“Don’t enter the ministry if you can possibly do anything else and be happy.” Young men often hear this kind of advice from working preachers. I myself have tried to quit a hundred times! During the sleepless gray hours after many a Sunday I have worked countless letters of resignation to be read the following week to what I hoped might be a stunned congregation. But the letters have never been read, never even been written.
One day, perhaps, the gnawing sense of personal inadequacy and the mounting pressure of humanly insoluble problems may be too much, and I will write and deliver such a pronouncement.
I’ve been in the ministry twenty-seven years now. I started preaching my first sermon while a sophomore in college. The vision began, however, at a Christian youth camp when I was sixteen. Never have I forgotten the vigor and enthusiasm of several young ministers who at the time stimulated a burning and abiding idealism.
My father died suddenly when I was eleven, and I was deeply impressed with what I can only call a “God-consciousness.” My attitude toward church became less casual. One summer the usual interests in sports and girls and the long hours of after-school work in a grocery store were capped by a special climax. In those depression days one week of camp in a rented fairgrounds was all either the church or the church families could afford. During such a week came my crucial decision. Standing alone under the stars on a warm, sweet summer night, I knew I had to preach. Unsophisticated as it may sound, I was aflame with the desire to spend my life in sharing with all whom I could reach the transforming power of Christ that I had come to know.
My courageous widowed mother sold everything, and we moved to the state capital college town so I could secure a good liberal arts education. Ten dollars a week from my paper route sustained us for months, until mother got work. Then at nineteen I preached my first sermon. I hitchhiked to and from a small open-country church, occasionally arriving just after the benediction! My “salary” was the offering, usually about five dollars.
But I really got ever so much more. These saints were patient and encouraging, long-suffering with my crude sermons and pastoral ministrations. Slowly in the course of several student pastorates my illusions took on more realistic form. I learned that quarreling, hypocrisy, and sheer evil can infiltrate any congregation.
After graduation I moved to the smallest county seat in our state, a town of 1,200 population. There a preacher’s daughter, who had said the parsonage was not for her, gave up her teaching career and joined me in a ministry that has continued in that small town for twenty-four years.
Ours is hardly a typical town or ministry in these days of crushing cities and sprawling suburbs. Yet America still has thousands of towns like ours—population now 1,300—and countless congregations like the discouraged handful that welcomed me in a damp dungeon of a building here twenty-four years ago. From such churches people flow into distant colleges, factories, and offices. Too often such churches have no relevance for daily living, too often are not even respected. Too often, too, success-mad seminarians have abused and trodden them under foot in their ambitious ministerial climb. Realizing this despicable fact I vowed, by the grace of God, to bring relevancy and respect to at least one such church.
This, I suppose, is one reason I have remained in the ministry, and for so many years in a given pastorate. The adolescent dream of sweeping the world with the love of Christ has admittedly grown dim at times. But the conviction has remained, and grown stronger, that the small towns with their neglected churches are a vital key to America’s overall religious, social, and moral condition.
We have seen changes in our small church. Three major building programs have replaced the little crumbling concrete-block structure with a striking edifice of semi-modern design. The brilliant young architect was a boy in the Sunday school when we came. We have seen the baker’s dozen of discouraged people blossom into a strong congregation of over four hundred. The once ineffective Sunday school has grown into an educational organism whose young superintendent last year was selected “Superintendent of the Year” by a national Christian education magazine. We have seen young men and women go into medicine, teaching, business, and the arts with a mature Christian faith. We have seen new families firmly established, and older families reestablished. I say “we” because these results came through the work of many God-empowered people who found joy and vigor in their Christian faith.
One of my teachers used to say that “God made the country, man made the city, but the Devil made the small town.” Wife-trading, alcoholism, secret dope addiction, stone-cold indifference to even the simplest spiritual truth are no strangers to the small town and to its churches. Small towns present unique problems of survival, too. Our first baby died at nine months of age with spinal meningitis; his strong little body, nearly ready to walk, was not equal to the stove-heated, outhouse-supplied, cold-water shack we rented for ten dollars a month.
But when I faced the decision of moving to a better church, leaving the ministry, or finding part-time employment to augment the seventeen dollars a week from the church, I decided to apply for work in a steel foundry. Steel foundries were busy in the early forties, and I went to work almost immediately; there was no chance to consult with the men of the church. The next Sunday, before I could call the board together, the church treasurer, who worked in the payroll department of the foundry, handed me my weekly preacher’s check which he had reduced to fourteen dollars. The board upheld his action, a gesture that sorely threatened my loyalty to the ministry. For six months I divided my energies between foundry and church. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, the men on that board have grown in Christian spirit no less than the church and I have grown.
Yes, the Church is full of human weakness, and spiritual progress is agonizingly slow. Yet it is an important finger in the dike against the chaos that threatens our very existence. Carl Jung has said, “Among all my patients in the second half of life … there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.” And according to Rollo May, the question “Who am I and what is the meaning of my existence?” most tersely reveals the basic anxiety of our time. Who but Christ can be the answer for mankind and for the Church?
How else except through Christ and his church can we adequately meet the problem of race relations? Or take the matter of nuclear power: can a small congregation in a small town somewhere do anything about this monstrous horror? It was General MacArthur himself who said the world’s only hope lies in “spiritual recrudescence.” The only power that can control man, any man who in turn controls the released atom, is found in Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.
I remember the successful salesman who hit my doorbell very late one winter night and blurted out, “I don’t know what I’m living for!” Drinking, divorce, debauchery were not his problems—just the stark meaninglessness of life without God. He was a victim of today’s unbalanced emphasis upon scientific progress. Even if we escape nuclear annihilation, we still face the concept that life has no purpose, a theme which modern literature hurls at us from every side. It is precisely here that the Church, despite its faults, alone can offer healing and creative power. The young salesman, we ought to add, is now entering the ministry, for all my warnings! God still works through the Church, still changes people’s lives!
The Apostle Paul knew something about incest, drunkenness at the communion service, and general debauchery in the church at Corinth. Yet his letters to the Corinthians are an important reminder that to desert the Church because of its moral weakness is to beg the question. God still changes human life through the witness and influence of the Church.
Remaining in the same small church for twenty-four years lets one observe these changes which occur only in God’s own time. Recently a handsome young basketball coach met with his boys before a game for prayer. For these kids who live in the moral jungle of a modern high school this coach, who twenty years ago was a little thief and liar, is a moral guideline. I remember the time when we seriously thought of banishing him from our Sunday school and youth meetings! Slowly through the influence of the church youth program, summer camps, a good, church-supported liberal arts education, plus marriage to a fine Christian girl, this onetime delinquent became an excellent coach and Christian leader.
Let me share only one more of countless experiences that have encouraged me to stay in the ministry. Five years ago a baby was born to an older couple in our town. The father, a retired state trooper, was slowly drinking himself to death. The mother, a county official, active in politics, capable at her job, was surprised at this late motherhood. The baby, as babies will, brought changes into this home. Listen to the mother’s own words before the congregation just a few Sundays ago:
“I’m happy to tell you of my faith, and I would gladly shout it to the world!
“A little over five years ago we received one of the greatest blessings of our lives. The birth of our little girl was a near miracle, and I was sure she was a gift from Heaven. I felt that I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t know what to do or where to go.
“I shall always be grateful to the young man from the church who came to our home and gave us a warm and personal invitation to attend the services. Without this, I might still be sitting at home wondering what to do.
“A year ago this Sunday my husband and I made our confessions of faith and were buried with Christ in baptism, and it was a true rebirth to a new life! I couldn’t have believed the difference it can make in one’s life. It has been a wonderful year.
“I used to sleep late in the mornings trying to put off having to face the burdens, troubles, and worries of another day. I still have troubles.… I think we are supposed to, but I find that by getting up a little earlier and having a period of quiet meditation and prayer before beginning each day, the troubles are not nearly so big and, with God’s help, not nearly so hard to meet.…”
Her husband has lost the shakes, and is slowly conquering the drinking.
Teacher Annie Sullivan, after weeks of bleak failure in trying to reach the imprisoned mind of Helen Keller, has been quoted as saying: “It is my idea of original sin, giving up!” Perhaps with something of the same conviction I have remained in the ministry, often in spite of myself and often wanting to quit. I remember once during my years as an army chaplain in World War II writing to Harry Emerson Fosdick. Whatever our theological differences might be, I knew his ministry had been far-reaching. Could he recommend a book, I asked, that would help me solve some of the hundreds of counseling problems I faced in the chaplaincy? His wry response said, in essence, “Son, if you find such a book, please let me know. I need it too!” I called him recently to indicate that the fact of his long ministry and rich life had encouraged me to keep on in the ministry, especially as I grew older. “How old are you, son?” he asked. “Forty-five,” I answered. “Well, I’m eighty-eight. But I must hang up now and get back to a book I’m working on!” What book? A life of Saint Paul for teen-agers!
In a recent biography of his artist father, Jean Renoir tells about one day when the painter was confined to his room by a lung infection. The seventy-six-year-old master needed someone to place the brushes in his arthritis-stiffened hands while he worked on what was to be his last painting. “I think,” said Auguste Renoir, looking at his work, “I am beginning to understand something about it.” After these years of struggling with what is always too big a job for any man without the grace of God, I am beginning to understand what the old painter meant.
Let me close with a story that expresses the feelings of most of my friends who have remained in the ministry. A veteran missionary to China was approached by an American businessman to accept a position with his corporation. The firm would pay him well for his knowledge of the country’s language and culture. Salary offers grew to $25,000 as the missionary refused each successive proposition. With some exasperation the corporation man finally asked, “Well, just how much would it take to get you?” “Oh,” said the missionary, “your first offer was more than enough. The salary is fine, but your job is too small.”
Perhaps a few more men like that in China might have changed the course of history and of the Christian faith in that part of the world. Men with that kind of faith might well turn the tide in the present terrifying crisis. To the young men who may read this story of the old missionary, let me just say this: If his words strike you with a peculiar force, if you cannot forget their challenge, then do not enter the ministry if you can do anything else and be happy.—DOUGLAS A. DICKEY, Minister, First Christian Church, Williamsport, Ind.
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