Chapter 11: The Ministry as Disciplining

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 11: The Ministry as Disciplining

I have used the term "disciplining" after much hesitation and reflection, and a final decision that nothing else will take its place. Like most moderns, I once thought all the connotations of "discipline" were about what parents and teachers did to you when you failed to conduct yourself as they thought you should. Discipline was very close to punishment.

Even when I learned, rather early, that "discipline" and "disciple" were supposed to be closely related, I could connect these ideas only through the notion of "self-discipline." And while that was supposed to be a good thing, its connotations were all about what you ought not to do.

I have become allergic to slick modern interpretations of discipline that bear down heavily on discipleship and ignore the long series of historical events that moved the focus of the term from a glad and voluntary commitment and placed it around censure of the individual by the group. In this discussion no such legerdemain is permitted.

In the process of my slow reconciliation to the term I have been especially aided by experts in child study, who have been redefining discipline as protection of the child from that from which he is not yet ready to protect himself. In this most elementary area of parent-child relationships, such a notion rescues discipline from connotations of punishment and has the further virtue of counseling foresight, according to which the best disciplining parent is the one who anticipates that from which the child alone cannot protect himself and does something about it before the child is injured. In this child-care sense, then, discipline as redefined is a kind of shepherding function, with preventive aspects emphasized. To be sure, if the child does something that needs to be stopped, this is still discipline also. But the focus is now before rather than after the fact of error.

Still thinking of discipline in terms of child care, it becomes apparent, however, that the best prevention is education whenever it can be achieved that is, that the child who can learn to anticipate consequences for himself is in a much better position to avoid harmful misconduct than the child who relies wholly on external admonitions. The aim of discipline is, then, always in the direction of capacity for self-discipline. But self-discipline in this sense is not merely negative, refraining from fun. It is alert self-protection from harm: or still more positively, discovering and pursuing what will do more good.

Whether the term "discipline" can survive these conflicts and shifts I do not know. But for purposes of the present discussion, I shall assume that it has a chance. When disciplining is seen in this way, then the topics for subsequent discussion become clear. They fall into two general categories: the minister’s disciplining of himself, in both his personal and his professional dimensions, to the intent of making his ministry effective; and the minister’s attempts, with other people to evoke appropriate self-discipline. These will be considered in turn.

The Image of Disciplining

Now that we know what we are looking for, I believe there is a nascent image in Protestantism of the ministry as disciplining. It is a fuzzy cartoon. It shows a minister in an unmistakable attitude of praying, and that much is not obscure. The fuzziness is because other possible images impinge, like a double or a triple exposure on a film. Why prayer and not study and action? Why the minister by himself? Why is he not disciplining others, at least in the sense of aiding them to move in the direction of self-discipline? These other potential images are not against the minister’s praying. But they are competing for the model of the ministry as disciplining.

I want to defend this simple image of the minister praying as central to disciplining. We must first, however, give instructions to our cartoonist. Let him choose as to whether the minister is kneeling, seated, or standing. So long as his head is bowed, he is in the attitude of prayer. But the surroundings are important. There should be some clear Christian symbol, such as a Bible or a cross or a prayer book, in the proper place. But since prayer is not purely for the self or for the church, but also for others and for the needs of the world, something in the cartoon should suggest this relevance. Perhaps again the device of the window could be useful. Even though the minister’s head is bowed, the cartoon can show through the window some smoke or confusion or dirt. Although the minister does not, in the prayer stance, actually see these symbolic problems of the world, he can be shown as faced in that direction. This rescues his praying from mere ecclesiasticism, and also from self-preoccupation.

Presenting the minister by himself in this image is for the same reasons as in the image of the minister as theologian. As theologian, he was preparing himself through study. Eventually he would make available the results of his reflection to other people. But the critical point of the image was his processes of reflection — the production rather than the sales. The same requirement holds for the image of disciplining. Eventually he will be conveying something to others. But what is crucial are the processes by which he gets it himself.

The image is about prayer not because prayer is the sole way of discipline, but rather because it is the procedure not highlighted by the other images. Discipline comes also through study, and there we have the ministry as theologizing. It comes, further, through action, and there the ministry is reconciling. But the base and the energizer for even these is prayer, the minister humbly but honestly speaking and listening to God — in thanksgiving, confession, petition, and intercession.

When it comes to private praying, my record is about like that of most ministers — a rather feeble, lower-case average with occasional spurts into capital letters, especially when things get tough. I do have two gimmicks about my own praying, which may or may not be relevant to others. The first is laying before God periodically, i.e., daily, a "feeling review" of the events, encounters, and thoughts of the period and trying to hear the appraisal that comes from this presentation. The second is a similar procedure about the events of ministry, those that have touched other people and not merely myself — and to the same end of articulating for myself and trying to hear the discriminating evaluation. Like anybody else who prays at all, in times of special need I throw all regularities to the winds and just let loose. But I try never to overlook, even in time of deep personal need, the concomitant professional obligations.

I confess that there was a period in my life when I wondered if praying was merely a historically sanctioned procedure for challenging me to bring the separate aspects of my psyche into some kind of integration. I began to quit worrying about such an interpretation when I realized that God himself regarded this as a good thing — if it could be managed. That realization made God more real to me, in both his immanent concern and his transcendent otherness. But in prayer all this is impossible without corollary concern for others and for the world. And that, for the ordained minister, means praying about his professional exercise of responsibility as well as about his Christian faith.

Self-Disciplining: The Personal Self

There is no need to repeat the common sense on these matters that has been said by many writers far better than I could say it. Despite all the helter-skelter of schedules in the modern minister’s home, some kind of regularity about devotional practices makes sense. It does no good to one’s ministry to take no time out from it for family and hobbies and just sheer recreation. If the minister finds that he has unresolved personal or family problems, let him seek help on these like anyone else. Let the study that is to be for long-term improvement not be wholly displaced by that which confronts the deadline of next Sunday’s sermon. And so on. All these things are sound advice.

I believe, however, that we ministers face unusual problems these days in the personal aspects of self-discipline. It is not that we are unprepared to exercise it if we were sure what it should be about. But not being very sure, we develop our patterns rather opportunistically. Because of that fact, it does not feel like "self-discipline"; and so we vaguely hope that some better situation may come along someday and repair everything, while all the while habit patterns are being ingrained — be they of self-flagellation or self-indulgence. And when we make a move in some area to create a new pattern, there is likely to be enough ambiguity about it to make us retreat.

Take personal friendship as an illustration. The chances are that the young minister had a couple of good friends while in seminary, not counting his wife. But when he becomes immersed in full-time ministry, and the job is never done, and he has not prayed enough nor done enough for his family, the chances are that he develops "hosts of friends" but has no real friend, even another minister, with whom he can share the gripes that one does share only with a real personal friend. Since friendship of this kind develops organically and not on command, he probably finds, as time goes on, that friendship begins with a person or two. But he may not let it develop. "You can’t be real friends with one of your parishioners," he may have heard, and he may have swallowed this propaganda. Or the person may be an agnostic; and what would the congregation think if they found that out?

I am certainly not against the minister’s duties to and pleasures with his wife and children. But if the minister comes to feel disloyal or unfaithful at having a real friend other than his wife, then it makes wife and family carry a burden that is very heavy for all but the most rare of spouses. And yet there is a strong pressure on the minister to feel such disloyalty. One of the unsung virtues of our many continuing education ventures these days is that ministers can get away from these patterns for a short time, and not infrequently begin to take a new look at friendship.

Close friendship is mutuality. It is an acknowledgment that I need something from you, and not merely that I am big enough to give something to you. The pressures upon the minister tend to make him feel, however, that he should be big enough to give out all the time except at home. This is simply false. Nobody is as strong as that. In one sense, to need a couple of close friends is to admit weakness. Well, why not? This seems an appropriate part of personal self-disciplining.

There is a certain amount of personal self-disciplining in relation to one’s family that does tend, these days, to come about naturally, even with the minister’s schedule. There is the post-dinner period with the children, unless television gets out of hand. There is the summer vacation, the trip to the grandparents, the going out to dinner if a baby sitter can be found, and much else.

In most places these days a minister’s wife and children are permitted to be themselves, so that some of the older kinds of pressures are either gone or greatly reduced. But the minister is under strong internal pressure to be the "good father," Thus, no matter what his schedule with his family, he is tempted either to smugness or guilt — both equally harmful. He may find himself, on home evenings, so exhausted by the time the children are in bed that he can do nothing but flop in front of the television set.

Again, the minister is under pressure to feel guilty if he develops anything like a serious hobby. A hobby is a continuing interest involving some commitment of time, energy, and skill — but not for profit. It is potentially "re-creative" as passive participations are not. And I think more ministers have hobbies today. I wish someone had encouraged me, when I began my ministry, to keep up my amateur interest in music. They didn’t, and I later got on to carpentry — which is not as good for culture but a lot better for unloading hostility. The point I am making is that reasonable pursuit of a hobby is a part of personal self-discipline, rather than an enemy of it. I think the Lord loveth a cheerful amateur carpenter.

Finally, as to the how of personal prayer and devotional life, I have only one suggestion. Find out what is realistic and meaningful for you; and don’t be stampeded into gu8lt or apathy by those persons who believe that the more prayer the better. Beyond passing out daily devotional booklets, we are not very competent in Protestantism in guiding individually the devotional life of our parishioners. Thus, we tend to think collectively rather than individually even about ourselves; and the two distortions tend to reinforce each other, Whatever you do, figure it out for yourself.

Self-Discipline: The Professional Self

Although the terms "profession" and "professional" are used in many ways — to show you get paid or that it is your job, like a golf "pro," for instance — the real meaning of professional is "responsibility." It is not privilege, not impersonality, and not money, but basically the exercise of responsibility — in certain ways. So understood, the minister is a professional man.

In summary form, here are the features necessary to a profession and a professional man.

1. He works on the basis of fundamental principles, but making them relevant to the needs of concrete situations. His discipline contains and continues to develop such principles. His is not a trial-and-error trade. But neither is he, as professional man, a scholar or scientist or laboratory man (although he may be those things too as an individual). His job is mediating the principles to the needs of people in concrete situations. He is equally attentive to the principles and to the people.

2. He uses technical means that usually require a long time for mastery; but he used them rather than having them dictate to him. The minister’s technical means may include the biblical languages, knowledge of how to counsel, and a grasp of group leadership or curriculum materials. The range is wide. And his mastery of them may fall short of virtuosity. But he uses them as the situation warrants. He is not enslaved to them individually or collectively, so that he must always use them whether relevant or not.

3. He is explicit to himself and others about a principle of limitation of function and responsibility. When someone in his own or another profession is prepared better than he to perform a service, he refers as soon as he can — and does not wait until he has tried everything and is at the end of his rope. With all developing professions, the limitation is not fixed but fluid. Nevertheless, it exists and is made explicit.

4. He operates in some fairly clear way in the direction of human welfare. This is obvious with physician and minister; but it is also true of the architect who, if he is professionally responsible, designs the houses in terms of his best understanding of the people and their entire situation. Much human activity that turns out to be important proceeds otherwise, like the work of the laboratory scientist. The professional man, however, always has direct human welfare in mind.

5. He operates, finally, as a representative of a group that has some kind of ethics to govern its services to people who need them. Whether his is an old or a new profession, every act of professional responsibility that he undertakes is in the light of his professional ancestors and will affect his professional descendants, whether he realizes the fact or not. He is not alone.

If the minister is inattentive to any of these points, he is, however unwittingly, failing to exercise appropriate professional responsibility — or, in the context of this discussion, proper professional self-discipline. We may review the points with this in mind.

1. Basic principles related to concrete situations. New principles, or new understandings of principles, are being developed in theology no less than in the sciences. Is the minister, in some reasonable way, keeping up with them? Is he exploring and testing, and putting out for expert appraisal, his own ability to understand concrete situations and relating fundamental principles to them? If so, he is exercising on this point professional self-discipline.

2. Technical means mastered but not controlling. Is the minister keeping up with the developing technical means, or does he scorn all considerations of technique as unnatural? Or is he, in contrast, so bound to his technical methods that they blind him to the novelties in the situations he confronts? Is he afraid of a discussion after a speech, or of a speech before a discussion? Or does he keep after improving those elements of his technique where he is weak, while being, not unjustifiably, proud of those where he is strong? Does he simply favor his special skills, or does he also work at improving the others?

3. Acknowledging limitation. For the minister, this is no easy way out of the functions one does not like. It does mean disclaiming omniscience about what one likes and assuming responsibility for what one does not if it is essential to ministry. It means playing fair with those more skilled in various ways even if one does not approve all their views. Perhaps above all, it means acknowledging that there are many people in the church who know a lot more about many things than the minister does.

4. Working directly for human welfare. Unless the minister believes that his supervisory work is as important as his direct service to persons, he will distort the meaning of this principle. He needs to believe that administering is as relevant to human welfare as preaching, and teaching as relevant as pastoral care, and so on. What he cannot do is to retreat to sonic ivory tower of routine without continuing to appraise the human welfare significance of what he is doing.

5. Representing his whole profession ethically. The minister, like any Christian, tries to represent Christ and the church. But in a more limited sense the minister always represents all ministers. Every act of his affects them, and he should be aware of this fact. Every act of his affects the shape of the entire ordained ministry. He may criticize his brethren, living or dead; but he does so in respect of his profession to which they also were and are committed.

I am sure that the shape of professional self-disciplining could be put in many other ways. This fashion has been especially helpful to me.

Disciplining Others: In Faith

Not only are heresy trials almost extinct, as they should be. Almost as dead are any real qualifications of belief and faith — so long as one keeps his mouth shut and does not talk manifest heresy. Every minister knows that a large number of his people could not pass any reasonable creedal test if it were put in fresh language and thought forms, even if they would assent to old statements they have interpreted in their own way.

It is possible and likely that most ministers, in a previous generation or century, interpreted the disciplining of their parishioners’ faith as correcting them at least verbally. And we can hardly deny that in some quarters this is still the fashion. Most ministers, however, have swung to something near the opposite extreme. Nobody is ever corrected about anything. Discussion groups about matters of faith emphasize that everybody’s view is wanted and welcome. Surely there is merit in this movement up to a point.

But it has limitations. Suppose that Mr. Jones is saying that of course God made the soul immortal and the Bible proves it. Since the Bible says no such thing, and the minister knows it, what does he do or say after first trying to understand Mr. Jones’s meaning and accepting Mr. Jones as a person? These days he is likely to say almost nothing, and pass on to the next commentator lest he become "tangled" with Mr. Jones. I thoroughly disapprove of this procedure. This is an instance of golden opportunity to do noncoercive, democratic, but authoritative disciplining about the nature of the faith.

He does not have to be either gauche or rejecting in his procedure. He may well begin, "As I get your point, Mr. Jones, you believe such and such. The value of this to you is, I would guess from what you have said, such and such. And I like the value. But the fact is that the Bible does not support the basis upon which . . ." Let him, if necessary, tangle with Mr. Jones. Decently and in order, and careful to keep before himself constantly the distinction between respect for the person and acquiescence in misguided views.

Faith is not strictly a private affair in the sense that anybody’s views are just as authoritative as those of anyone else. The early Protestant understanding of ministry was partly a tribute to this common sense. Today the minister is afraid that Mr. Jones may never come back if anything he says about faith is ever questioned. This kind of passive procedure eventually leads to two things. First, people come to think that it does not matter what you believe so long as you believe it sincerely, which is of course nonsense. Second, people come to think that faith is something you express a little bit on the proper occasion, but not something you reflect on and study and work on. It is this kind of attitude that tends to detheologize church discussions.

The good thing about the modern movement is that the person is not clobbered if he does not at once quote the right answer from the catechism. In principle, he has freedom to think and inquire for himself. But if there is no disciplining of the results of his inquiry — only, "It’s fine that you are giving thought to these matters" — then Christian faith is put in the realm of whim or fancy, and secret approval is given to the notion that anything goes if you believe it sincerely.

Faith is not merely right answers. Faith is indeed the process of inquiry, regardless of the status of the beliefs at any stage in the process. But the whole movement of faith is no more helped by approval of the effort than it is by rejective and merely technical corrections. If the minister is genuine about his respect for the person and his views no matter what they are, he will not harm the relationship if he appropriately disciplines the views.

I recall vividly an incident that occurred a dozen years or so ago, when I was conducting a series of meetings on a university campus. These had included some sessions for interested faculty members. Our procedure had been structured but informal, and there was free-swinging discussion at every stage. Justifiably prominent in the discussion was one professor who clearly and effectively disagreed with some of my views. In reply to him, I tried to state as clearly as possible what my views were and on what bases they rested. Finally he said something like this: "I still don’t agree with you. But I want to congratulate you for not trying to pull aces out of your sleeve." I treasure that statement as one of the greatest compliments I have ever received, and I hope it was justified. He meant that I had stuck to my guns on my views, but had equally tried to understand his position. This story, in retrospect, is a reminder to me that disciplining is never without self-disciplining. I did indeed listen to the professor and his views, and learned something from them and him. He disciplined me just as I did him. And to our mutual profit, I believe.

Disciplining Others: In Life

At least until recent date there was a radical distinction between what one believed (if he was unobtrusive about it) and what he did. Most of the actual heresy trials, without judge and jury, were about matters of personal morals. If you were a Methodist minister, you had sworn not to touch alcohol, and you were not supposed to help anybody who did. If you were an Episcopalian, you could not remarry someone who had been divorced save under such conditions that hardly anyone asked you; but if someone in this position showed up new in your parish, you knew it would not be gentlemanly to throw him out. Every group, including my own, has had its idiosyncrasies about discipline in the Christian life.

In the sense of "control over," not even the Roman Catholic Church any longer has a power of discipline except through excluding offenders from its benefits. And it is not very happy with such power. Protestantism tends to disclaim any desire for such power in a "Good Joe" spirit, which means that it gets worked up and angry when certain events occur and people are not "nice" or "decent." A competent thief in his right mind will steal from any source except a church.

Whatever disciplining behavior may mean these days on the part of churches, there are no possible powers except exclusion from the particular group (which, in a heterogeneous society, is not being made a pariah) and possibly influencing public opinion. What can disciplining of conduct mean, then, if it has no power but persuasion (since exclusion is not the real issue)?

Generally speaking, what all this says to the minister’s task is: You can discipline life only through encouraging self-discipline. Whether you can get to teen-agers or not, you have finally no other resource than understanding and persuasion — no matter if they use the pill, get pregnant, smoke marihuana, or become delinquent. There is no "big stick." Quit kidding yourself.

In some degree there is more chance of creating power to discipline life in adults. You may, if you like, get this or that person out of the church — like the homosexual person who is generally in control of himself but who has occasional relapses. But what thank have ye on such points of decision?

The aim of the minister’s disciplining others in life is precisely as Joseph Fletcher has put it: teaching people to use the ultimate criterion of love in the actual situation in making their decisions. In the context of the present discussion, the same point could be posed as helping people to discipline themselves in such a direction that love is increasingly the criterion of their decisions.