Reverend, or What They Didn’t Talk About In Seminary (Probably First of a Bunch)

A few times a week, partly because my Facebook profile has all of my higher education history (including an Episcopal seminary), my newsfeed has another blog post on “what they didn’t teach in seminary”. I threw that into a Bing search yesterday, and in less than a second had over 106 million (yes, million) results. The vast majority are written by clergy who, after earning the M.Div. (or whatever the norm in a given country might be), ordination, and the start of ministry in a congregational setting, are surprised at how much they don’t know.

I get that. In my time in seminary (as the only intentionally lay student in my class), I saw how much had to be crammed into three years of full-time study, which was never going to be adequate. Even worse was running a diocesan ministry scheme in which people (not just students, but their “supporting” parish clergy) expected that three years of very part-time study would equip them to be fully functioning yet self-supporting (i.e. unpaid) ministers. The former was extremely difficult. The latter, I now realize, is a Church of England-specific stupidity. Given Ministry Division’s requirements, what the central authority demands is barely possible in three years of full-time, residential study. It is insanity to think that one evening a week, one Saturday a month, and three weekends a year can aim to deliver it. How we, or any other small part-time program, came even close to preparing people for ordination is more of a miracle than the Virgin Birth, as far as I’m concerned.

So, I sympathize–both with students who were a bit blindsided on the everyday realities of parish ministry for which they were not adequately prepared in seminary, and with those who design and implement programs that cannot possibly do the job given the constraints of time, money, vocational impatience, and validation/accreditation processes from both ecclesial and higher education authorities. I’ve been in both positions, and the truth is, there are no good answers.

However.

As a lay person with decent theological credentials, I possibly have some insight about what is not taught in seminary that probably can’t be taught (because nobody has the information readily accessible to do so), but which I desperately wish clergy understood before they were turned loose on the unsuspecting faithful.

(I am not one of the unsuspecting faithful. Having trained alongside priests, and trained priests, I am one of the too-few suspicious faithful.)

So, occasionally, I will write about what I never heard as a seminarian, and what I knew we didn’t have time to teach while I was a Director of Studies. Today I am thinking about the honorific “the Reverend”.

It is an odd thing we do in the church, the giving of this honorific. It is properly used after a religious ceremony in which the person has made certain promises to uphold Christian teaching. It is something apart from the academic qualification, and indeed I worked years ago with students who were proudly “ordained but not trained”. They had been “raised up” by congregations in need of pastoral leadership, and ordained with the proviso that they had to acquire a degree in religion or theology within a certain time period after ordination. (I was teaching at Southwestern College in Kansas at the time when they were attempting one of the first on-line programs in the US for ministry training, and most of the students were in this category).

It’s also an odd title. “Reverend” means one who is revered, and it has little to do with the personal qualities of those to whom it applies. Most people who have studied for, and received, ordination in Christian churches do turn out to be good, respectable people. But when they go to their first church, there is little way for the congregation to know this, apart from trusting that their denominational authorities have properly vetted their new minister.

As well, the title might have applied in an age when those who could claim the honorific lived a distinctive life from “ordinary” Christians. This is not so–at least I can’t tell it from what my ordained friends are saying about their lives. High-end restaurants and cooking schools, acquisition of expensive cars, elaborate international travel and boasts of upgrades to more comfortable seats on airplanes (and complaints when such things are not forthcoming)–all of this outweighs posts I see of outreach to the poor or service to the civic community. If we insist on applying an ancient term, we should have some visible continuity with what it meant. Little of this does.

In an age where people do not relate to the social institutions (educational, religious, governmental) which historically were authoritative and prestigious, I wonder if simply slapping “The Reverend” in front of someone’s name makes sense any more. People are more questioning, and are less likely to respect someone just because they are told to, than they have been in the past. As an adjunct instructor in higher education, I got a lot of “you have to respect me because I’m me, but you have to earn my respect before I give it to you.” The logic in this was that they were “paying my salary” (don’t I wish!), and therefore I was beholden to them. To stick “The Reverend” in front of a name and ask people (especially those in a congregation who will indeed be paying the minister’s salary) to respect the minister unquestioningly, seems an anachronism to me. Especially with the concern of getting younger people into the church, and their supposedly more-sensitive crapometer than people of my advanced age, the insistence that a debt of respect is owed to a minister just because of their ordination, seems to be of questionable value.

So, I’m not sure that for at least the first few years after ordination, we should use “The Reverend”. Mr., Ms., or (if it has been properly earned), Dr. should be fine. Let the new minister earn our reverence and respect.

Partly, that needs to be done by showing respect towards us.

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