Project Canterbury

A Bishop Among His Flock

By the Rt. Rev. Ethelbert Talbot, D.D., LL.D.
Bishop of Bethlehem, U.S.A.

New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1914.

Chapter XI. The Claims of the Ministry as a Vocation

A RECENT report of the Committee on the State of the Church reveals the rather alarming fact that during the last three years the number of candidates for the ministry has actually fallen off. Further investigation shows that this situation is not confined to our own communion, but prevails generally, with few exceptions, throughout the country. This decrease of men offering themselves for the ministry is the more remarkable when one remembers that the need of ministers is constantly increasing, both because of the religious activity at home and the almost unprecedented demand for men in the foreign-missionary field. This latter demand has been greatly stimulated by the opening up of China and Japan, as well as India, to missionary enterprise and the encouraging reports from the workers in the field.

Several reasons have been suggested as explaining this rather strange shortage of young men. Among them has been mentioned the fact that many of our young men have offered themselves as medical missionaries and teachers, and that the volunteer-student movement has enlisted hundreds of them as Christian workers in the Young Men's Christian Associations. Again it has been urged that the enormous industrial activity of the present time, with so many opportunities of amassing wealth suddenly, has fascinated the imagination of our young men and left them to invest their lives in increasing numbers in commercial pursuits. There are those, moreover, who claim that our best young men have hesitated to give themselves to the ministry because of the many divisions of our American Christianity, which in so many communities doom a clergyman to the leadership of a small congregation and cut him off from any wider field among the people at large. Once more we are reminded that whereas thirty or forty years ago there were practically three or four great professions from which a college man could choose his life-work--namely, the ministry, the law, medicine, and perhaps teaching--now there are thirty or forty callings, or special lines of work, which beckon to him and claim his consideration. We are disposed to give much weight to the influence of this very significant development in our modern life. In the engineering world alone there is mining, the various applications of electricity, the railroads, chemistry as applied to many kinds of manufacturing, and numerous other avenues of activity, all more or less lucrative, constantly calling for well-equipped experts.

In response to this demand from the industrial life of the nation technical schools and universities have sprung up, some of them with large endowments, whose chief aim is to supply men well trained to do this specialized and skilled work.

All these causes which we have mentioned and many others which might be adduced have no doubt had their effect in attracting into their inviting fields of enterprise many young men who might otherwise have thought of the ministry as a vocation. Then it should be borne in mind that a considerable number of young men desire to serve their fellow-man, but do not feel drawn to the ministry. Indeed, they have in many cases come to the conclusion that it is no longer necessary to enter the ministry in order to express their enthusiasm. They find many other avenues along which they can carry out their altruistic and philanthropic purposes. There is the neighborhood house, settlement work in our large cities, employment in large charitable organizations, all furnishing a ready outlet to the passion for service. I do not like to speak in this connection of the very inadequate financial compensations given to the average minister of the Gospel. This is a disgrace to the cause and a scandal which we all hope is in the gradual process of removal. It is said that the two most poorly paid classes of public servants are the ministers of the Gospel and the teachers in our schools and colleges. It would generally be admitted, I suppose, that at the same time they are the two classes most vitally needed in every community, and pre-eminently worthy of generous and loyal support. While the greatly increased cost of living has gone on apace there has not been a perceptible increase in the salary paid these most worthy workers.

Whatever the difficulties are that keep our best men back from the ministry, they should be faced squarely and courageously and should be removed.

Meanwhile, it is worth considering that adverse influences of all kinds are not without some compensating advantages. They help to sift out undesirable men; they will not keep back the strongest and best. It is well to keep out of the ministry men of weak purpose and little faith and courage. As some one has well said, no man ought to enter the ministry if he can help it; that is, unless he has such an irresistible impulse or clear call in the direction that no hindrance or obstacle can stop him. Men are made strong by overcoming difficulties. Obstacles have always been God's challenge to faith and character. In this age of ease and comfort there is no danger in giving our young men too many difficulties to surmount.

Having considered thus far the reasons which deter young men from the ministry, and the difficulties to be overcome, let us now turn to the positive side and ask why our best young men should seriously consider the claims of the ministry as a life-work.

Why should a father, who has an unusually gifted son, be justified in praying that God would lead his boy to consecrate his life to the service of his brother-man in the ministry of reconciliation? Why should such a father feel that no honor could come into his life to be compared with that of having a son occupying a place of leadership among men, and be deemed worthy to stand before the altar and offer up the sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving, and to proclaim to men the glorious Gospel of the Son of God? While I ask this question am I not right in believing that with many of our parents, to whom God hath given the rich blessings of sons, the ministry is by no means the goal of their ambition? On the contrary, would it not be rather a cause of regret and disappointment if some bright son were to write you from college that he had made up his mind to study for the ministry? You might not like to take the responsibility of advising him against such a course, but in your heart you would feel sorry that your son had not embarked on a career where the material compensations would be greater and the probable hardships less.

While at the present day the sons of the clergy seem to be offering themselves for the work of the ministry in rather unusual numbers, and while occasionally the son of a man of large wealth or professional success, or social leadership, is secured, it too often happens that the ranks of the ministry are recruited from those families who are less prominent in the social and commercial life of the world. These men are often earnest and devoted, and some of them reach positions of distinction and power; but they start out in their professional life inadequately equipped, and are always more or less hampered.

The work of the ministry, when rightly conceived of, is a work demanding the highest gifts and graces of culture and refinement of body, mind, and spirit. The young man to whose intellectual equipment has been fortunately added the advantages which come from a home with an atmosphere of gentle breeding and the ease which results from good manners has a far better prospect of usefulness and success. I have noticed that even the poor, and those who have had few advantages of education, never fail to recognize a true gentleman in their minister. Other things being equal, that clergyman has the decided advantage whose early home training has been of the right kind.

Therefore we do not hesitate to say that one great need of the ministry to-day is that it should be recruited by a greater preponderance of the sons of men of culture and education. All honor to those noble men, gentlemen-born, who come from humble homes and through much trial and tribulation and poverty at last reach their goal. Among that number have been some of God's heroes and noblest saints. They have succeeded, not because of, but in spite of, their early disadvantages. Therefore they deserve the more praise.

What, after all, is the work of the ministry? It is first and foremost to preach to men the glorious Gospel of the blessed God. To do this with persuasive power and with best results in this age of progress and scholarship calls for men of learning, and also for men of strong convictions. We need in the pulpit men of courage and vision, who feel like Saint Paul, "Woe unto me if I preach not the gospel."

The ministry calls a man to deal with the doubts and difficulties, the fears and misgivings, of the individual soul. He must needs be therefore a man of tender sympathy, and must understand the motives which govern and influence the human heart.

He is called to administer to sin-laden souls the medicines of the Gospel, and communicate the sacramental life of God, which comes through his office, as a steward of the mysteries of God.

He is the good Shepherd, not only of the sheep of his fold, but of the lambs whose tender feet he must guide with infinite hope and patience into the way of peace.

God's minister feels himself called as God's ambassador. He speaks for God. In God's name he appeals to men to be reconciled to the holy will of our Heavenly Father. Therefore he belongs to the whole community, and not alone to his own little flock. All that he is, all that he has, every gift, every power, every virtue, must be used to help his fellow-men. His mission is to build up human character. His material is human life, in all its stages of development. The effect of his work is not transient, but permanent. The true minister of God works for eternity.

Indeed, if a young man desires a work which no requires all the qualities of leadership--brains, learning, power of expression, administrative ability, courage, and devotion--where shall he find it more surely than in the ministry?

If a young man desires to help in a most telling way his brother-man, to be of greatest service to the community, to contribute most efficiently to the upbuilding of human character and the moral enrichment of human lives, here is a field which may well call forth his best gifts.

Of course we realize, and would not seem for a moment to forget, that only God can effectually call men into this holy service. It is the supreme prerogative of His Spirit to separate men unto the work whereunto He has called them. But at the same time it is true that God's blessing works through human influences and human motives on the wills of men. Hence it is well to place before a young man, as he contemplates the momentous question of what his life-work shall be, the greatness, the dignity, the breadth, and the far-reaching influence of the work of the ministry.

We are very far from believing that the difficulties of the ministerial profession really dismay many of our best-endowed and nobler-minded young men. Rather are we persuaded that an appeal to the heroic in them will generally win them. The appeals which lay hold of strong men are not those which set forth the attractions, compensations, and advantages of the ministry. The call to heroism will generally meet with an heroic response. Make the preaching of the Gospel hard, so that it calls for courage and real manhood, and you make it triumphant and irresistible. If a man with a soul fit for the ministry has to make his choice between self-sacrifice and a life of ease and self-indulgence the former will make the stronger appeal to him.

In other relations in life it is the appeal to the heroic that enlists the strong natures. Let a war break out and the flag be in danger, though death may be imminent and peril great, thousands of our noblest and best young men will volunteer. They count not their lives dear to themselves if only they can save their country. The history of the Christian Church abounds in heroes and martyrs. Every great struggle of the Church has been won at the cost of lives gladly given for Christ's sake.

Saint Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, did not shrink from his clear calling, even though Christ said by way of warning, "I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake."

Let fathers and mothers only get a clear vision of the length and breadth and height and depth of the cross of Christ, and of the love of Him who hung upon it, and they will more and more be glad to give their sons to a work whose glory is to proclaim His unspeakable riches.

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