Why are some reverends not reverends?

Warning: The following post is picky beyond belief and focuses on an issue in Associated Press style.

It is the kind of post that GetReligion readers are not almost certainly not going to comment on, other than a few who might drop by the comment pages to write, with a snark, “This is so, so picky, I can’t believe you care about this kind of stuff!”

That aside, I do hope that some religion-beat specialists chime in. Why? Because I sincerely want to know why they think this particular style error is becoming more and more common.

OK, have I turned enough readers off?

Right, let’s begin.

The newspaper that lands in my front yard is pretty pumped up, as you would imagine, about the Baltimore Ravens and the National Football League playoffs at the moment (Sorry ’bout that, Pittsburgh). Thus, editors at the Baltimore Sun are running just about anything that will feature the color purple in the graphics, while containing the word “Ravens” in the headline.

Thus, we have this standard-issue news feature about an interesting man who will, briefly, be front and center at this weekend’s playoff game (Sorry ’bout that Pittsburgh). Here is how it opens:

Just before the Ravens face the Houston Texans Sunday, they will hear a familiar voice — other than John Harbaugh’s, that is.

It will be the smooth, vibrant baritone of Mishael Miller, who has sung the national anthem for Ravens home games since the first one in 1996.

“It has definitely been a blessing,” Miller, 41, said. “I meet people weekly who recognize me. I never thought it would have been the anthem that people would know me for, or that I would become a staple in this area as a result of singing it.”

With an octave-and-a-half range, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has defeated many an amateur and professional singer. The Philadelphia-born Miller, who earned a degree in music at Morgan State University, brings solid vocal training to the assignment.

Like I said, pretty standard stuff — other than the word “blessing.”

Then a few paragraphs later, Sun readers are given this additional background information about Miller. You see, it seems that the man does more than sing this one particular song on demand.

“… I want people to know that I do sing more than the National Anthem,” Miller said.

For one thing, he sings gospel music, a longtime passion that he gets to demonstrate weekly as assistant pastor at the Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church.

“He is a great help,” said the senior pastor, the Rev. Lester Agyei McCorn. “And we love his [Ravens work]. It’s a blessing. It’s great that the rest of the nation gets to experience what we experience every Sunday. It works out fine, especially now that we have a 10 a.m. service. He has plenty of time to get to the stadium.”

OK, copy-desk pros, did you see the problem?

The A.M.E. Zion is a thoroughly mainstream, even mainline denomination. Later on in the story we find — no surprise here — that Miller completed a master’s degree from the Howard University School of Divinity. If he is an assistant pastor, then the odds are very, very strong that he has been ordained. In fact, a few clicks of a mouse will bring a would-be journalist to the church’s home page, where Miller is identified as as an ordained clergyman.

So, why did the Sun choose to strip him of his title? Why, on first reference, doesn’t this story refer to him as the Rev. Mishael Miller? It’s in the AP stylebook, after all. Also, we know that the editors know the rule, because the senior pastor is properly identified as the Rev. Lester Agyei McCorn.

So, again, what happened to Miller?

Actually, I am seeing this error more and more often in recent years. What is going on? It seems to me that the minute an ordained clergyperson does anything that is really important — you know, something other than work in ministry — this means that they somehow graduate to a status that is more important than “the Rev.” or something like that. This is, I have noticed, particularly common in stories about women and African-Americans.

Has anyone else noticed this? Does anyone else on the Godbeat have any additional theories about this phenomenon?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Dale

    Carrying on the theme of being picky. . .

    Like I said, pretty standard stuff — other than the word “blessed.”

    You mean “blessing”;-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Amen, Dale!

    Fixed.

    Now, do you have a theory on this style phenomenon? The missing professional title?

  • Chris

    I wonder if the “Rev” was left out intentionally, so that it wouldn’t ruin the “big reveal” later in the story that he was assitant pastor at his church and sang gospel. Don’t want to let the cat out of the bag too soon….

    I can’t believe you are so nit-picky….. ;-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CHRIS:

    Big reveal?

    Seriously?

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    I am an ordained deacon (and have both my seminary degree and my ordination certificate on my wall to prove it). However, I am part-time and unpaid by the church I serve. Thus, I use “the Rev.” or “the Rev. Dcn.” title in connection with my church work or other religion-related duties, and I don’t use it when it is not germane to what else I do. Perhaps that is what the fellow in the story does, too, as singing the National Anthem at a sporting event hardly seems church-related.

    Anyway, that’s my practice. Just sayin’.

  • Stan

    I agree with Chris. The story is more dramatic if it is revealed later that he is a minister as well as a singer.

  • http://terce.me Paul Walton

    I don’t think this is always picky. I think many Gen Y people may not realise, for example, that Martin Luther King was ordained. His justice work was certainly his ministry.

  • P

    I think it has more to do with the anonymity of the press wanting to keep faith out from the headlines.

    I think that it would discredit him if he was labeled as “Rev.” Having worked in ministry for 11 years I also know too that there are some Revs. who prefer not to be labeled since they would rather been seen as an equals among the public. They don’t want a special place.

    Yet it could be that America’s religious illiteracy is so nill that they really may not even know what Rev. means.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    From the opposite spectrum …

    We in Churches of Christ do not refer to our ministers as “Reverend,” even those who have attained an advanced theological degree. AP style points out that Church of Christ ministers should not be referred to as “the Rev.”

    Alas, I did a freelance piece for the Tulsa World a few years ago about a Church of Christ minister with a baseball ministry. In the notes to the editor at the top of the story, I stressed that Church of Christ ministers do not use “the Rev.” and that the churches do not use the term “pastor” to describe their preachers.

    Alas, click this link and check out both the subhead and the identification of the minister as it appeared in print. Evidently, my note was deleted before the piece made its way to the copy desk … and so I looked like an idiot the next day (not for the first time in my life). :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOBBY:

    But the C of X is IN THE STYLEBOOK. It’s a fact taken into account in AP basics.

    I see, personally, ZERO evidence that the Sun thinks it’s dramatic that this guy is a gospel singing MDiv earning ordained minister.

  • http://ggbw.blogspot.com Nathaniel

    maybe the continual de-Christianizing of our culture?

  • Stan

    Nathaniel, it would be a pretty strange ploy to de-Christianize our culture by running a story about an ordained minister who has an M.Div who sings the national anthem. I guess you think those liberal journalists are real sneaky to keep writing those stories about Christians in order to de-Christianize our culture. Maybe they are just too smart for me to understand their subtle ways. Poor simple me: I would have thought that if they wanted to de-Christianize our culture they simply wouldn’t publish anything about Christians.

  • CarlH

    From the Glass-Half-Full Department, I take heart that the Sun writer/editor knows that–at least when he/she deigns to use it–it’s “the Rev.” and not just “Rev.”!

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I was just thinking about this with regard to this Seattle Times story I read about the funeral of the slain park ranger:

    Anderson’s father, Pastor Paul Kritsch, said his daughter embraced her duties as a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park, which melded her lifelong love of the outdoors, as well as her desire to serve others.

    The Rev. Paul Kritsch is an ordained clergyman and regional leader in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But this had to have been the fifth story I saw that referred to him as “pastor.”

    Just weird.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    I think Chris nailed it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I am wondering if it is possible that the reporter think that “the Rev.” should only be used for the person incharge of the Church, and not an assistant minister. He may actually think he is doing this right, and being a sports reporter and not on the religion beat, did not think it was worth making sure.

  • Jon in the Nati

    A quick perusal of the church’s website shows that Mishael Miller is indeed listed as an “assistant pastor” with the title “Reverend”. Plainly, his denomination considers him to be ordained. As for speculation as to why he was not called such in the article, I think John Pack Lambert (#16) has it pretty much correct.

  • Julia

    Speaking of assistants – Herman Cain is an “assistant minister” at his Baptist Church in Atlanta but is never referenced as “the Reverend”. However, he apparently doesn’t have a theological degree and “minister” is used to describe all kinds of functions these days.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Cain

  • Frank Lockwood

    Terry,
    This is an interesting post. But let me play devil’s advocate here. Why should newspapers use “the Rev.” to refer to ministers? We don’t use “the Hon.” to refer to judges and politicians, for example.

    And what does the honorific “the Rev.” really tell us about the religious figure we’re discussing. Does it mean the individual is ordained? That he or she has a religion-related college degree? That he or she accepts the Apostle’s Creed or holds a particular view concerning the Scriptures or the divinity of Christ? Does “the Rev.” impart any useful information to the reader? Or is it superfluous?

  • Stan

    I understand that the reverend in this case is “legitimate” in the sense that he holds a recognized degree and is an assistant pastor in a recognized denomination. But I think some religions (or websites) will make you a reverend for one fee and a Bishop for another. What should journalists do in such cases? What about titles for people who are “ordained” for a particular purpose, such as to be able to officiate at a wedding? Does the AP give guidance to journalists as to how to refer to these people?

    I have noticed that some newspapers in their wedding announcement columns will says something like this: “The ceremony was officiated by Sam Jones, who became an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church in order to join the happy couple in matrimony.” Should Mr. Jones be referred to as “the Reverend Sam Jones”?

  • R.S.Newark

    Why not bring to discussion the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. is rarely referred to as “the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.” but as Dr. King. Many who know better,it seems, virtually refuse to call him by his rightful name. Ne pas! your argument should go miles further. nothing in civil rights would have happened if it weren’t for the Reverend.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    RS:

    Totally with you on that and, in fact, I have written about that in the past.

    It’s rare to see him called Dr. King in the mainstream press, however, since he is not a medical doctor. Yes, that’s another stylebook issue.


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