Melinda and I were out running errands last Saturday afternoon. Because of traffic on the freeway, we took a route that we don’t usually take, and we drove past a church where a friend of ours serves as the pastor. Like at many churches, they have a sign, a marquee out front. This one had the sermon title and the hour of the service, as is typical–but we both noticed that the pastor’s name wasn’t included.

I think that Melinda was upset a little bit, but I was delighted. I told her why: so many churches proclaim the name of the pastor, but that’s not who it’s about. She immediately got it. Good for our friend!

Then this week I pulled out a book of little ditties called Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner, an author and a Presbyterian minister. I love Fred Buechner, and this is one of those well-worn volumes in my library. Flipping through this book, I stopped to read what Buechner had to say about revelation. Right after that was the topic “Reverend.”


     A title of respect to be used only in the third person, if then. Speak about the Reverend Samuel Smith if you have to, but never go up to him and say, “That’s telling them, Reverend!” any more than you’d go up to a Congressman and say, “How are things in Washington, Honorable?”
Reverend means to be revered. A minister is not to be revered for who he is in himself, but for who it is he represents, just as the British Ambassador is seated at the hostess’s right not because of his beaux yeux but because he represents the Queen.

     (See also MINISTER)

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[Okay, so there’s that little problem of non-inclusive language. It grates at me, sure, but in the first place, Buechner was born in 1926; when he went to seminary and then was ordained, all ministers were male. In the second place, this book was published in 1973. And finally, Buechner is a tremendous advocate for inclusivity–for women, for LGBT folks, for everyone. He preached in 1997 at the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the national church convention, in 1997, talking about how he had experienced God more at a lesbian wedding–a service officiated by a female minister) than he had in church for a long time.]

But I digress

I live and am an elder in San Gabriel Presbytery. Southern California isn’t like the rest of the country in most ways, and our version of presbyterianism is no different. Teaching Elders (as ministers are now called) and Ruling Elders (elected congregational leaders) both serve as voting commissioners to the presbytery (regional governing body); historically they differ in function only, as they (along with Deacons) take the same ordination vows with the exception of one question having to do with responsibilities. But here the presbytery moderator (elected for one year as vice-moderator who then becomes the moderator of presbytery, and then the moderator of presbytery council) seems to be a job for male ministers, since we have just elected our fourth male minister in a row. At least this most recent one, unlike the previous three, is non-European American… And all of the committee chairs–the ones who have presentation roles at our presbytery meetings–are ministers. There are only three elders on the presbytery council: two at-large, and one the chair of a “minor” committee (ironically, the presbytery’s Committee on Representation). Worship at presbytery meetings almost always features a sermon or message from the pastor of the host church, and prayers and other parts of the service are almost always given by “Rev. So-and-So” as listed in the worship bulletin. We rarely see the names of nor hear the voices of ruling elders, either in the church’s work or it it’s worship.

Yep. Clergy-centric. This is sad. It’s certainly not the church of our founder John Calvin (who himself was probably not ordained). And it’s certainly not the church that professes to dislike the idea of having bishops or popes.

+ + + + +

And, in case you’re curious, here’s what Buechner says about “minister”–and remember: 1973… also that he also wrote a book called Son of Laughter:

There are three basic views:

1.  A minister is a Nice Guy. He’ll take a drink if you offer him one, and when it comes to racy stories, he can tell a few right along with the best of them. He preaches a good sermon, but he’s not one of these religious fanatics who thinks he’s got to say a prayer every time he pays a call. When it comes to raising money, he’s nobody’s fool and has all the rich old ladies eating out of his hand. He has bridged the generation gap by introducing things like a rock group at the eleven o’clock service and what he calls rap sessions on subjects like drugs and sex instead of Sunday school. At the same time he admits privately that though the kids have a lot going for them, he wishes they’d cut their hair. He’s big on things like civil rights, peace, and encounter groups. He sends his children to private school. He makes people feel comfortable in his presence by showing them that he’s got his feet on the ground like everybody else. He reassures them that religion is something you should take seriously but not go overboard with.
2.  A minister has his head in the clouds which is just where a man should have it whose mind is on higher things. His morals are unimpeachable, and if you should ever happen to use bad language in his presence, you apologize. He has a lovely sense of humor and gets a kick out of it every time you ask him if he can’t do something about this rainy weather we’ve been having. He keeps things like sex, politics, race and alcoholism out of his sermons. His specialty is religion, and he’s wise enough to leave other matters to people who know what they’re talking about.
3.  A minister is as much an anachronism as an alchemist or a chimney sweep. Like Tiffany glass of the Queen of England, he is a camp figure whose function is primarily decorative. Although their various perspectives are admittedly limited, Maharishis, Communists, homosexuals, drug addicts, and the like are all to be listened to for their special insights. The perspective of ministers, on the other hand, is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.

     The first minsters were the twelve disciples. There is no evidence that Jesus chose them because they were brighter or nicer than other people. In fact the New Testament record suggests that they were continually missing the point, jockeying for position and, when the chips were down, interested in nothing so much as saving their own skins. Their sold qualification seems to have been their initial willingness to rise to their feet when Jesus said, “Follow me.” As St. Paul put it later, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)
When Jesus sent the twelve out into the world, his instructions were simple. He told them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal (Luke 9:2) with the implication that to do either right was in effect to do both. (see HEALING) Fortunately for the world in general and the church in particular, the ability to do them is not dependent on either moral character or I.Q. To do them in the name of Christ is to be a minister. In the name of Christ not to do them is to be a bad joke.

     (see also REVEREND)

And under VOCATION, Buechner say in part, “The place God calls us to is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Amen.

Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.
Copyright 1973 by Frederick Buechner.
Harper & Row.

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