who disagree should excoriate me, er, make their views known in the comments below.

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