Just one month after I was first married in 1965, my new bride and I had one of our first disagreements, and it was over whether or not I was a Reverend. She thought I was, but I insisted I wasn’t.
In those days I was Associate Pastor of a church and she was a first grade teacher. Her school was selling “personalized” Christmas cards as a fundraiser. My wife brought home two boxes which she had ordered a few weeks before our October wedding, and they were imprinted with “Rev. and Mrs. J. Stephen Conn.”
There were two things I didn’t like about the cards. First, nothing is much more impersonal than a Christmas card on which the name is imprinted rather than signed. But much worse was the pretentious title, “Reverend.” The cards sat in a drawer for several years before we finally threw them away.
The truth is, all the mail I receive from my denominational headquarters prefaces my name with “The Reverend,” so I suppose the title is legitimate. But after 35 years as an ordained minister I have never called myself Reverend, and I still shudder whenever anyone else does. Even worse is to call a person “The Most Reverend,” “The Right Reverend” or “The Very Reverend.”
Reverend means quite literally “worthy of reverence,” or “holy.” That which is reverend is to be regarded with profound respect and honor to the point of worship and adoration. Frankly, I don’t qualify. And neither does anyone else I have ever known, clergy or otherwise. We are all still better described by the bumper sicker; “Christians aren’t perfect – just forgiven.”
Has any pastor ever actually felt that he stood on a pedestal smiling benevolently down on the flock, basking in their praise, and bestowing them with blessings? God forbid! Whenever I preach, I have always felt that I was simply one beggar telling another beggar where he could find bread. My message is: “Fellow pilgrim, I haven’t arrived yet either. But come on; take my hand; we can make it together.”
If “Reverend” is a proper title then surely it should be the highest thing one could be called. Yet it has always amused me that many who call themselves “Rev.” are quick to drop the term in preference to putting a “Dr.” before their name. Those whose “doctorates” come by mail-order are usually the most eager to flaunt the title. But if a person may rightly be called reverend then surely that should be preferred above doctor. It is greater to be holy than it is to be educated.
Some may think I am showing a “holier-than-thou” attitude in expressing my personal prejudice against a title which is used by many wonderful people. If so, let me admit that for many years I allowed myself to be called reverend in two areas.
First is the telephone book. Actually I never told the telephone company that was my title. But they asked my occupation when I applied for service and then when the book came out it was listed that way. I later changed the listing and the title was dropped.
The other place where my name was prefixed with “Rev.” was on my checkbook. My wife handles the check book most of the time, and she said it might help in cashing a check (which I have always doubted.)
One day I used a personal check at a store where I was unknown. The clerk glanced at the check then looked up at me and said with sarcasm, “Rev., huh? The last time we got one of these with rev. on it , it bounced.”
That did it. I ordered new checks that very day with the title deleted. You can call me mister; you can call me brother. Better yet, call me Stephen. But please, don’t call me reverend.