Someone invented the telephone,

And interrupted a nation’s slumbers

Ringing wrong but similar numbers.

—Ogden Nash

The minister undisturbed night or day by wrong or right numbers has probably taken a hammer to his telephone. If it were only his slumber that was interrupted, or if the calls were only slips of the finger, he might feel less hostile toward Alexander Graham Bell’s invention that for nearly a century has sent profound thoughts fleeing at the ring of a bell.

Still, the telephone is important stock in the minister’s trade, ranking close behind his twenty-six Bible translations and favorite commentary. In a widespread or heavily populated parish he can let his fingers do some of the traveling. Being able to reach a parishioner in a few seconds frees the minister to increase his “calls” and extend their range beyond the traditional visits of comfort and counsel to congratulatory calls for birthdays, engagements, weddings, births, graduations, awards, and promotions. A clergyman’s call to commend a teen-ager on his scholastic achievement could do more than a week of Sundays to draw that young person to the church.

News of this sort usually abounds in the local paper—the source that salesmen use to sell everything from diaper service to magazines. The annoyance that telephone solicitors cause is probably directed less at their sales pitch than at the interruption they cause—a feeling with which the busy minister surely can empathize.

A telephone call is bound to intrude on something. To minimize its disruptive effects, and perhaps even make the interruption a pleasant break, the calling clergyman should (it hardly needs mention) be polite and gracious, should be careful of timing (not calling at dinner time, for example), and should not tie up the line too long. Sensitive, diplomatic calls require some care. The caller should develop an ear sensitive to background noises (such as children crying or a doorbell ringing) to emotional states (tension and depression are often detectable in tone of voice), and to nuances (a hesitant “No” in reply to the question “Am I interrupting anything?” may mean “I have an appointment in three minutes”).

Empathy and sensitivity are difficult enough to achieve in face-to-face encounters; in phone conversations—without gestures and facial expressions to help indicate what someone is really thinking—they are considerably harder. Telephoning, though, can hone those qualities, because good listening, listening for the meaning behind the words, is essential to sensitivity. Sensitive listening requires the caller to suspend his own thoughts and emotions and attempt to think and feel with the person on the other end of the line. In a word, a Christian word, it requires love. The minister will do well to back his telephone work with prayer and large measures of the fruit of the Spirit. It won’t hurt, either, to tape a copy of the Golden Rule on the cover of his phone directory.

The telephone can also help lighten a minister’s study load. Libraries often provide telephone information services that will verify facts or quotations he may want to include in a sermon. A wise minister will carefully check his references to topics outside his field: his congregation may include an expert on the subject.

If the cost ever becomes less prohibitive to underpaid clergymen, the telephone could provide the means for discussing theological trends, sermon ideas, and problems of church administration or counseling with colleagues across the country. Such conference calls could help keep ministers current in their own and related fields or just allow them to talk.

Occasionally the telephone might rouse the minister with a raucous jangle bringing news that Mr. So-and-So is threatening to jump out his tenth-floor apartment window and will pastor please come right over. Because of his commitment to serving people, the pastor may offer his phone number to those first notified of emergencies—police, police, firemen, rescue squads, hospitals, telephone operators—and ask to be called when a situation suggests that spiritual counsel would be welcome. Parents of lost children, for instance, might be grateful for the support of a minister while searchers comb nearby woods.

Suicide-prevention centers, hot lines to help with anything from venereal disease to loneliness, and, of course, a dial-a-prayer service are other valuable telephone services. No community lacks its share of problems, from drug abuse to boredom; if his town offers no place for people to take their troubles, a minister might spearhead a volunteer group to man telephones and at least listen.

Despite its potential for misuse and disruption, the telephone commands attention; James Thurber’s cartoon question—“Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?”—rings true. People do, of course, answer the phone. And therein lies a ministry.—JANET ROHLER GREISCH, Woodbridge, Virginia.

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