Words to Avoid in the Ministry

I stood in front of the class of seminary students and said, “Here are two words which I’d like to suggest you completely remove from your vocabulary. Do not ever, ever use them in conversations with people or in sermons.”

“People who do not know these words will misunderstand them and the result will not be good.”

I could almost have saved my breath. It turned out most had never heard of these words. So, perhaps I did them no favor by a) introducing them to these words and b) then suggesting they never use them.

Isn’t this like telling someone not to think about pink elephants for the next 10 minutes?

The forbidden words are “succor” and “niggardly.”

These are good words with solid meanings and excellent pedigrees, but they can get you in a ton of trouble.

“Succor” comes from the Latin and has been in use for hundreds of years. It simply means “aid” or “help.” Some Catholic churches are named “Our Lady of Prompt Succor,” a testimony to someone’s belief that the Virgin Mary will hasten to their assistance when called on in prayer.

The word–in case you wonder–is pronounced exactly like “sucker.” And that’s where the problem arises.

At a dinner to honor the benefactor of a college, a man donating millions to erect a new dormitory, a priest stood to offer the invocation. “And Father, we thank Thee for this succor which Thou hast provided….”

The shocked donor stood to his feet, stormed out of the banquet hall and canceled the gift.

We shouldn’t leave this subject before noting that there have indeed been rich people taken in as “suckers” and used for someone’s selfish purposes. Perhaps the offended donor already had his suspicions about that.

I suggest ministers not use “succor,” not ever. (The English spell it “succour,” and we’ll see it that way in print sometimes.)

“Niggardly,” we are told, comes from an ancient Icelandic word and means “miserly” and “stingily.” Writers and speakers who understand the word know it has absolutely nothing to do with the notorious “N-word” which is to be avoided at all cost. This word has a noble tradition and it’s a shame it has to be laid to rest.

But it does. Don’t use it. Not ever.

I suggested to our seminarians that they would benefit from going to Wikipedia and typing in “niggardly” for the numerous stories–all of them bad–associated with that word. Time and again, we’re told someone properly used the word in a speech and because a hearer did not understand the word, they were offended and raised holy heck (hmm–speaking of words to be avoided). Someone was fired, a brouhaha erupted, someone found out just how ignorant he was of the meaning of words, and there followed a stew of apologies, blames, reinstatements, and embarrassments.

Every profession has its own list of words to be avoided. Usually these will include terms that inflame or can be misunderstood.

In customer service, supervisors tell their people to avoid “have to” (as in, “you’ll have to talk to the sales department”), “I can’t” (as in “I can’t do anything about that”), and “policy” (as in, “the policy of the store is…”).

In composing resumes for job-hunting, some suggest long lists of words to be avoided, terms that dull the mind of the employer and convince him/her not to invite you in for an interview. These include “assist,” “experiment,” “skillfully,” “effectively,” “mastered,” “cutting-edge,” and “facilitate.”

I know from personal experience there are certain words to avoid when husbands and wives argue. My own favorites are “always” and “never.” “You always leave your towel on the floor.” “You never remember my birthday.”

Not good.

Each minister will compile his/her own list of forbidden words. Most will carry a history from their ministry. He used that word and paid a price for it, causing him to determine never to say that again.

Words that are racist and prejudicial have no place in the pulpit.

Words that are profane or near-profane should be avoided. Since one person’s profanity may be another’s normal way of speaking, each will have to work this out for himself. Yesterday, my pastor and I were discussing a well-known minister who drops into his sermons an occasional borderline word. Mike said, “If you asked him, he would say he’s simply connecting with his audience. And I don’t fault him for that.”

As a young and green-in-the-extreme minister, I was taken to the woodshed (but gently) by a church leader who suggested I clean all slang (gosh, heck, and the like) from my speech. To this day I appreciate the courage it took for him to bring this to my attention.

My friend Verna is the only person of her race in her church. Once I asked if she was comfortable in such a setting. She laughed, “I feel like a missionary.”

Then she told me what had happened.

Her pastor had decided to criticize a well-known leader of her race in a sermon. It was out of place, as almost all politics are in the pulpit, and it devastated Verna.

It’s important to note that it did not infuriate her; it devastated her. She broke into tears, so hurt that her pastor would say such a thing.

Give the pastor credit: when he discovered how his little diatribe had affected this beloved member, he asked her forgiveness. He saw how wrong he had been and offered to go back into the pulpit and apologize before the congregation. Verna assured him she did not need that, but appreciated his humility.

Buzz words. They are another subject, I suppose. To the Sanhedrin of Paul’s day, the word was “anastasia.” Resurrection. In Acts 23:8ff, Paul purposefully dropped that word into his defense in order to set the Pharisees and Sadducees at one another’s throats. He must have smiled to himself when they turned from accusing him to arguing with each other.

It’s good for a preacher to know what certain words will do to his audience, which will set them off and which will calm them down.

Often before I arrive at church on Sundays, I utter a prayer which may have come from the heart of David himself.

“Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)

And this more familiar prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

Our Lord Jesus must have had some of this in mind, when He told the disciples, “Do not swear at all…. Simply let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ ‘no.” (Matthew 5:32-37)

9 thoughts on “Words to Avoid in the Ministry

  1. Joe, when Mary and I were searching for a church home in our current community, we visited one church during the Christmas season. When the Minister of Music introduced the singing of the carols he made the comment that the shepherds would have been so frightened by the appearance of the angelic host they would have “peed in in their pants”. Seriously out of place. But most of all it revealled a lack of preparation. No one would plan to say this on during a Sunday morning service.

  2. Another word, which isn’t much in use any more anyway, is “Wight,” meaning brave or noble. “Mighty wight of you” (Bing Crosby, White Christmas) is likely to dig a bigger hole than “Niggardly.” But wasn’t Balaam’s steed a smart ass?

  3. Good article, Joe. Back when I was in Mississippi, I made the mistake of referring to John the Baptist as “looking like an escapee from Whitfield.” A member of the congregation had a family member at Whitfield, the state insane asylum. She was offended, and I apologized.

  4. This information is so timely. People in general seem to be more easily offended than ever. We too advise our young ministers to avoid certain words at any price. The “slang” words have severe meanings when they are researched in the Dictionary. I enjoyed reading your commentary.

    God bless,

    Ken and Yvonne Sullivan

    Pastors, First Assembly of God

    Mayo, Fl

  5. Dr. McKeever – May I offer an alternative to the usage of “race” which I have chosen to use? Our congregation is comprised of peoples from 25+ nations and countries of the world; however, instead of saying describing ourselves as a multi-racial church, we prefer to say that we are a multi-cultural church. Some may argue that this is simply an exercise in semantics. I contend that it is a strategic attempt to avoid offending some while still maintaining our identity.

  6. Joe: Very good article. Some words that should never be used in a derogatory way are the names of other denominations. When I pick on denominations I pick on the Baptists. We have enough problems in our own denomination that it ill behooves us to speak about others.

  7. Donald Cole, I really appreciated your comments. If we could all show this kind of sensitivity, how much more could we show the glory of God in our lives and the lives of our congregations?

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I forwarded it to a couple of pastors.

  8. May I clear my last statement by saying, in addition to showing my appreciation to Donald Cole in the comment section, I also, wanted to thank Joe McKeever for a the article titled, ‘Words to Avoid in the Ministry’.

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