The Country Minister

To business men of a country town the minister appears to lead an easy life. ‘Just think of it,’ they say, ‘nothing to do but prepare two sermons a week — and all the remainder of the time to enjoy himself! ’ The merchant who spends ten hours a day, six days of the week, at desk or counter; the professional man with his long hours of study and anxiety; the laborer with weary home-comings — all think such duties much less than their own. Not until the preacher is followed from Sunday to Sunday is it realized how far from complete is the showing.

To-day religious effort is systematized through church organization, and its leaders take on responsibilities commensurate with the larger field. As he comes down town Monday morning, stopping at the postoffice for a chat, at the corner for a greeting, or dropping into the newspaper office to look at the exchanges, the minister knows no moment when he does not feel himself a link in his church’s onward movement.

He may be called to defend his profession in most unexpected places. The other day, on a slow-moving freight train, hours behind time, dragging its rumbling length over a branch railway, the passengers gathered at the end of the ill-smelling coach and talked as friends in discomfort. Somehow, the conversation turned to religious affairs, and a cattleman delivered some ponderous remarks concerning Bible history, highly colored with disbelief. After he had held the floor for some time a quiet young man came forward and asked, as if for information, ‘My friend, can you read Hebrew ?’

‘No, I never studied things like that,’ admitted the cattleman.

‘How about Latin and Greek?’

‘Never went to college,’ was the grudging answer.

‘Have you read Plutarch or Herodotus in translation?’

‘N-no.’

‘Well, I have studied the Scriptures in three languages and have spent years on ancient history. It seems to me that you ought to learn something before you presume to criticize.’ Then he gave the little audience a straightforward talk on the Word, taking up every assertion of the unbeliever’s argument and disposing of it. At the end the passengers applauded, and the cattleman was heard no more. The quiet young man was pastor of a little church in a prairie village, but he dwelt in an atmosphere of study and militant religious effort.

Doubtless the pastor of a country church to-day does escape some of the hardships that attended the position a half-century ago. The work of the country-town minister to-day is greatly changed from that of the old-time itinerant, seedy of appearance, who expected to gain full reward for faithfully performed labors in the next world rather than in this. As in other professions, new elements have entered, and the minister has advanced with the times. He fills a different place in the community life; his field has enlarged with the broader civilization and the myriad new problems.

Most important of all is the extension of organization, for there has been as vast an increase in organization in religious activities as in business. Be it conference, synod, or association, to which he pays allegiance, the pastor is no more an independent worker. This does not mean a lack of the missionary spirit that has animated men since the beginning of time. For instance: a young man and a young woman graduated together from a small college, married, and went out to their chosen work. In a two-room sod house, eight miles from town, on a homestead, with their three small children, they live close to Nature. The husband has charge of four widely separated congregations, driving his circuit with a sturdy pony and a cart. How they exist is a wonder, yet he gave cheerful testimony: ‘There is so much good to do for these people — it is a blessed work for them and my church.’ With him always is the zeal for the larger association and the thought of its advancement.

But his hardship is exceptional. In older-settled communities the country minister may live among his people, but there is no isolation, for farms are small and neighbors near. In newer states the ministers, for the most part, live in town; congregations in rural districts are served by going to them, rather than by locating with them. It is the opinion of many that there are too many church organizations represented in the American village. The directory of one typical western city shows a population of forty-four hundred. In it are fourteen church organizations, all but one having church buildings and maintaining paid pastors. With the attendance from the surrounding country districts, less than a thousand families are served, including those with no church affiliations. Outside three leading denominations, the pastors have small salaries and speak to small congregations. Yet none would for a moment consider consolidation, whatever might be the argument for greater efficiency and power. The missionary spirit must abide with the larger part of these workers, else there could not be sustained effort. Occasionally a preacher grows weary of the struggle to make grocery bills and salary checks meet, resigns and moves away — but there is always another to carry on the task.

If the country minister remains a few years in a community he becomes a father-confessor to many families. In this age of unrest, of varying fortunes and of soaring ambition, two individuals especially are sources of advice to the family — the banker and the pastor. The one is consulted from necessity, the other from choice. Through the week the burdens of the heartbroken, of the desolate, of the discouraged, of the perplexed, come to the ears of the pastor. His sympathies are drawn upon and his assistance is asked in the most momentous affairs of life. He may wreck a promising career, he may lift a fainting soul to heights of usefulness. If he be a man of judgment and courage, he exerts an influence that cannot be measured, and leaves an impress that witnesses to his own usefulness. He carries with him a sense of accountability of which the business man in his narrow channel of daily interests knows nothing, and of which none but himself can have full understanding. His is a life of consecration to community-interests. The minister who loses ground does so because he fails to view his calling from this plane of everyday relations to his people and confines himself to his appearance in the pulpit, often the least of his opportunities for helpfulness.

Not every man is qualified to be a community-adviser, and fortunate is the congregation that possesses a pastor gifted with honesty of purpose and great common sense. He will be called on to settle many things — most of them affairs of which the outside world never hears. There are the father and mother, with a daughter for whose future they are anxious. Shall she be sent to college at the sacrifice of family funds, or shall she seek employment in store or office? Shall the son go to the city to make his own way, or shall he be kept at home? The pastor listens to all the arguments, reads in the parents’ words the longing of their hearts, but knows the children, too. He is certain that the daughter will not use the college education wisely, that the son needs the utmost guardianship of the home — but what shall he say? The widow who needs advice is less of a problem than the unhappy wife who asks for guidance in her marital affairs. Perhaps a family can be saved by the right word at this time. It requires much knowledge of the heart to say it.

The stranger within the town’s gates goes first to the parsonage. He is penniless, has rich relations or money coming to him; can he be helped? The city preacher is not the only one who is misled by tales of hard luck. Frequently his country brother yields to persuasion and contributes money which he sorely needs himself and which, when he finds he has been duped, he deeply regrets — for there is small recompense for misplaced charity in the consciousness of attempted Christian service. The agent who desires his approval of a set of books is a caller. On the pastor’s recommendation perhaps many families will buy. Shall he be encouraged out of good-nature? These and other problems come before him, and he has no position isolated by formality into which he may retire; he must meet all his parish face to face to-day and to-morrow, must receive the criticism and take the blame if he follows the wrong course. Little wonder that his daily walk is far from the popular idea of a flower-strewn way, ‘with nothing to do but prepare two sermons a week.’

If the country minister is burdened with the trials of families already formed, he is made a part of the joy attending the starting of a new household. The bashful couple that knocks at the parsonage door on a summer evening, and in the little parlor, with the minister’s wife as witness, enters the married life, is but one and perhaps the least interesting phase of this pleasant part of the pastor’s work. Nor does the town wedding, with its pomp, its bridesmaids and groomsmen, its decorations and its formalities, furnish the only cheer.

One day the telephone calls and a voice comes from the farmer’s line, ten miles away: ‘Will you marry me the fifteenth of next month?’ The name and place follow. Smilingly he replaces the receiver. On the appointed date a buggy drives to the parsonage. A farmer boy, uncomfortable in unaccustomed ‘store clothes,’ is ready to ‘take out the preacher,’ a distinguished honor. The affair is an important event — all weddings are important, but none more so than the one in the country. The family of the bride has lived long in the community; every neighbor for miles around is invited. The furniture has been set out of doors to make room for the guests. The crowd fills every available spot from kitchen to parlor. The bride’s mother is nervously effusive, the father is doing his best to make himself useful. A score of questions await the minister’s decision: Where shall the bridal couple stand? What shall be the order of precedence? A hurried rehearsal is held in the upstairs bedroom, the bashful groom stumbling over every possible obstacle, the bride answering at the wrong place in the service. In the bay window of the parlor a bower of lace, vines, and rugs has been arranged. The organist of the neighborhood is playing a soulful love-ballad. Deftly, from much experience, the minister guides the palpitating bridal party from stairway to window-nook and performs the ceremony.

The gowns are unostentatious, there are no trains, no dress-suits — but there is a sweet simplicity sometimes lacking on more elaborate occasions. Then come congratulations. The pretty bride is kissed by every young man of the neighborhood, despite her frantic efforts to avoid it. There is laughter and hearty good-will. The minister sits at the head of a long table; supper is served — a bounteous, over-whelming supper, with all the skill of an expert housewife’s effort expended on its preparation. It is rich with the product of farm, garden, and dairy, satisfying in every feature. It may lack cut glass and solid silver, it is not served by trained waiters, but it has a homelikeness that appeals to every guest. Following may come songs and a good old-fashioned visit, for the neighbors do not often come together on social occasions.

Suddenly breaks out the inevitable charivari—what would a country wedding be without it! Tin pans, shotguns, yells, and every noise that healthy country boys can devise, make the night hideous. The groom pretends to be much vexed, the bride appears frightened — but at heart they feel that it is in a way a tribute to their popularity. They know how to stop it — the serenaders are taken to the kitchen and given the ‘treat’ they had expected.

By and by the bride and groom drive away. They have gone, as the local paper will say in its report next week, ‘to the groom’s fine farm, where has been fitted up for them a commodious residence.’

The preacher and his wife are taken back to town by their former driver, and as they jog over the country roads the sound of the company’s parting dies; they talk of the hospitality enjoyed, of the fine young couple launched on wedded life, and of the good people they have met. At home the preacher takes from his pocket a ten-dollar bill, lays it on the dresser and considers the evening well spent.

Other duties come that have a more sombre side. Sorrow as well as joy is shared with the minister. When death comes to the farm home it means experiences not met when there is death on the avenue. The little dwelling is far from town, the family is perhaps crowded for room. The roads are rough and the storms severe. Again the neighbor-boy drives to town for the minister to conduct the service. If it be held at the house there is no possibility for the flower-laden, softening atmosphere of the city parlor. Family and friends are gathered around the coffin. The singers are beside the minister. Or there is service in the little country church, and the friends and neighbors sit on wooden benches, listening to words of sympathy and consolation. It is expected that there will be a sermon — it would seem out of place to have a short and formal service. So the minister fulfills that duty fully. Then he waits until all have filed in single row past the coffin, each attendant stopping for a long look at the form lying silent.

It is a slow ride to the last restingplace. No matter what the weather, no matter how unaccustomed to biting winds the preacher may be, he heads the procession that travels, perhaps for miles, to the graveyard. Desolate is the country cemetery! Often it is bare of trees, and seems a neglected spot whose space the farms begrudge. If out on the plains, its boundary is a barbed-wire fence, its sod the original prairie grass that once knew the footprint of the buffalo. The care and adornment that mark the town cemetery are seldom found in it—yet around it centres the same love and tenderness. The minister is conscious of all this as he stands with bared head performing the final rites. He knows that there is left a family that must go back to a farmhouse to face a keen intensity of loneliness. Then comes the long ride back to town, and he reaches home chilled and weary.

If he be popular and has been long a resident of the place, he pays the price in scores of such trips during the year. Sometimes they come in such frequency that he has scarcely time in which to prepare his pulpit addresses. He exhausts his supply of nervous energy as well as his reserve of consoling words. Seldom is there financial recompense. The newer sections of the country have not yet reached the point in their development when their people expect to remunerate a minister for a funeral service. Of course he does not make a charge; he is willing to do his best to fulfill his priestly office in time of grief; but he sees the undertaker paid, the other expenses of the occasion met, and sometimes as he rests from a long, soul-disturbing afternoon he wonders if he also ought not to have some other recognition than thanks. When it does come he appreciates it, not for the money itself, but because it expresses in a concrete way the sentiment of those he has served. Some day there will be recognized the same obligation to the minister who officiates at a funeral as is unquestioningly felt toward him who is the representative of church or state at a wedding — and the country minister is willing that that day shall arrive.

Even with the service his task is not always ended. There may be a request that he write a lengthy obituary for the local paper, and that he have published a card of thanks ‘to all the kind friends and neighbors who assisted us in our late bereavement.’ When he has fulfilled these requests he may be excused for feeling his responsibilities exceedingly well performed and for hoping that he may receive therefor a heavenly reward.

The necessity of calling on the members of his church occupies a vast portion of his time, and robs him of many hours needed for study. The city pastor, with his card-case, a carriage and driver, may make twenty calls in the afternoon. His country brother cannot so simply do his duty. Every family must have at least one visit during the year, not to mention one or two formal calls, if possible. The preacher and his wife must spend the evening or a part of the afternoon in a formal stay when the men are at home. The history and experiences of every member of the family are rehearsed — the time when Willie had the measles, the pain grandpa endured when his team ran away and broke his shoulder, and the adventures of Uncle Jim in the army. ‘ I have one hundred and forty families in my church,’ said a conscientious pastor. ‘ I take out of the year one hundred and forty evenings for visits, which means about every available night when weather is suitable. Did I not do it, my people would fail to keep up their interest in the work and my board would ask an accounting.’

Owing to the complexity of church organization, the minister is of necessity the vehicle through which every order from higher authorities is transmitted to his congregation; likewise he carries the message from his subordinate laborer to the people. He must meet with the committees on prayer meeting, Sunday school, missions, and various other activities, present their plans and put them into operation. He is almost certain to be afflicted with a stubborn deacon who can always find excuse to start trouble, who ‘ allows ’ that ‘th’ sermon was n’t quite up to the mark to-day,’ or bemoans the fact that somebody was offended by plain speaking. However, the deacon is more easily borne than the over-officious sister who feels called upon to report to the aid society all the shortcomings of the pastor’s wife and household, and whose visits partake of the nature of licensed inspection. Years of service may accustom the minister to these visitations, but he never learns to welcome them.

Along with other duties the countrytown minister must do his share in the general social activity of the community. Should he refuse, it means that he loses much in standing and usefulness. Does the Ancient Order of Trustful Knights have a banquet, who but the preacher is so fitted to deliver the principal address on the good of the order? Does the Ladies’ Literary Club have an open meeting, who else can so well occupy the evening with an address on ‘The Renaissance of Greek Poetry’? Is there a mass meeting for a charitable object, who but the preachers are to make the appeal from the stage of the opera house? Who else is to conduct the lecture course, see that the Carnegie library is managed satisfactorily, and take part in the exercises of flagraisings and public holidays? To accomplish all this calls for a large fund of information and familiarity with the world’s doings. The minister cannot be a mere bookworm, buried in his study of biblical literature — he must be an active force among men. He fills a place that the old-time country preacher knew not in so large degree.

Out of all this activity he gains greater hold on the community, enhances the work of his church, and increases his own power. He realizes this, but sometimes wonders if the diversion of his talents in many directions is best after all. When he has spent a particularly wearing week in multifarious calls, he comes to the pulpit with some misgivings. He is thankful that he does not have to face a critical audience. To be sure, there are probably several college graduates before him, but they, too, have been busy and are sympathetically inclined. It is one of the solaces of the cultured minister that wherever he goes he finds men and women who have reached high planes of thought. In the unpretentious farmhouse may be found on the parlor wall a university diploma, instead of a steel engraving of Washington Crossing the Deleware, or a view of Napoleon’s Tomb. He meets in his rounds earnest students who have not forgotten their Latin and psychology, who read the best books and periodicals. ‘They must be nice people — they take such good magazines,’was the report of a rural carrier when asked regarding a new family just moved to a western farm. So the minister is inspired to live up to the best that is in him; whether speaking in a country schoolhouse or in his comfortable church, he is ever cognizant of unceasing appeal to the best that is in him.

Whether or not he have strong political opinions, it is necessary that there be some attention given to affairs of state; but the wise minister refrains from expressing extreme sentiments. Should he forget himself and go deeply into a campaign, he is likely to regret it after election. This does not, however, prevent him from belonging to one of the national parties, and he holds the respect of the men of his church when he frankly takes his position. Endeavoring to conceal political preference for fear of giving offense, is poor policy, and few ministers adopt it. With the matter of secret societies and lodges it is different. ‘I have allowed my membership in several lodges to lapse,’said one country minister, ‘not because of any fault with the organization, but because I found that to be an active member meant the withdrawal of a certain amount of energy from my church work in which it is needed.’ On the other hand, many ministers say their lodge associations help them in church work by bringing them in touch with the men of the community in a place where all meet as equals. The idea of rivalry between lodge and church has largely passed away, and the two are understood as supplementing each other in the accomplishment of good things for the community-life.

So with the Sunday school, which is depended upon to recruit the church membership, and in the country town outstrips the maturer congregation in members. It holds forth in the country schoolhouse during a part of the year, then rests until there comes another season of interest. The farmer and his family may maintain this school, but the minister must be there sometimes if it is to be established with any certainty of good. So on Sunday afternoon he drives out and gives a talk to the children. In his home church he is expected to take an active interest in this part of the work — and if his wife does not teach a class she is by some considered as falling below the proper measure of a helpmate. At every religious festival the minister must assist in the Sunday-school celebration, and always he must advise and counsel with the superintendent. The school’s progress depends, in the last analysis, on the pastor’s tact and his ability to set strong men and women to work.

In this age of varied directness of religious effort, the minister is likely to seek methods of adding to the uplift of his parishioners through the introduction of semi-worldly enterprises. The organization of brotherhoods, with their impetus toward good citizenship, social betterment, and the physical development of their members, is but one of the more popular of these methods. They are aimed at securing the attention of the men — the women will come of their own accord.

‘The hardest problem of the country minister,’ said one who is an enthusiast in such matters, ‘is to secure the presence and coöperation of the men. Out of the large number who nominally belong to the congregation, comparatively few can be reached and held. It is not that, as in the city, there are many counter-attractions, — for these are less numerous in a country community, — but because of an indifference that is difficult to analyze and to overcome. The demand for the church’s assistance in a prosperous country town, with no vicious criminal classes, no slums, no tenement districts, no great crying field for charity,—simply the exposition of every-day Christianity, — does not make to many men a strong appeal. It lacks the spectacular, and perhaps that accounts in some degree for the inertia. It is not hostility; it is merely unwillingness to act; but it can be aroused when needed to carry on any good work.’

So the minister, with his desire to build up the congregation and to meet the competition that exists because of the many others working to the same end, strives to interest the men. He dislikes to feel that any of his members are, as one expressed it, ‘loafing on the job.’ He knows that the end of the year will bring a necessity for meeting obligations — not alone his own salary, which is none too munificent, but the benevolences of the church. When he packs his suit-case and starts for the annual convocation of his synod or conference, he is conscious of a justifiable satisfaction if he can report that every fund has been filled.

The itinerant evangelist is one of the agents used to bring new activity into the religious life of the town. He is usually accompanied by a singer, and for a week or a month exhorts and calls to repentance. When he comes with a wholesome message, with enthusiasm and the ability to present his cause in a winning way, he does much good. He puts new life into the work, starts the town to talking about religious things, and brings many to a sense of responsibility toward the church and its mission. But he may be of the sensational variety, seeking self-glorification as well as the accomplishment of reform. Then he writes for the local papers glowing reports of his own sermons and takes delight in a wholesale denunciation of whatever he considers the town’s chief faults. This makes leading citizens angry, but he cares not. He preaches one sizzling sermon on dancing and another on card-playing, and he is the topic of conversation during his stay. A census of conversions is published daily, and at the end a handsome contribution, nearly equal to the pastor’s salary for a year, is presented to him.

Thereupon the professional revivalist moves on, and the hard-working minister resumes his task. After a few weeks comes relaxation. One sister gives a bridge-whist party, and some of the young folks indulge in a ball. So the burden is back on his own shoulders; he it is who must hold the church to its accustomed standard, and be responsible for its ultimate success — a duty far different from that of the evangelist, calling for more sustained power and for established consistency in word and act.

Every minister has an ambition to leave his church better than he found it. If the building be scant in proportions, he strives to inspire his congregation to build a new one or to enlarge the present structure. That means a great deal of money. It must come usually not from the congregation alone, but from many outside contributions. The business men, feeling that it is a good thing to strengthen religious work, are liberal givers. So the contract is let when a part of the money is raised, and when the work is completed, the minister and his helpers struggle to complete the payment. Sometimes it is easy — sometimes not. When one denomination takes this course, others are convinced that it is their duty to do likewise. One church after another is reconstructed, and only those immediately concerned with the finances realize just how difficult is the task.

Of late years, with greater prosperity among the members, church contributions have increased. The minister is better paid; he depends less on donation parties, with their heterogeneous collection of undesirable provender, and receives his salary with greater regularity. He shares in the prosperity of his parishioners, and is able to conduct the business end of his profession with more system. This enhances his self-respect, makes his service more efficient, and gives him a position in the community that enables him to accomplish larger things. Needless to say he does not lay up riches in this world. With a yearly stipend that may reach $1200, and a parsonage, he manages to pay the family bills — and little more. This is not the usual figure, however; when the wage falls to $800 or $600, the struggle with his bank-account is perpetual. The minister and his wife must dress well enough to be presentable in any company; their home must be fit for the visit of any parishioner; indeed, it is a stopping-place for many a wanderer who ought to have tact enough to go to a hotel.

The attitude of the business men toward the ministers, even though there be more churches than are really needed for the size of the town, is one of encouragement. To all the multifarious calls they are found willing givers within their ability. If detailed to a special work, they do it gladly so far as their power extends. Occasionally in the membership are one or two families of wealth that unquestioningly make good all deficits, but generally the population of the country town is pretty much on a level. Good times are diffused over all; business depression is felt uniformly.

Because of this common level the minister is called on to lead few crusades. He has no benighted districts into which he must carry personal warfare against bitter opposition. There may be, and frequently are, times when he joins with the good citizen in curbing an evil tendency, and often he is met by unforeseen outbreaks of lawlessness that call for quick action, levelheaded judgment, and courage. If he be not content to take a moderate view and be inclined to force special ideas, it is likely that he will not remain a country minister, but will find his field in the service of some reform work of different scope. The pastor’s work does not call for perpetual display of fireworks; it requires rather sympathetic helpfulness for men and women who are doing their daily task with anxiety for material success, often against odds, and who are willing to be assisted but cannot be coerced.

The country press gives to the minister and to the church ungrudging aid. The minister seldom finds in the local paper the embarrassment met by his fellow worker in the city, where sensational reports and more sensational headlines may exploit some trivial statement or unimportant action into undesired prominence. His publicity department is his own, and with it he can accomplish much. He may be the author of the reports of his weddings, his funerals, his special services — the editor asking only that he furnish legible copy.

Occasionally a country minister, nervous and high-strung, feels hampered for a time by this yearly round. He wonders why he cannot arouse in the community the enthusiasm he imagines follows the efforts of city preachers whose portraits and interviews occupy liberal space in city papers. He longs for more action, more excitement, and rebels at the weight of his burden. After he has become acquainted with his people, after he knows intimately their daily life and learns their merit and limitations, his view changes. He knows then that the country neighborhood, or the country town, has a high level of morality; that if it does not glow with exaltation, neither does it descend to depths of degradation; that instances of marked wickedness are isolated, that the men and women as a whole are well-behaved, trying to be good citizens and to bring up their families in honor and good-will. Because he can assist them in this, and can fill so large a place in their daily life, the man with consecration in his heart and good sense in his head, has a rare opportunity. It depends entirely upon himself how much he shall accomplish. He may remain in his study; he may polish his sermons in preference to improving his acquaintance with the everyday folk of congregation and neighborhood; he may assume extreme dignity and dwell aloof; but if he does so he is the exception, for the country minister of to-day is a man among men, filling a man’s place in the civic life while occupying the position of a representative of a higher calling.

As his children grow up, the minister seeks a change to a college town where they can obtain an education while living at home. He is thankful for the abundance of small colleges; it gives him better opportunity to secure this boon. Sometimes he leaves the ministry at this period and goes into business to secure a competence for the possible rainy day. Not always does he succeed; the profession he has followed so many years has given little training for money-making, and he is exceptional if he be a success in his new field. Perhaps gifted with his pen, he manages to earn extra money by contributing to church papers or to the magazines. His success here depends largely on his ability to group helpful suggestions and timely topics in attractive prose. Usually he looks forward to the fund for the superannuated as a pension in his old age. Finally he gives up caring for a regular charge, and ‘supplies’ a pulpit now and then, enjoying a well-earned rest.

The demand is always for a higher class of men in the country ministry. The graduates of theological schools get in the country their training for larger fields. They learn what it means to care for the spiritual welfare of a people while filling a large place in the social and civic life. The rewards are not liberal, expressed in dollars and cents, but measured by the chances for usefulness and for development of character they are limitless. It is a preparation for the fulfillment of hopes, the accomplishment of ambitions. Even if the call does not come to a higher position, the field offers its own recompense. It is something for the minister to know that careers of usefulness have been begun because of his unselfish advice; that his counsel is cherished by successful men and women filling their own place in the world; that laid away in bureau drawers are scores of cherished newspaper clippings, reports of weddings and funerals at which he officiated, obituaries he penned. Looking back on such years of service, the country pastor has ample reason to rejoice.