For two years it has been my privilege, since becoming emeritus, to meet with fellow ministers in all parts of the United States and several places in Canada. During one such meeting a year ago, I was asked to speak on “The Minister’s Image of Himself.” I asked, instead, that the ministers give what they thought was their own image. They were slow to start, but when they finally felt free they really responded. Rather than talk, we searched together. The insights that came forth, the hostility, frustration, and resentment that were resolved really made the three days a life-changing experience.
In another part of the country I met with 150 ministers as part of a preaching mission. During a morning hour from Monday through Friday I talked with them, and then offered to meet not more than 15 of the ministers in a therapy group at another hour. We were overwhelmed with the response.
THE HUNGER OF MINISTERS
I have permission to include some of the personal reports of these ministers. As each in the group shared together, amazing healing took place. The needs, as they were related, were more typical than I ever dreamed they would be before I started.
FIRST MINISTER: “I can’t tell you how deeply moved I am with the spirit here. Most speakers come to ‘tell us’ and for us to have a chance to talk, with you listening, is really too good to be true. I am frank to confess that you caught me at a point of staleness. The demands upon me, within the church and without, have left me barren in spirit and I am too busy even to pray and I feel that many of my sermons are just warmed-over dishes.”
SECOND MINISTER: I hardly know how to chat with this group about my feelings. After our session yesterday morning at 9, I went to my room really quite disturbed. I came to the conclusion that my seminary trained me for a church that does not exist.”
THIRD MINISTER: “Ed, your statement is rather a shock to me. You are one of the most successful ministers I know. In fact I have envied you. To be more truthful I have secretly hated you. I thought that you had everything you wanted and were everything you wanted to be. You don’t know what it means to me to realize that maybe all along you yourself have need. You have a ‘D.D.,’ you have a large church and a fine parsonage. I do not have an honorary degree. I have a small church, a small salary, and I have never been able really to get off the ground in my ministry. So I have talked love when actually so often I have been angry. This is a dilemma.”
FOURTH MINISTER: “The place where I would like to begin is, how I can meet the demands of my ministry and still fulfill the requirements of being a husband and father. Frankly, my relationship with my wife is not good. When I come home she begins complaining, and the result is that I work all the more. As soon as I enter the door, she starts working me over, which means that she has me in the doghouse most of the time, and then I start barking at her. One effect of this is that I over-react to criticism and hostility in my parish, and I also over-respond to a few women who are devoted to me. Right now I have two women in love with me and I am not sure what the outcome will be. They are in love with me because I have a need, and I have a need because my wife and I have lost some pages out of the book of our marriage. I think that it is more my fault than hers.”
FIFTH MINISTER: “The thing that jarred me in the first session yesterday morning was your description of the four kinds of ministers. I am distinctly of the “poor worm complex.” You startled me when you suggested that I focus on the power of the Lord rather than upon my own inability and limitations. I would like to work with you and the group to determine just where I can begin.”
SIXTH MINISTER: “I think my greatest concern is the fact that I am so busy with the details of running the church that I not only have never committed my life to prayer, but I am still running on concepts that I got from the seminary which were more verbalizations than descriptions of experiences. This means that so much of my preaching and teaching is just saying words, not guiding people in experience. You asked yesterday, ‘How many lives were changed under your preaching last year?’ Frankly, I can’t point to one, and to be honest, the Lord is not real to me. I don’t know how to describe the new birth experience; I have never led anyone to this experience—what is more, I myself have not been born again.”
SEVENTH MINISTER: “I never dreamed that I would be in a group where I would be free to say what I am saying to you men. No one here could be more hostile than I am. When I am driving down the street and see another car coming in the opposite direction, even though I don’t know the driver, I am actually overcome with hate for him. Yet I stand up trying to preach the gospel of love.”
NOT FREE TO MINISTER
Last summer I was asked to give a lecture series at a certain meeting, and I offered to lead two different therapy sessions. Here we had a chance to have 16 consecutive meetings with men who had come out of seminaries and who were filling important pulpits, yet (according to their letters) they were not free in Christ to minister. Many of them were filled with fear, resentment, or inferiority because they had no honorary degree, or they were moved from church to church with very little progress. Others were disturbed because they could not point to one changed life. Most all of them complained they felt spiritually barren.
I was asked to speak to 180 ministers for three days on the Church, its meaning, its nature, and its method. The men agreed instead to meet in small groups to explore and then to report their findings. All were shocked with the difficulty they experienced in putting into words the meaning and nature of the Church. They were surprised at how hard it was for them to make clear the message of the Church and to describe the meaning of the new birth. It was not easy for them to show people how to pray and how to know the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives. On another occasion Dr. Stanley McGee and I spent a day with 68 ministers in such a gathering. Only two made any profession of being committed to the life of prayer.
What does it mean to the local church? It means, first, that many ministers do not know how to start guiding their people into a vital relationship with God in which the Holy Spirit can do his work. And what is that work? Through the Holy Spirit each child is conceived and born into the Body of Christ, each person is born anew with the Holy Spirit, and each person then continues to open his life to Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit each person may grow from dependency through interdependency to wholesome and responsible independency by knowing the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Many ministers have no theology, their orientation is sociological and psychological. Or their theology is sociologically and psychologically irrelevant.
Much of today’s preaching is saying words but not guiding persons into thinking which leads to action. Many ministers either have no theology, which means that their orientation is essentially sociological and psychological, or else their theology is sociologically and psychologically irrelevant. Both situations are tragic.
Countless ministers are so overwhelmed by the demands of their churches that they have little time either for their own spiritual research or for the establishment of a real relationship with their families.
Other pastors need help in their preaching, in their pastoring, in their counseling, and in their training of the priesthood of the laity.
Many fall short in their ministry to children and youth, in their premarital counseling, and in dealing with grief and sickness.
Some either feel that they must play the hero in social action, or else retire and become harmless in the face of the great social questions.
Finally, the voice of the local church is amazingly silent today in the face of the threat of nuclear war and of world communism.
WORD TO THE SEMINARIES
Please forgive me then if I seem bold enough to offer some suggestions to the theological seminaries:
1. Find the ministers who are guiding their churches in a vital program of nurture from conception through all seasons of life, and bring them to the seminary for a week. Do not limit your convocations to prima donna preachers. (So often the great preachers deliver sermons which the listening pastor may “eat up,” but which may also intensify his feelings of guilt, self-hate, and frustration simply by the unfavorable contrast with his own efforts. How much better it would be if the great preacher listened more and then talked in the light of what he heard.)
Locate the churches where a real work is being done with children, youth, family life, lay leadership in parish work, Christian education, evangelism, administration, the development of dynamic stewardship, and a vital relation of the church to the community and to the Church of Jesus Christ. Bring together the ministers of these churches and some of their key laymen. Let the seminary professors share in what is said.
2. In searching for your next faculty member, would it be too much to ask you to stipulate that most, if not all, of the professors prove their ability in a parish situation before trying to train ministers? Even for the highly-specialized scholar, a parish background could ensure a greater degree of relevancy.
3. Teach the content courses on a creative basis with a syllabus. Let all content matter be presented by the students, with summaries and interpretations given by the professor. (Lecture courses make young preachers dependent, and they are a substitute for thinking. Lecturing is not education; it is pigeon-feeding.) In connection with these courses the students should be doing clinical work in parishes, helping people and groups to find a living theology, teaching the Scriptures, and helping groups come into an appreciation of the amazing history of the living church.
4. Whether the field be preaching, parish work, counseling, or the conduct of worship, the approach should be clinical and related to parish situations.
5. A seminar approach should be set up for first-year students, with all faculty members sharing. Small groups should report to the whole group on coming to know the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and learning how to lead others into that knowledge.
6. Establish therapy sessions for second-year students to help each young person find maximum freedom to love and be loved, to deal with all types of parish situations, to know freedom of health and growth so he will ever be responsive to the truth.
7. Third-year students should carry on a program of training in the life of prayer and of the Spirit. This program is expected to grow as the student leads his own people in their prayer life.
8. Let the seminary student learn in his third year how to lead his parish in creative Christian action according to the principles of Jesus Christ.
9. Before he graduates, teach the young minister how to deal with hostility, with over-aggressive members of his church, with lonely women, and with the various psychopathic types. Show him how to grow to the place where he has no need either to be a “hate” or a “love” object; or if he has such a need, how to recognize it and how to handle it.
10. In his final year at seminary, help the student to bring into being small personal growth groups. In these, prayer becomes not just an act but a way of life.
There is more that is on my heart. How can the theological seminary itself become more than a seminary? How can it meet the requirements for intellectual excellence and scholarship today, and still become a life-changing fellowship of the living Christ in which great souls come to be born? Discipline is discipleship, intuitive contagion caught from a leader. We need men and women alive in Christ, and fully free to open their lives to him and then for him.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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