The Ministry: An Over-Crowded Profession

THE lament has gone up over all the land of the lack of men in the ministry. Statistics have been hurled at us from theological seminaries and from colleges. The staccato emphasis of the plaintive cry beats upon our ears with an insistence that demands attention. Fewer men, it is said, are studying for the ministry; many pulpits are vacant; young men are attracted to scientific professions and commercial pursuits; ministers receive starvation salaries; the profession is suffering a decline; the best men are not entering the ministry; we need more men.

It is a thankless task to attempt to tear away the veil from the eyes of those who will not see. But several outstanding facts and conditions have been ignored, somewhat, in the discussions of this subject. These facts, however, lie at the very bottom of the difficulty, and they tempt us to believe quite the contrary concerning the profession. Have we the courage to face the possible conclusion that the ministry is an over-crowded profession ?

Before we can seriously weigh the evidence, let us dispose of some of the fictitious reasons which men hug to their hearts as a sufficient explanation for the apparent failure of the ministerial supply.

It is quite true that the profession is in competition with many others as an alluring field for the activity of young men. But moral enthusiasm has not died among the young, nor has the desire for spiritual adventure vanished. Hundreds of young men are crowding into professions, such as teaching, that offer no great share in the heap of gold that Midas-like wizards are creating by the touch of their capable hands.

Nor need we consider seriously that inadequate salaries are a cause of insufficient candidates. They may quite as well be the result of over-supply. The churches are not impoverished. They spend vast sums of money on buildings, organs, windows, and music. The money needed to support the ministers is not lacking. It has simply been misdirected.

Or again, the statement that men have not sufficient liberty in the ministry is unfounded. They have every liberty that a seeker after truth desires. It has been asserted that men do not care to be fettered by worn-out creeds. If that means that men do not care to be burdened with human theories and speculations, it is true. But if it means that men are unwilling to accept the fundamental facts, it is not true. Any so-called creed, that echoes merely the theological speculations of a passing generation, is not a creed at all, but a group of surmises. The fundamental facts alone are the creed. The utterly idle talk about the restrictions placed on thinking men by these facts, is as lacking in intellectual discrimination as would be the distress of an engineer over the arbitrary authority of the multiplication table. The very first implication of the Christian ministry is that it is to minister to men in the light and power of some settled and determined truth. Those facts are the very basis of the larger liberty into which a grasp of the truth leads.

Coming to our main contention, it may be asserted in one sentence. With due allowance for an exceptional condition here and there, every community has more ministers than it needs for the proper spiritual development of the people. Take a survey of the conditions in any village or city in the land. You will find one minister for every thousand persons. Exclude the Roman Catholics from the count, and also those absolutely impervious to any Christian effort, and you will find one minister for about every five hundred people.

The first consideration which I would urge is that such a condition indicates an over-supply of ministers. If the minister keeps to his proper duty, and if he works under proper conditions, he may serve much larger groups of people. But he is forced by the pressure of competition to become an organizer, a collector of funds, a social peripatetic, a promoter of catch-penny devices, and a gentle prodder of the indifferent. He must not only minister to the congregation, but he must create it and hold it together by moral suasion and physical allurements. Under such a stress his proper functions lose their force and comprehensiveness, and the small stream of spiritual refreshment sprinkles a group which tends to disperse under the counter-attractions of the world and sometimes the equally persistent attractions of another congregation.

In fact, the ministry is over-crowded because the land is over-churched. Here is the seat of the trouble. We are carried here, likewise, into deep waters. The Christian forces, by divisions and subdivisions, are becoming the source of vast woe and distress to themselves. It is not too much to say that the principle of subdivision into sects is destructive of Christianity. It subverts authority and it weakens faith. To such a condition may be ascribed the lamentable fact that many men, and indeed whole families, have deserted any form of organized Christianity and have taken the same liberty that many a larger group has taken, namely, of practically forming a new denomination, of one family, whose creed is to live according to its light.

This position is as thoroughly defensible as is most of the sectarian estrangement from which Christianity is suffering. If a new subdivision considers that it may choose among the facts of the faith, and may reject all that it cares to reject, then certainly another group, though few in number, has a similar right and may reject all. The faith is thereby destroyed, and with the faith must likewise go the practices by which the faith is sustained.

The fatal subdivisions create a necessity for material outlay that is appalling in its amount and distressing in its result. Many a village of five thousand people has ten church buildings, no one of which has the most insignificant claim to architectural beauty. It has ten congregations, no one of which can adequately support the minister in his work. It has ten ministers, every one of whom must labor under severe strain to do his work, to keep the congregation alive, and to raise enough money for the pitiable result.

The Roman Catholics afford an example of effective administration. In cities where they equal in number the other Christians, they have many fewer churches, and fewer priests. And the churches are filled, because the Roman Catholics have preserved the principle of authority which the denominational system has entirely broken down.

The over-crowding of the ministry results from the over-churching of the land. The relative ineffectiveness of an over-crowded ministry is the result of destructive competition on the one hand, and on the other of misdirecting ministerial energy into too many secular channels.

What are the remedies? There must be some way of escape from the appalling calamity that threatens to engulf the insecure churches, and to devastate the smaller communities.

The first remedy that suggests itself is, of course, church reunion. If that is an idle dream, then there is an invincibly stubborn attitude among Christian men. The evil consequences of separation will not only be inevitable, but will be invited. Faulty as any tentative plan of federation may be, it is a measure of self-defense. Reunion will come only when it is realized that any denominational barriers erected by man are irrational. Reunion will come only when the divine faith and order are fully apprehended. So perverse is human nature, however, that it is unwilling to accede to scriptural and apostolic and primitive conditions and essentials so long as the concession seems to strengthen, or at least vindicate, the position of any one church. Reunion would be far easier if the divine faith and order, fully apprehended, were found to be possessed by no one, so that all would have to make equal concessions. If we are really concerned about the ministerial supply, we should solve this problem first. The over-supply of ministers for their proper work will never cease to bring distress upon the profession until we do not have to submit to the necessity of having ten churches where two or three would serve.

The next remedy would be a more thoroughly equipped ministry. We need men who are more capable in their profession: men who can treat spiritual necessities with insight and skill. Our ministers should be more thoroughly trained to larger conceptions of their work. But immediately the cry goes up that our ministers have too much to do already. Here we may take a leaf from the book of the world.

The successful leader delegates as much as possible to others. But in the ministry we find a startling condition. At least two thirds of the work of every minister is not an essential part of his ministry. He does it because he is an interested and capable leader, and not because it is the proper expression of ministerial function. The parish of the future will relieve the minister of every duty alien to his profession. His spiritual ministrations will not only be paramount, but will be far more comprehensive. He will minister to many more lives.

The spirit of specialization which has seized the realm of commerce will find a proper application in the Church. In fact, it has already done so. The temporal affairs of the parish will have an effective manager and financial agent, parish visitors, and trained workers. These may be found with far more ease than a minister may be found who unites them all in his own proper person. No long years of training are necessary for such duties, nor need a layman be committed to church work for life.

Likewise, a vast field for women is now open in every parish. The usefulness of a competent, sensible and largehearted woman in a parish is beyond measure. Any lack of competent clerical supply may be remedied by insisting that ministers stick to their proper work, and by dividing the cares they now shoulder (with the aid often of a devoted wife) among several paid workers. It is as absurd for the minister of a large parish to attempt to do worthy work, single-handed, as it would be for the manager of a large store to attempt to get along without book-keepers and salesmen.

Many a village in our land which now has ten struggling churches might, under altered conditions, have more spiritual advantages than it now has, and many others besides. It might have a skilled worker for the boys of the village, a visiting nurse, a competent director of religious organization, and all for less than the present outlay of money, if it were not for the present necessity of keeping ten churches open, if it were not for an over-crowded ministry.

The persistent emphasis of the Gospel in this day is social. The power of righteousness created in individuals by the Christ life is but a useless ornament if it does not find a point of application in the social world. In fact, it is not righteousness at all, any more than the miser’s gold is wealth in any true sense. The Church, under the inspiring leadership of a man filled with the Spirit, must quicken every man to do his full duty to Society. And the Church, under that same leadership, must provide for the whole of life, its pleasures and pains, its joys and sorrows. Exhortation may arouse men to action if they already understand what is expected of them, and if they have capacity; but exhortation no more promotes righteousness in a nation than shouting at school-children accomplishes their education.

The pressure of the Divine Life must be the inspiring force by which each man is first trained, made capable, and then aroused to his full duty. We must clear the choked channels so that through every phase of living the quickening power of the Spirit may be manifest. This applies with especial emphasis to such things as amusement and the joyful occupancy of the life of the young. If the Church ever gave an evidence of moral stupidity and blind folly it was when it treated proper pleasure as either to be frowned upon, or else merely tolerated with a maddening complacency that seemed to indicate that the Church was goodnatured enough not to meddle with people’s secular concerns. This was a colossal blunder. It simply handed the amusements of the people over to those who furnish amusement for personal gain, and who would stoop to every sort of viciousness so long as it was profitable. If it is not a sin to dance it is a sin for the Church to compel its young people to go to questionable places to dance.

It is when the Church realizes its mission to the whole life that it will return to power. And this may be done only when the Church provides, not a multiplicity of exhorters who strain to arouse people to an emotion with no immediate outlet except a few negative abstinences, but a complete and consecrated corps of efficient workers who, under the godly inspiration and seasoned judgment of a devoted minister, vitalize every province of human life.

Is it not true that we have too much preaching? An over-supply of ministers accomplishes this. The exaltation of the sermon into the chief place in public worship has given to it an undue prominence. Nothing would be so beneficial as to have our pulpits silenced for a year. I mean by that, complete abstinence from the usual type of hortatory or argumentative sermons. Instruction, wise, sound, consecutive, might, well take their place for a time. It would accomplish the same thing for the Church that a reasonable period of fasting does for the individual. The other phases of worship would be restored — the worship of prayer, confession, praise, and enlightened faith. Some of them are entirely gone from the churches. The people no longer pray, but listen to the minister as he prays. Worship has become a passive matter. The congregation has become an audience — a body of listeners. The people with quiet reverence observe the worship of the minister and then listen to a sermon. Worship should be an active matter. The people should come with each faculty alive, with a controlled but positive inner impulse toward expression in outer act. Worship should be the united act of the congregation.

Another serious result of too much preaching is the confusion of the hearer under too many impulses. Professor James has shown clearly the utter futility of emotion without corresponding expression in action. Too many sermons merely warm over our emotions. We are aroused, it may be, Sunday after Sunday, but men and women need more than arousing. They need instruction and training. They desire to know what to do. If our pulpits turned from their exhortations to practical instruction in the substance of the Christian faith, to positive and clear teaching of doctrine, to specific and calm statement of the methods of developing righteousness and holiness, to an exposition of real and not artificial sins, I believe that we should find men returning to the pews. If the pulpit should train men to pray, and to use the spiritual strength of prayer for their daily temptations, to read the Bible with intelligence and insight, to understand the fundamental doctrines of the religion of Christ, to judge between good and evil, to rear their children in godliness, to do their duty toward their neighbor, to accept their part in a world where they live with, and not apart from, other men, and then if the Church would arouse conscience and love by ringing appeals, men would be propelled with open eyes and understanding hearts along the distinct and well-marked paths of righteousness and duty.

Under such a reorganization of Christian effort the social conscience would be aroused. Joy would return to living. The Church would become the centre of a righteous and intelligent social effort. This would apply especially to those smaller communities whose civic life has not been stirred to action as in the larger cities. The Church would have its staff of lay workers, training and directing and organizing and healing. And above all it would have its priest, its man of God, who would vitalize every agency and quicken every heart. Out of chaos would come order. The distracting and faith-dispelling spectacle of sectarianism would be banished. The abundant supply of ministers devoted to their real work would bring the kingdom of God to earth among the affairs of men, and the spirit and truth of Christ to hungry human hearts.