Who Gets To Be A “Rev”?

Who Gets To Be A “Rev”?

CCS Principal Michelle Owens explores the question of whether deacons and diaconal ministers should call themselves (or let others call them) “Reverend.”


Has anyone asked you recently whether the diaconate are allowed to use the honorific “Rev”?

I’ve been asked three times recently! Or more precisely, I’ve been asked when United Church Diaconal Ministers started using it, and for proof that we are allowed to do so. Being asked once was amusing, twice seemed like a coincidence, and by the third time, I wondered what the Spirit was trying to tell me!

The short answer to the ‘show me the proof’ question is that in 2001 General Secretary Virginia Coleman offered an official Opinion that since “Reverend” is an honorific for members of the order of ministry, and diaconal ministers are part of the order of ministry, there is nothing stopping the diaconate from using the honorific.

The question of “Can we?” being easily settled, it seems to me that the more interesting question is “Why would we?”

Once upon a time, when streams of ministry were differentiated by gender as much as by any other calling, men became ordained ministers, wore collars, were allowed to marry, and were referred (and deferred) to as “Reverend” (Last Name).  Deaconesses sometimes wore uniforms, sometimes did not, often wore pins, for many decades were disjoined from the order if they married, and were addressed as “Miss.” Internationally, some Deaconess uniforms or habits have persisted to this day – diaconal orders in uniform are a visual delight at ecumenical gatherings. In some orders the diaconate use “Reverend”, and in some“Sister”.

Wondering about the use of Reverend, I called up four friends of CCS, and had fascinating conversations about service, community, power, relationship and pastoral identity. I’m very grateful for Diaconal Ministers Kathy Toivanen and Rev. Marlene Britton, Rev. Deacon Tanis Kolisnyk, and Rev. Dr. John Young all taking the time to talk with me, sharing their stories, perspectives and opinions. Each conversation gifted me with something new to think about, and some threads wove their way through all the dialogues.

Interestingly using “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize the ‘set apart-ness’ of that dynamic, while eschewing “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize “not set above.”

Power: when we talked about using honorifics, we were immediately having conversations about power and authority. More than one of my conversation partners used the phrase “set apart, but not set above” to describe being a member of the order of ministry. Interestingly using “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize the ‘set apart-ness’ of that dynamic, while eschewing “Reverend” can be a choice to emphasize “not set above.” Very different expressions of the same value! Discussions and memories of people abusing the status of being clergy were often more historic than current. Clergy do not have the same social status and power as we did decades ago, and for some, using Reverend  in contemporary contexts is less problematic because there is less social power and status accorded the role.  

As the church becomes less influential in society, “Reverend” seems to have become more useful in secular, interfaith or ecumenical contexts. To use “Reverend” denotes that a diaconal minister has a particular leadership role in the United Church. To paraphrase Kathy Toivanen – if we are at a meeting of interfaith leaders to address a community concern, maybe the work at hand is more important than the titles being used. “Reverend” signifies to other leaders, many of whom might not be used to clerical gender diversity, a right to be at the table. This kind of usage clarifies role in wider society by acting as a function signifier.

Reverend Deacon Tanis Kolisnyk explores how using honorifics and titles signifies not only a role of community leadership, but also having met the educational requirements and competencies. She talks about using “Reverend” and wearing a collar as symbols that she has been entrusted with responsibilities by the Anglican Church, not as an individual claim to authority, but an outward sign that her community has asked her to represent them, and carry specific responsibilities. From a Métis perspective she notes that “Reverend Deacon” signifies a role, just as “Elder” does, and that using honorifics clarifies which role someone is occupying in leadership, and what community they are representing.

I was initially surprised when each person spontaneously brought up wearing clericals (such as collars, gowns and stoles) early in our conversation. With reflection, I think this speaks to the embodied nature of ministry: a place where our bodies (our selves) become intersections of presence and symbol – we are both with people wherever they are, and pointing to the all-encompassing presence of the Divine and the companionship of the cloud of witnesses. At protests or solidarity rallies, when signing petitions or testifying at Senate or Parliamentary hearings; wearing a clerical collar makes the presence of the church visibly manifest in a crowd.

I’ve worn my clerical collar to mosques and synagogues, when attending community events in the aftermath of hate crimes. I’ve worn my clerical collar when representing the authority of the church in sexual abuse investigations. I’ve worn it to Pride parades and to vigils. And I wore it last summer to the Black Lives Matter march in Winnipeg. There are contexts in which my beloved diaconal pin is not visible enough, not recognizable enough to signal who I am, why I am there, and who I am representing.

Both Rev. Marlene and Rev. Young spoke of how clerical collars literally open doors, of the usefulness of being immediately identifiable in a hospital ward late at night. As a white woman in ministry in Southern Ontario, I was frequently mistaken for a grand-daughter or niece when hospital visiting. My Asian male friend has been mistaken for medical staff. When I think about the way that pastoral identity becomes part of our social location, new questions started percolating for me.

I wonder what invisible privileges I’m relying one when I don’t feel the need to use an honorific or visible sign of my role in a community?

I wonder how honorifics and clericals can function as a common sign and symbol of identity and function for ministry? I think about how often racism or ageism or gender bias pops out as the comment “You don’t look like a minister!” I wonder how often I mistook white privilege for ministerial authority.  I wonder if giving up clothing and titles as status symbols for a time opens us up new possibilities for using traditional trappings of ministry as tools for equality? I think about the discourse I’ve heard from Black academics about using “Dr” or “Professor” in the classroom as a tool to mitigate against anti-Black racism from students, other faculty or the institution.

I wonder what invisible privileges I’m relying one when I don’t feel the need to use an honorific or visible sign of my role in a community? Am I taking advantage of my Ontario-accented English? My white skin? My immigration status or cis-gendered presentation?

While each conversation touched on pastoral and diaconal identity, and unpacked functions and roles of ministry, my lasting impression is the emphatic care for the impact of honorifics on others. How does using Reverend help in a specific community or context? How does it reinforce pastoral boundaries? How does it mitigate against white privilege or sexism? Can we liberate the honorific from signifying deference and use it as a tool of justice and pastoral presence? When we take seriously the diversity of clerical bodies, lives and experiences, does common usage become a teaching moment?

You may have noticed I’ve used honorifics inconsistently throughout this reflection. One learning I’ve taken from this is I would have done well to specifically ask my colleagues what usage they wanted in print! However, I think the inconsistency represents the diversity of opinion and practice in the diaconal community. I’m grateful to have had a glimpse of the thoughtfulness people bring to bear on ministry, pastoral/diaconal identity, authority, responsibility and relationships.

Michelle Owens, Principal (sometimes Reverend)

Comments: 13

  1. Karen Orlandi says:

    I often find I don’t use the honorific… unless you use an honorific and then I will (I’ll see your reverend with my reverend). I eschew the word pastor because it has become a catch-all (in my opinion). I too wear a collar when I attend places where I feel the church needs to be seen as supporting – usually events, protests and blockades.

    Being set apart is a tricky place for me… are we willing to take the responsibilities along with the perks? Most often I see the opposite. I think it speaks to our own personal view of leadership.

    What a great article (sometimes rev) Michelle! Thank you

    P.S. my favourite so far is Rev. K-bomb

    • Michelle Owens says:

      The question about accepting responsibility is such an important one Karen. A number of the people I spoke with said that hearing or using Reverend acts as that reminder that they have responsibilities, and are responsible to a specific group of people they are serving.
      Thanks for reading and reflecting!

  2. Barbara Barnett says:

    These are just random thoughts in response to a thought-provoking article. My long-ago Latin reminds me that the suffix ending in ‘nd’ is a gerund (I think I’m correct in the grammatical term), meaning “bound to be”. “Reverend” – bound to be revered. “Amanda” – bound to be loved. That to me indicates a requirement, (though not generally acknowledged) regardless of the character, or personal qualities of the individual.
    And to add a little complicating Anglican flavour, different orders become “Very Reverend “ – Dean. “Most Reverend” – Bishop.
    Oddly an Archdeacon is “Venerable” – able to be venerated (but not necessarily!).
    I like etymological perspectives- they’re not always relevant, but to me always intriguing!

    • Michelle Owens says:

      That is so interesting Barbara, thank you! The ‘bound to be’ language is intriguing – it immediately reminds of discussions about boundaries and the power that can adhere to the role of minister, despite how assiduously we might try and shake it off. (and the ways that people can take advantage of that reverence).

      Maybe we could innovate and become “Reverable” – able to be revered, but not bound?

  3. Caryn Douglas says:

    I was watching an on-line worship which was part of a Lenten series intended to address racism and white supremacy. The guest musician was black, and I am guessing the only way that the congregation could get a black person in the service was to invite a guest. Again, I am guessing it is a pretty much entirely white congregation. I was jarred by the titles given to some of those involved, “Rev’d Dr. so and so”, “Rev’d so and so” etc. and others, like this guest musician, had no title, only “so and so” appeared on the screen. After hearing his music and the conversation with him, I thought he deserved a title like, “champion despite unbelievable systemic barriers erected by the people who think that their colonial titles make them important.” How about “Master Economist” for the single mom who raises her kids on welfare, or, “Medical Tech” for people who have figured out how to navigate in the world with their mental health issues.

    Further to your question Michele, who should get to create titles and use titles and expect to be addressed with a title?

    In the congregation where I work, I made it clear that I would never use the title Reverend for myself and I asked them to refrain from addressing me that way if they could. So, some people started calling me Dr. (I do have a degree). Again, I asked them to just call me by my name. Several people told me it is difficult because it wasn’t how they were raised: the minister deserves more respect. It reinforces why I don’t want to use it. Symbols to the outside world are different than symbols in the community. I already have soooooo much authority and power I don’t need a title to get more.

    A few decades ago the argument for not embracing what is traditionally (in the UCC) ordained language was to distinguish ourselves from the ordained stream, and to remind ourselves that the diaconal calling is to be on the edge, to ask ourselves whose approval we most seek, those in the centre or those further marginalized than ourselves. The answers to those questions are more nuanced than we realized back then, but I hope they are included in the reflection process about status and title.

    • Michelle Owens says:

      Oh no, that kind of imbalanced title using can be so dismissive and reflective and re-inforcing of power imbalances!

      I appreciate your furthering and re-framing of my questions – Who does get to create titles? And I notice I have a different reaction to “expect to be addressed with a title” to “use a title”, and I’m going to sit with that for a while. Your point about the symbols having a different impact within the community than they do to the outside world also resonates.

      I’m very grateful to have been formed in the diaconal tradition, with a suspicious lens on honorifics. One of the surprises for me in thinking further through this question was how using a lens from the margin illuminated the helpfulness of some trappings of traditional ministry outside the inner circles of churched people.

      Thank you for your reflections!

  4. Liz Bowyer says:

    Michelle, I have been asked this question many, many times in my experiences of paid accountable ministry in both rural and urban settings and especially when introduced at inter-denominational, inter-faith, and community gatherings such as ministerials. And oh, yes at funeral homes too. Hence I am well pleased to read your article and to see the various comments in response. In my lived experience it hardly seems to matter to those who ask why or why not I would chooose the title. It seems folks mostly just want to ‘get it right’. Of course, there are those times when the question is posed by someone who feels that I should not have access to the title. A whole other topic requiring a quite different response and sometimes ongoing conversation! Meanwhile, over time and for the sake of expediency in the overwhelming busy-ness of congregational leadership, I have finally just ‘let it be’. Do I answer when addressed as Rev. Liz and do I sign off as same when it feels important to do so? Absolutely! Ditto for wearing albs and stoles. However, as regards wearing a clergy collar, I have just not been able to embrace that for myself. Don’t get me wrong-I have gone window shopping and even hovered over the online ‘purchase’ button but for some reason, I just can’t quite go there. I am also still slightly startled when I arrive into a gathering and find other diaconal colleagues sporting clergy collars. Yet, at the same time, I am also very proud of those who choose to do so. Again, thanks for your article, it reminds me that diaconal formation is an ever evolving process!

  5. Charmain Bailey Foutner says:

    Michelle, I have had this conversation with my ‘Girls’ (black friends), where they have asked if I intend to use Rev. when I am commissioned. My response was no. I personally don’t subscribe to the honorifics. My friend shared the idea around having BIPOCs in ‘authority’ as a way to combat white supremacy, therefore, using Revered and wearing clericals are helpful in that fight. I remember feeling how burdensome that idea was, and weighing that against hospital staff being suspicious of me when I visit. (You’re mistaken for a relative, our Asian colleague being mistaken for medical staff, I’m mistaken for someone who just fit the title I gave). It may just make my professional life easier if I use Reverend, but what a sad reason to have to use it!

    • Michelle Owens says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Charmaine, especially the point about how different the experience of ‘being mistaken’ can be.

  6. Christina Paradela says:

    I think I am one of the people who had a conversation recently with Michelle about the use of the honorific.
    I discourage the people I serve in a community of faith from using it. I only use it to sign a letter to politicians and get into the ICU.
    But it really opens doors for discussions when I am told I am not deserving of it when I start a new pastoral relationship. Then that speaks loud and clear to me that there is going to be issues of power in this community of faith and this permits me to address it whenever I encounter it.

    • Michelle Owens says:

      Thanks Christina! I’m grateful for all the discussions this question has opened up!

  7. Ken DeLisle says:

    What a great article and such a challenge.

    The word carries so much history and emotional connection – good and bad, to the people we care for and work with.

    Wherever I worked, I have been asked to be called by my first name and mist do, but some expressed it feels disrespectful not to call me Rev. Disrespectful of who? Just as we are asking people to use the proper pronoun for each of us, if I ask you NOT to call me Rev., is disrespectful for you to call me that?

    Such a dilemma and challenge. Your line, “I wonder how often I mistook white privilege for ministerial authority:, really was an eye opener to me and I start to wonder the same thing.

    When I was commissioned I said I wasn’t going to wear a collar. Just a few years later I was in a gay march in New York. Just as I passed the site with the group screaming, “God hates fags:, a group of about 3 people on rollercoasters heading in the opposite direction of the parade skated by with signs saying “Gays hate God.” I wanted to tell them both they were wrong but the parade had passed them both. I bought a collar to make a point in future marches.

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