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The Minister



HY is the minister what he is? That is a question that has been troubling me for a long time. It really is a troublesome question. That the minister is different no one will deny; but why is he different? He is the spiritual guardian of a flock, he is, in many instances, dressed in different clothes, he stands in a pulpit, he has a choir at his command, he is elevated above his people and speaks down to them. The church atmosphere gives his words a curious solemnity and a power of penetration that sets him apart from other men. That he is set apart from other men is the first fact about him. Whether that adds to the efficacy of his ministration is a question that has not received the scrutiny it merits.

In the current discussions of the minister's place in the community, of the influence of the church, of the power and place of the ministry, there ought to be room for a dispassionate study of the ministerial function as it affects the minister. The thing I am pondering is this: can the minister do the things that are expected of him, and yet be a different kind of person from what he is? What does the ministry do to the man who enters it? That is the question I wish to raise in this essay, and raise it with all diffidence and sincerity. I am wondering whether we do not blame the minister

for the things that are due to the function rather than to the man. A job sets its mark on a man. What does the ministry do to the one who accepts its calling?

The minister is taxed beyond mercy. I mean spiritually taxed. He is compelled by the nature of his function to share in the joys and the sorrows of his parishioners. He must go from a wedding to a funeral not only the same day, but sometimes in the same hour. He is expected to perform the most sacred and the most sensitive office at each of these highly charged moments. Theoretically, at least, he must participate emotionally in the thing he does; he must not only have the appropriate word, but the appropriate emotion, the proper intonation of the voice, the proper look on his face, the proper gesture. He must actually appear sorry at the funeral and joyful at the wedding, and actually to appear that, he must be so. That, however, is a drain upon the emotions which few men can sustain. One would have to be an emotional genius to share spontaneously the feelings of the folk to whom one is ministering. Most people are not gifted that way. The function, therefore, tends to become a formal matter. Inevitably and despite the minister's sincerity, it becomes a thing of the surface, a manifest or manifested thing, a facial matter.

The minister must keep his face in readiness for all possible emotional ventures. When his bell rings, he must be ready for the extremes: it may be a birth, a death, a wedding. He must be attuned. To be attuned to all things is to be tuneless. To be ready for everything is to be ready for nothing. To share in every emotion is to share no emotion. To be solemn about everything is to make solemnity a matter of form and formula. That seems to be the first misfortune of the minister. He is spiritually overtaxed; he is emotionally drained. The face of the average minister shows that. The cartoonist who draws the expressionless long face, with its absence of lines, only exaggerates; but the exaggeration bespeaks the fact that lies at the bottom. Not only must he be ready for all emotions, but he must be ready for them at all times. His own feelings are beside the point. His ministry comes first, and his own feelings come last. He is thus subordinated, cramped, stifled, and made to give the proper tune to the proper setting without consideration of the man himself.


Probably only second in importance to the emotional drain upon the minister is the significant fact that he is expected to preach a doctrine of perfectibility, and, strangely enough, a perfectibility that is mainly negative. It is an elaboration of the ten commandments, and that is mainly a long series of don'ts-don'ts about positive things. And where the doctrine is positive, it is generally in the intangible, in the realm beyond doing. The minister is paid not only to preach, but to practise his own doctrines. He

becomes the standard for all that is moral and perfect. Really, he is a kind of scapegoat for the man in the pew. The parishioner achieves goodness, forgiveness, morality, salvation, at the hands of the minister, but largely through the apparent life and teachings of the minister. It is a kind of vicarious salvation, vicarious morality, vicarious perfectibility. The minister is watched. Every one of his moves has a meaning; he must not be seen or heard or suspected or doubted of any of the things that common men do. He must be the visible incarnation of the virtues he preaches; it is really that which he is paid for rather than the preaching. No minister could long hold his job if he were to fall below the assumed perfectibility which attaches to him. He is, therefore, selfconscious. So many people are watching him that self-consciousness is inevitable. Self-consciousness is, however, concomitant mainly with a consciousness of one's weaknesses. And that is a tragedy for the minister. He falls short of his own doctrines. He knows he does. All men do. And yet he cannot make a public confession of that simple human fact. He must therefore pretend. I do not mean conscious and deliberate pretense, but an involuntary pretense. He must hide his real feelings. He must put on a covering of formula and make believe.

I am not suggesting that the average minister is subject to great failings. The average human being is not a great sinner, and the average minister is an average human being who has to live a pretense of being above the things he is. That makes the little sins seem great. The minor transgressions are magnified out of all importance. If only the minister

could be a good fellow as well as a good man, if only he could give vent to his emotions! If only one could be human! The great sinner looks upon great sins with less sensitiveness than the virtuous minister upon the little doubts and misgivings. If only the minister could harden his soul! But that is a difficult, if not an impossible, task. If he is to preach day in and day out-well, preaching must be more than sound; he must believe what he preaches. His own evil, slightly evil, nature makes that impossible, and he becomes to himself a hypocrite and for others a firebrand. One wonders whether this moral strenuousness for other people's behavior is not a kind of bolstering of his own courage, a kind of shouting to keep the sound of his own faith ringing in his ears and drowning the callings of the little things. He exaggerates the shortcomings of other people because the petty things he may not do seem to have enormous charm when done by other people. One wonders whether the minister would not have both time and effective energy for the bigger things in life if he were not spending so much of it in constantly bolstering a weak human nature along a straight and narrow path, all on account of the petty things that count so little in the daily life of people, but which may be exaggerated beyond measure by an overtaxed imagination. It is a strange and morbid strain for one human being to be always suspecting others because one exaggerates one's own failings and shortcomings. And yet if he is to preach a doctrine of perfectibility, and he must preach that, he is driven into living it outwardly by the demands of his flock and is equally driven to a cankerous

existence inwardly because he is not what he pretends to be.


There is also the fact that the minister is every man's friend. He is every man's man. He must have time for everybody. He must be at everybody's beck and call. No one is too mean, too weak, too repulsive; he is literally every one's servant, and an unpaid servant. You have to pay your doctor, you have to pay your lawyer; but you can take your troubles to the minister for nothing, and, what is more, he must listen to you. You are dependent upon the lawyer, upon the doctor; but the minister is dependent upon you. And people have no mercy. The minister is forced to hide himself inside of his own skin, the only available hiding-place. He must hide his feelings. He must always smile. He must always say the kindly, encouraging word, always be polite, always be gentle; even in his anger he must be gentle. If only he were allowed the emotional freedom to swear and snarl occasionally, as men do! So the minister withdraws himself into a self-protective covering: a rather hard skin, an all too knowing look, an expressionless face, a rather somber attitude, and, what is worst of all, rather too glib a promise of help from some external force, which becomes a hackneyed formula.

This last factor is very important indeed and gives a peculiar tone to the whole ministerial function. He is called to minister to man in his most sensitive moments. He is the friend at death, at birth, at a wedding, at sickness, at misfortune; at all of the most meaningful hours of man's existence the minister comes to do his

ministry. He is like a doctor for all specialties, but lacks the doctor's technic, which draws upon the doctor's real interests and powers. Sickness in the family constitutes a problem for the doctor; for the minister it becomes an occasion for an emotional palliative, a little like the lawyer, but with less self-assurance, and with less self-interest in the securing of a favorable outcome. For even the lawyer has something at stake, a point that he can make in some emergency. The minister is deprived of even that mental comfort. He can come and share the tears and thus lighten the burden. But the point is that he comes to lighten the burden, to lift the depression, to sanction the joy, and all he has is a word. It may be a kind word, a soothing word, a reproving word, a word of promise, of warning; little beyond a word. There is, however, no eternal magic in words. It is this that leads to a certain shallowness, a certain glibness, and an easy superficiality. He must pass judgment upon everything, and do it with a degree of authoritativeness that is bad for the minister because the demands that are made upon him are so variegated that no one man could speak with authority or even helpfulness on all of them.

This is particularly noticeable in the addresses a minister has to make. The minister has to preach every Sunday. Sometimes he preaches twice on Sunday. In some churches the minister is expected to preach during the week as well, and of course at all sorts of special occasions. Every social function of importance in the town makes a demand upon the minister. He is the one person who has to be heard from. He is expected to be clever,

entertaining, informing, inspiring, and above all authoritative. Every public subject is his subject. Every matter of great concern is his concern first of all. He must possess both wisdom and knowledge and be profound and incisive beyond other men. But the point at issue is more than that. He is so busy talking that he has not the time to learn the things he is talking about. Superficiality is inevitable. Even more deadly, however, than this is the simple fact that he must depend upon words and sound for his effectiveness, and the only thing one can do under such conditions is to be superficial, general, and touching; that is, sentimental. By being sentimental, I mean he must appeal to those things about which the community's sentiment is closely knit. That makes him platitudinous. Having to say so much he can say only very little, and that a repetition of things said before. I am far from enumerating all of these things and chronicling them as failings of the minister. I am simply indicating the fact that if the minister were much greater than he generally is, much more learned, much more full of energy, much more aggressive, he could not do all of the things or half of the things that he has to do, and do them effectively, sincerely, and usefully. He is drained, overtaxed, and overstrained. He is sacrificed to the community, and is its scapegoat.


All of these factors tend to conspire to give the minister an unreal perspective upon life. He is so much driven in upon himself, he is compelled to draw upon his own resources to so great a degree, that he turns his eyes, so to speak, upon himself, and seeks

for inspiration from some internal fountain. He becomes both subjective and isolated. It drives him to exaggerating the significance of inspiration, contemplation, self-analysis, calling upon his own spiritual resources, and tends by that much to make him withdraw from the world, and the farther he withdraws, the more dogmatic and simple become his judgments of it. In a sense he becomes saintly, leaves the conflict, and retreats to an even and unruffled spiritual state of being which is compressed into a formula-and then he passes judgment upon a world of which he knows little. It is natural that just because he knows so little he behaves as if he knew so much. It is this fact that gives the minister the general reputation of being unpractical and unreal in his judgment of the world about him.

But all of this is still more complicated by the fact that the minister is looked upon as the leader of the community. He stands on a high pedestal. The church atmosphere, the organ, the painted windows, the silence, the solemnity, set him off and apart from his fellows. There is something of enchantment and mystery about him. Wisdom must flow from the fountainhead, and what the poor overtaxed man can give is mere words, and sometimes dull ones at that. He must stand a little straighter, keep himself aloof, talk dogmatically, and be just a little above his fellows. That makes the minister a rather lonesome man, spiritually. He cannot share himself with his fellows; he must share the pretended, artificial self with them. He does that unconsciously, of course, but that only makes him a more unfortunate person still. He gradually

identifies himself with the thing people. think he is, and his real self goes withering away, and his real personality loses its force and character and significance.

Nor does the story end here. He is compelled to steer between the various persons and parties in his congregation, like a skilled rower between reefs. He must not offend anybody; and that is not easy. His congregation is to be placated, pleased, entertained, and sustained; but he must not run against its intellectual prejudices. His ideas must be proper. His attitudes must be those that the congregation recognizes as its own. ognizes as its own. His manners must be perfect, and his opinions must chime with the accepted prejudices. He must please every one except himself. He must be opinionful and therefore really be opinionless. He must be counted on each side, and therefore runs the risk of not counting at all. He must agree with all men at all times, and therefore agree with no men at any time. That is probably his greatest misfortune. It makes him powerless except in the things that the congregation is already agreed upon, and therefore the one place where he can have influence is the place where his influence is least useful and most harmless. He is a spiritual nonentity. He has to be or he cannot remain as a minister. I am simply saying that the congregation makes a scapegoat of its minister, but thinks that it is making a leader of him.


This intellectual stagnation is made more difficult by the petty human jealousies that the minister, and especially his wife, have to tolerate. The minister's wife must not dress too

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