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Ferment in the Ministry by Seward Hiltner


Ferment in the Ministry was published in 1969 by Abingdon Press. This book was prepared for Religion-Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 1: Ferment in the Ministry


By analogy "ferment" means stir, agitation, unrest, commotion, excitement, or tumult. But the original context from which this metaphor comes, wine-making, includes such characteristics as only intermediate phases of a process whose aim is a stronger product. There is a kairos to wine-making. If fermentation goes on indefinitely, the product is useless. If the proper moment of arrest is seized, however, then the intermediate stirrings and agitations may be seen as necessary stages in the making of a better product.

I believe that "ferment" is a better description of what is happening in the ministry today than are such other terms as "crisis," "maceration," "breakdown," or "upset." Crisis means a point of compelled decision. It implies red and green lights, whereas in fact there is also an amber light that can mean anything from muddling through to new hope. Maceration means softening. It implies a kind of errand-boy failure of nerve, whereas in fact there is probably as much courage in the ministry today as at any time in Christian history. Breakdown means the machinery has failed. It implies that nothing is being done. The fact is, however, that whatever may not be running, it is not the machinery. Upset means being stood on the head. It implies disproportion, misdirection, and even a feeling of tipsiness. In fact, however, most ministers are more puzzled than tipsy. I prefer ferment, with its two clear implications: first, that the stage of agitation may be both necessary and anxiety-inducing; and second, that the result may be very good if the commotion is stopped in time.

The time has come, I think, to move beyond the guerrilla-warfare criticisms of the ministry that have been plentiful in the past ten years. The ferment that they have both expressed and induced may be a very good thing. Such benefits should not be lost. An attempt to return to older certainties will not do. But we should be able to take this particular vintage out of the vats — even if we use a new supply of grapes to start some new fermentation.

The central constructive thesis of this book is that analysis of the functions of ministry (through the idea of images) shows the ministry to be, both psychologically and theologically, a unity — although a complex unity with a variety of types of activity. If the minister grasps this sense of unity within complexity, then he need not feel pulled in sixteen directions. He must still make decisions, hard decisions, about the investment of his time and energy. And he must still be sensitive to the idiosyncrasies in his particular situation. But he will not feel that his job is impossible, or inherently frustrating, or nothing but anxiety. This thesis will be spelled out in many ways throughout the chapters that follow.

The "gimmick" used throughout the discussion is the image, by which is meant a cartoon-like picture that selects central points in the foreground and neglects photographic-like detail that could detract from the needed impression. A large jaw and a cigarette holder could stand, in cartoons, for Franklin D. Roosevelt. A cigar in a determined profile represented Winston Churchill. I believe that, in this cartoon-like sense, the human mind carries out much of its work of perceiving. The trick comes in whether what is selected really is what is most important or not.

The notion of image is not used here in some senses that are, in other contexts, legitimate. It is not used as a mirror-like reflection. Nor is it used as a die-stamp. Nor as a replica. It is not used either as in some modem psychology, as a "self-image," meaning the total view one has of himself. It is used, instead, as an attempt to objectify, with cartoon-like pictures, the inner conception of function, i.e., what one is trying to accomplish. Beginning in Chapter 3, the reader will be carried into the details of my image-clutching.

Since I believe that my complex unity of the ministry thesis, argued out through analysis of images of function, has a chance of getting the wine out of the vats before fermentation has gone on too long, I intend in this volume a message both of hope and challenge for the ministry. That this is a measured conviction, and not hortatory or sentimental wishfulness, I shall try to demonstrate in the present chapter by a brief discussion of the current negative charges against the ministry. None of these charges is without a modicum of truth. But they are all one-sided, and neglectful of the renewal that is going on through the ferment.

Ministers Are Leaving?

The charge is that so many more priests and ministers are leaving the ministry than at any previous time that the ministry must be an impossible vocation. So far, reliable general statistics are not available. But it is probably true that the proportionate number of persons leaving the ministry in recent years is in fact higher than at any time in our century. The actual number, however, is still proportionately small, despite scare stories in the press.

How many of these demittings, however, represent either failure of ministry or failure of man, and how many represent some advance on the part of the persons involved? A few are, perhaps, failures. The majority, I am convinced, are quite otherwise.

I think of two ministers who left the ministry, with whom I have counseled at some length in recent years. Needless to say, my brief accounts of them are designed to conceal all identifying information while also presenting the essence of their respective situations. Minister A was brilliant and had great potential as a theologian. But in a personality sense he was brittle. He was minister of a conservative denomination which had impeded him, throughout his theological studies, from actively relating theology to life and the world. Suddenly he got a new vision about theology, that it was most precisely related to life and the world. He felt released. For the first time, his own faith related to his life. Had he been more of a leader, and less brittle, he might well have returned to his denomination and been a leader in its movement ahead. But some things are irreversible. In a curious way, his leaving the ministry restores his Christian faith personally. I feel certain that God has called him to what he is now doing, which is a kind of secular ministry. He demitted the ministry. But what he is now doing is more for God, and himself, than if he had remained in the ordained ministry.

Minister B was a live-wire social reformer, not exactly hotheaded but certainly precipitate. He was in no sense thrown out of his local church, and indeed continued to be greatly respected by most of his people. But he grew impatient in dealing with the socially conservative minority who objected to his forays into the problems of the world. If he had had more "tension capacity," he would have realized that he could proceed along the lines of his intention, winning some converts and remaining in tension with others, but without jeopardy to his program. Psychologically, however, he was not inwardly strong enough to sustain this tension. Had he continued in the ministry, he might well have broken under it. With his many talents he had no difficulty getting a job with an excellent secular agency; and so far he has done well. Someday he may of course face partial disillusionment in his present work. There are bound to be ups and downs. In a curious sense, despite his single-minded devotion to social reform, his character was too dependent to manage this through the ordained ministry. He needed fewer ambiguities. For the moment at least, he is in such a situation, and I am sure the Lord approves.

Even though Protestants have held, from the Reformation, that every Christian has a "calling" from God, and that ministers are no better in God’s eyes than any others, a curious Protestant cloud has looked upon leaving the ordained ministry as something like adultery or divorce. Perhaps it is true that, with some new freedom in this area, some precipitate decisions to leave the ministry or priesthood have been made without adequate exploration of the factors involved. But the freedom itself is good, even if on occasion it may be abused. The new climate requires that the churches, separately or together, provide "vocational counseling" service for ministers of a kind that the past has not known. Some real experiments in this direction are under way, as in my own Presbyterian Church. With some few ministers, we rejoice when they have the guts to leave the ministry. Past ages would have given them no choice, and they would have had to continue in chains to no good of themselves or of the church.

Ministers Are Breaking Down?

There are times when I wish more ministers were breaking down — with heart disease, blood pressure, cancer, psychoses, or criminal impulses. If they did, it might show that they were unhappy victims of commitment to their difficult and complex jobs. The fact is, however, that ministers are the most long-lived of all professional men, and their incidence of serious mental illness is low.

The Board of Pensions of my own church, the United Presbyterian, entered into a relationship with the Menninger Foundation some four or five years ago according to which any minister or his wife or minor children might go to Kansas for a psychiatric evaluation lasting one to two weeks, with most of the bill paid by the Board. No details need be given to the Board; and once the evaluation is completed, the Foundation reports only to the persons involved. Thus privacy is fully respected.

For the period immediately following the initiation of the plan, a number of ministers (together with wives and children) took advantage of the opportunity and were demonstrated to have real mental or emotional problems. In all instances sound counsel was given about steps from that point onward. But after the early rush a new kind of fact came to light. Ministers appeared who, after investigation, proved to be no more mentally ill than other people, but who really hoped that the psychiatrists could call them such — because then the relational problems in the church, or in the family, would not have to be taken as their own responsibility. One could almost say that unconsciously they wanted to be regarded as "sick."

This situation of course points to a relative lack of proper vocational counseling services within the United Presbyterian Church, which we are in process of amending. But from a "breakdown" point of view, the curious fact is that many of these men who were not broken down at all would have, however unconsciously, welcomed a "breakdown" diagnosis.

Since ministers and priests are as human as other people, a certain proportion are bound to have mental and physical ills, in all degrees, regardless of their dedication to their faith and their work. The astonishing fact is how seldom these ills become really serious. When they do, then expert help is needed. Roman Catholics are realistically operating some special treatment programs for priests who become alcoholic or otherwise mentally ill. In the sense of the Presbyterian-Menninger program, Protestants have begun on the same kind of needed and realistic course. Ordination is not a guarantee of continuing mental health. And many excellent persons can be saved by proper programs. Even severe mental illness need not be permanent.

Overall, the "breakdown" theory of the ministry has very few legs to stand on.

The Local Church Is Dead?

Let ministers get into the inner city — in store-front churches, neighborhood gangs, health centers, drug-addict operations, and many other places — and there the church is truly at work. Or let them go into a corner of the globe where there is need, forget the faith temporarily except as a motivator, empathize with the needs of the people, and help the people do whatever is needed to better their condition and obtain more justice. Or let them go, militantly, into any place where they can minister without risk of contamination from existing ecclesiastical structures. We do need ministers in all such spots. What they do may be enormously important. Such sites are the modern equivalent — no matter what the geography — of the foreign missionary movement of the previous century.

The fact is, however, that just like the previous century’s overseas missionary movement, none of this is possible if there are not "home churches" to support it. What can we make, then, of those who want to kill the duck that shells out the silver eggs? Why the extreme antipathy, on the part of a few ministers and seminarians, to the "local church"?

I have no new wisdom on this problem, and it is indeed a serious current problem. I am impressed, however, that at my own seminary the best attitude-changer in this regard is actual experience, under competent supervision, in some kind of church situation. It makes no difference whether the theological student is in a local church (and no matter what kind), an inner-city situation, or a hospital. If he is competently supervised, and thus enabled and forced to learn of ministry from reflection on his actual experience, then he becomes positive — although also properly critical — of the ministry of the local church. If, on the other hand, he manages to evade such supervised experience, or has the bad luck to land a situation with poor supervision, then he goes on arraigning the local church.

In connection with our Princeton field education program, we have two suburban local churches where the senior ministers are unusually competent supervisors, owing to both training and natural gifts. Each of them takes a group of three or four students (part-time, of course). The students stick out their respective necks, do what they can in programs assigned to them, and then have the same kind of supervision and feedback that they would have in a clinical pastoral education program. Every one of these students has become enthusiastic about the local church! Part of the reason is surely the competence of the supervision, the selection of graded activities for the students to assume responsibility for, and the acceptance of the students as genuine working sub-ministers. But not a little of it is due also to their being in a group where they can, as peers, exchange all kinds of gripes and praises and critiques among themselves, with or without their minister-supervisor around. They learn leadership through participation. The usual field-work situation of one student provides no such opportunity.

Under the leadership of the late Dean Samuel H. Miller, the Harvard University Divinity School has for some years past invited some minister of a local church to the campus for an intensive couple of days with the students. There have been well-known ministers, and others never heard of by Time and Life. How many conversions from teaching to the local church have been made I do not know. But the idea and the program are excellent. What is going on in our local churches — with all its obscurity and ambiguity — is the future of the church, for good or for ill. And, in my judgment, not so ill. My guess is, nevertheless, that any of the ministers invited to Harvard have had long thoughts both fore and aft. They could not say no, anymore than one can to the White House. But what kind of weak ethos was Sam Miller getting them to shore up? They must, in fact, have done very well; for to my astonishment I have heard that a few Harvard Divinity graduates have actually gone into local churches.

I know there are local churches that regard their minister as a hired man, others that regard him as a functionary to be dealt with today but happily gone elsewhere next year, and even some that get his political voting record and his children’s marks in school before they issue a call. Not all of this caution, incidentally, is bad. Its exercise, since no perfect minister ever shows up, thank God, may lead the church members and leadership into the realization that they too have some responsibility. They cannot ask that the Rev. George do it all. In the interim, however, unless the Rev. George has guts, the fermentation may include some sour apples.

A minority of theological students, when confronted with the complexities of any local church in any site, will want to retreat to something simpler like nuclear physics, where there is some semblance of predictability on the part of neutrons, protons, electrons, and mesons, in contrast to the complexities of both people and church organizations. Supervision may make a decisive difference. Even so, some will find they cannot stand the ambiguity. If so, wonderful that the truth has been discovered so early. The vast majority, however, especially under competent supervision, if they have got this far will go farther.

A minister who cannot tolerate ambiguity cannot tolerate a local church. In many respects, as we now know, the capacity to tolerate ambiguity is a kind of final mark of mental health. One may be low on it and still mentally healthy if the external situation can be arranged to make it unnecessary. But for all complex services and positions, this capacity may make the difference between success and failure. If a minister has very little such capacity, then that is the situation; and the Lord will obviously want him working elsewhere than in a local church. But the capacity, if it exists at all, may be developed. He may "feel ferment," while in actual fact this may be productive adaptation.

Laymen Are the Real Ministers?

Through its pronouncements and its collective actions, the church does some affecting of the ills of society. But what is done to this end through church members, in their various slots of social responsibility, is undoubtedly more significant. The responsible J. B. Somebody, who lives in the suburb of Skewed Gardens, a paradise unknown to the poor of Central City, may nevertheless be the chairman of the Improvement Committee of Central City — and mostly because his church has given him some faith and conscience. Maybe the proletariat, Negro or otherwise, will some day skew his gardens in the suburbs. But their chances are much better to get to him and, if necessary, get him to take a more radical line to help them.

Unless I am mostly blind, I see far more responsible and widespread participation of laymen in the churches of the United States than in Europe and the British Commonwealth. Here, our churches have had to support themselves almost from the beginning. The minister has never been able to retreat to a position disclaiming concern for finances. This is in contrast to churches which, at least in the past, were supported by taxation, and where the minister could "forget money." On Stewardship Sunday, of course, this fact can make us look like Madison Avenue if it is badly done. But I think more German churches would have education rooms and kitchens if they had ever had to fend for themselves except during the Hitler regime.

There can be no possible question that the influence of the church upon the ills and evils of the world is carried out through laymen — or not at all. The unhappy aspect about the present ordained breast-beating is that this point is used, surreptitiously, as if it let ordained ministers off the hook about "supervising" what is going on in the impact of the church upon the world. Supervision is not bossing. It is not directing in the sense of giving orders. It is supporting attentiveness, not devoid of criticism, but fundamentally encouraging. Quite literally in heaven’s name, why pit ministers against laymen? Why not give each his job description — which was once referred to as his "vocation"? We have had romantics about the ministry before, and we have them now. Once we had Baptist farmer-preachers, who preached on Sunday and farmed during the week. Once we had Methodist "itinerants," like Peter Cartwright, who traveled from place to place on horseback and made a point of never settling. If you settled, or made your "living" from ministry, you were suspect. While respecting the motivations of such men, we can see today, nonetheless, the romantic underpinnings of these attitudes. The minister must face the world in all its ambiguity, including his income from the church, and do what he can.

Latterly, both John A. T. Robinson and James A. Pike have been advocating a ministry that earns its living somewhere else and works for the church on its "nonreimbursed time." If some ministers can manage this feat, God bless them. But as a general pattern this seems to me a product of romanticism, taking with insufficient seriousness the "materialism of Christianity," as William Temple called it, and quite likely to produce the wrong kind of guilt feelings in competent young people who are in or who are considering the ministry — as if this activity were not worthy of economic support.

I hope that our local churches will become livelier places than many of them now are, no matter where they are located. Could "The Church" survive without them? By having the courage to close out all local churches that are moribund, unneeded, unduly competitive, and so on, the Church could help to protect the meaning and significance and program of "the local church." But close them out indiscriminately? What nonsense!

No appropriate ministry of the laity can conceivably be in fundamental opposition to the ordained ministry, unless there is a screw loose on either side of the board.

The Church Is the Establishment?

How do we look at the "Establishment" history? Is it the left-wing Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, George Fox, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eugene Carson Blake, and others? Or is it the Spanish Inquisition, the anti-Bonhoeffer German Christians, the John Birch Christians, and others? When is the Church part of the Establishment, and when is it a liberal critic going beyond what exists? Every student of church history must give his own verdict. As for mine, with all the reaction that has often been in evidence, I see the basic action of the churches as against reaction and for progress.

The current critique charges the Church and the churches with being part of the Establishment, white, middle-class, tax-free, economically secure, insensitive to the needs of minorities, smug in wealth, sot in structures, bureaucratic in organization. Who, in honesty, could deny a certain amount of truth in all such charges?

At root, however, this charge is not much above the level of the hippies. It implies a first-century romantic bias against the second-century need to find secretaries and treasurers and chairmen — without a St. Paul to appeal to! Specific criticisms of what the denominations are doing, individually or collectively, must always be in order. But the assumption that what they are always up to is reaction and holding the line is clearly unwarranted. I am all for specific criticisms of the churches and what they are or are not doing. But global negation of the church as "Establishment"? Nonsense! Nothing can have influence if it has no kind of "establishment" beyond its "first century."

Most seminary students are still in process of winning psychological freedom from their parents or guardians. Talk in the air about the "Establishment" may, depending on the individual student, either provide him with an excuse for not breaking the dependent ties or enable him to find a respectable intermediary object. When I talk with a student, I try to be alert to how much of one and how much of the other is involved. In a way, the same criterion holds for young ordained ministers. If they have no criticism of the status quo, probably ecclesiastical rigor mortis has set in. But in that case, I probably do not see them. They come back to Princeton only when they have a problem and a hope. The question, then, is whether their view of their ministerial problem is open to what they can do, and they are not mainly interested in getting excused from what they cannot do.

The Establishment — any Establishment — is always full of holes. Anybody with a brain and a conscience must be discriminatingly critical of every Establishment. But global rejections — as if the world should have no establishments of any kind? Nonsense!

Isolation from the World?

Next Sunday, in the First Church of Nixie, New York, or the Saint Waldemar’s Church of Proxie, Alabama, I am sure the respective ministers will declare that love is a wonderful thing, that Jesus agreed with their opinions; so why doesn’t everybody get on the bandwagon and love one another — taking it easy, of course, with Negroes, minority groups, homosexual persons, criminals, the mentally ill, and many others? Love them of course, but not too fondly!

How much is the church isolated from the world — both the social problems like race and poverty and the psychological realities like hostility and aggression? The answer to both segments of the question, unhappily, is: Still a good deal — but rapidly decreasing. On the first segment we still have many churches trying to do business as usual, as if they could forget the tough situations and let the government or somebody take care of it. Where this is the attitude, usually the people involved are those who most resent it when the government or somebody does in fact try to do something about it. In my judgment, while these groups and churches are real, they are a minority. The much more frequent situation involves the church that does want to do something about it but does not know how its slender resources can make a legible contribution.

There are two aspects of this church and world business, viewed contemporaneously and functionally. On the one side, it is possible for the church to let the rest of the world go by — and for the minister to concern himself mainly with his pulpit robe equipment, the shape of the baptistry, the architecture of the sanctuary, and perhaps the related facilities such as the educational rooms and the kitchens. All these things are good in themselves if set in proper perspective. On the other side, it is equally possible for the church to become so "worldly" that sermons become trash, worship becomes an outdated rite, and the church becomes so "relevant" as to have nothing to contribute once it gets there.

I still feel profoundly disturbed by the story of the able Lutheran minister in the Midwest who fought through, over a year or more, the necessity of his church to involve itself fully in the problems of the Negroes of the community and environs. He did a great job. But when the one kind of victory — compromise — that a Christian can count on was in sight, he resigned. Of this resignation I remain critical. Did he not know that we live in this world and not in an ideal world? If he had had no courage, we could wipe him off. But he had! Nevertheless, he apparently had a perfectionism that wanted to deal with the world all at once or not at all.

In this country above all others, whatever the defects of the Church and churches, they are not isolated from the world. Consult your pastor about a problem of marriage or neurosis or delinquency, and hardly any minister will demand that you get it set in "religious" categories before he tries to help you. Since I believe there are always religious and theological dimensions of any such problem, I am not at this point advocating a sterile secularism. But the point is: No conditions — come as you are! When I see some modern miniskirts and slacks, I am tempted to qualify this principle. But so long as decency is preserved, I stand by it. In contrast to my days of youth and vigor, I now have more trouble with the late-middle-aged woman who ought to know better than to wear slacks than I do with the beautiful young thing who fills them admirably. I get along better when I am tempted.

Anyhow, this charge about the isolation of the church from the world cuts both ways. It contains truth in many instances. But the answer to it can never be just caving in, either by retreating into itself or by forgetting its uniqueness.

Should the Church Care — or Fight?

Pastoral care or social action? If the church helps someone to adapt to his situation, is it guilty of depriving him of motivation for standing up against the status quo? If the church, on the other hand, leads him to believe that social action will solve his problems, is it concealing from him the psychological ambiguity he must face in order to live in this ambiguous world?

When should the church care and when should it fight? The one possible general answer is: according to the nature of particular situations. Thus, the harm comes whenever a penchant for one at the expense of the other takes over altogether.

My own professional career began near the start of the modern pastoral care movement. In the early days we were regarded as radical. The seminaries and denominations gave us little attention or help. By the 1960’s, however, this movement had won respectability so thoroughly that it is sometimes regarded by the current crop of social action leaders as simply part of the Establishment.

Ever since the beginning of the social gospel movement early in this century, the churches have been seriously engaged in social action. But it seems probable that the pace of this was slowed down for a number of years by some of the so-called neo-orthodox trends in theology. The 1960’s have certainly witnessed more fighting activity on the part of churches and ministers.

What I seem now to detect, most noticeably on seminary campuses, is a new, largely unconscious, and rather dangerous notion about what is masculine and virile and worthy in ministry — as against what is held to be feminine, weak, hand-holding, playing into the status quo. The ultimate question I have been asked is, "What do you want us to do, hold old ladies’ hands?" And my answer is, of course, "Under some conditions, that is an essential part of the ministry; and besides, old ladies are safer than young ones."

Since the exercise of ministry involves both caring and fighting, according to the situation, the minister who is acutely uncomfortable with either will have a tough time of it. Perhaps each of us tends to lean a bit toward one side or the other; but we can shore up our weak side. The damage comes only when one or the other is renounced.

Theology for Ministry?

It has been charged that finding a viable theology for ministry has become a virtually impossible task. Most pulpit theology, it is held, has never even caught up to neo-orthodoxy, is suspicious alike of John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God and Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, and simply says a flat No to the recent radical theologies without understanding the problem they are trying, however ineffectively, to solve.

On the other side, the charge is made by many ministers that today’s theologians are giving them little help. They tend to write and speak to one another rather than to ministers and church members, it is contended. Even though the issues with which they are dealing are no doubt important, why, it is asked, can they not put their thoughts so as to provide theological help for the minister?

I suspect there is some real truth in both charges. Ever since the frontier began moving westward in this country, there has been a lot of anti-intellectualism in the ministry. And it is clear that in recent years professional theologians (mostly professors) have become far more of a guild than ever before. These are long-term trends that shall require increasing attention and some appropriate correction.

In my judgment, however, it is much more possible for a minister today to find and build a theology for ministry than it has been at any time in my professional career. What has happened is that many of the old taboos or caveats, often unspoken, have either disappeared or been sharply reduced in force. Thus, the minister is freer than he has ever been to build and use a theology that truly makes sense to him. Perhaps the difference is that today he is obligated to work this out himself no matter how many aids he uses. He cannot now merely rely on something given and objective as wholly constituting his theology, as if the Bible or the creeds or the prayer book or Karl Barth or Paul Tillich or Martin Luther were all the theology he needed.

In a way, then, the theological crisis of the ministry is methodological in character. Authorities are still needed; but the authority question is no longer a simple matter of which one. Whatever the authority or authorities looked to, they are insufficient in building a full theology for ministry. One’s own part in the task, with all the risks entailed, is now inescapable. This kind of ferment is long overdue. And if we do not move toward iconoclastic radicalism on the one side, or retreat to positive-thinking theology on the other, the interim period will have been worth it.

From Ferment to Function

With the completion of this chapter, and except for side discussions here and there, this book is finished with the prevailing negative charges against the ministry. In speaking to them in such brief compass, I am sure I shall not have answered all the questions of all readers about them. None of the charges, I have tried to suggest, is without foundation. Yet any of them, pushed beyond a certain point, tends to falsify the situation of the ministry today.

I like the metaphor of "fermentation" for the situation of the ministry today. It has been and still is in a stage of agitation. But if we can arrest this particular vat in time, we can get from it an excellent product. The fact that new vats, as always, will soon be needed does not make less important the fact that we had best soon turn this one off.

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