Chapter 5: The Ministry as Teaching

Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner

Chapter 5: The Ministry as Teaching

In spite of the emphasis placed by the Protestant Reformers especially Calvin, upon the function of teaching, no image of the ministry as teaching — apart from preaching — has come down to us from that age.

The reasons for this fact are historically complex. Most obvious is that teaching at all levels and with all subject matter came to be done in "schools," institutions with their own type of organization even when in or related to churches. The people who worked in schools became "teachers." Thus "teaching" and "teacher" could not, like preaching and preacher, be used to designate something unique to the minister. And when ministers ceased to think of themselves as teachers, it was only a step to think of their communicative function as other than teaching.

There was also in the background rebellion against the approximately eight hundred years in which the teaching of people by the church had been much more by symbolism — architecture, the Mass, and the like — than by direct discourse. Not without justice, the Reformers believed that this was an obscurantist policy. They stressed communicating the message of the Bible; and while they spoke of this procedure as both preaching and teaching, it was preaching that was unique to the ministry. And as the Protestant centuries went on, even teaching, if done by the minister, was ordinarily referred to as preaching.

Perhaps another reason for the absence of a Reformation image of the minister as teacher (apart from preacher) was the Protestant concern for study of the Bible by all Christians. This led on the one side to the development of schools at all levels, and on the other side to a new kind of reliance upon the family as the primary Christian school. In relation to all such enterprises the ordained minister was, in fact, what we should today call an administrator or supervisor. The notion of teaching, however, even to this day, has been associated with direct encounter. The facilitation of learning was not thought of as teaching, as I believe it should be.

But if we look at what the Reformation tried to do in fact, and not merely at its partly polemical images, it becomes perfectly possible to construct an image of the minister as teacher — which the Reformation should have made explicit. here was the extraordinary claim that the Bible should be read in every home in the vernacular, so the people of all ages could understand its meaning. If the head of the household could not read, let him be so taught. Let him not be arbitrary in his understanding of what he read. In the church he may get corrective instruction about his own interpretations. But what he hears in church is not a substitute for his own study and his leadership of his family in such study.

An image could have been constructed in which the ordained minister is shown in a private residence, seated beside the father, with the rest of the family grouped around. A Bible would rest upon the table in front of minister and father, and both would have their eyes upon it. The best account available of this kind of ministerial practice is contained in Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor, published at the middle of the seventeenth century.

Viewed in retrospect, the contribution of Protestant ministers to this kind of at-home Bible study and instruction is probably as significant historically as their work in founding schools at many levels. But it was "quiet work." It seemed not to lend itself to an image as did the function of preaching. Further, was it "teaching"? It was instruction about instructing! Even to this day, every school administrator knows that his former classroom colleagues regard him as having deserted "teaching" in favor of "educational administration." They will concede him the title of "educator," but not of "teacher."

My argument is, then, that the activities of the Reformation warranted an image of the minister teaching — when shown as instructing a group (focally the family but also other kinds of groups) on how to continue their instruction and learning. The fact that such an image did not appear is due to the factors that have been mentioned and no doubt to many others that have not. But from Reformation practice the significant fact is that the minister’s exercise of his teaching function is instructing about instructing — and not doing all the instructing himself.

It may even be that to early Protestants the New Testament, especially the four Gospels, was an unconscious barrier against creating an actual image of the ministry as teaching. In the Gospels, Jesus is called "teacher" far more than any other term, especially when it is recognized that the appellation of "master" was also intended in early Protestant translations to mean "teacher." But what was Jesus doing when he sent out the twelve and the seventy? He taught them before they went; and he appraised their work, and their response to it, upon their return. Was this "teaching"? I certainly believe so. But the obtrusiveness of his own direct public speaking in the New Testament put the Reformers off about seeing it this way.

As Protestant time has gone on, the categories hardened about what is preaching, teaching, or evangelizing. Preaching became associated with the context of worship; so that it takes a strong reminder that preaching may also be evangelistic, i.e., the message addressed to those who do not share the assumptions of the preacher. Teaching became associated with "preparation, i.e., what is done before the context of worship to prepare for it—thus tending to exclude the context of worship as actual teaching or instruction. Evangelizing tended to be defined in theory as dealing with nonbelievers, but in actual practice to be associated with a special kind of worship context to which the nonbeliever must conform if he was present at all.

Some conclusions seem warranted from these linguistic developments. The main one is that teaching, in effect, gets excluded from relationship with worship except as possible preparation. The notion that worship could not only stimulate the desire for learning, but itself be a new step in learning, seems to disappear. If any "conviction" appears, then what has gone on is not "teaching" but "preaching." Such views obviously keep teaching in an anteroom.

The catechisms of early Protestantism were creeds designed for instructional purposes. Their title was derived from a Greek word meaning to "sound" or to "resound." Later, when it was seen that systematic study of the functions of church and ministry was necessary, it was logical to use the word "catechetics" to apply to teaching and learning. This term — with its feeding back precisely what had originally been "sounded" — had many negative implications in the development of effective teaching methods, and of course today has been virtually discarded.

In the first centuries of Christianity, catechumens were adult converts who had to undergo long and arduous instruction before being admitted to the church through baptism. When Christianity became official, the time and instruction were cut more and more. In a sense, the catechisms of early Protestantism were attempts to return to the ways of the early church, for which such teaching and learning were very important. But by the time "catechetics," as the study of instruction, became a theological discipline in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, a curious reversal had taken place, and most of the talk was about dealing with children.

The "Repeat-After-Me" Image

By somewhere along in the nineteenth century, I suggest that the image in vogue of the minister as teacher was about like this. There was a frock-coated and stiff-collared minister standing before a group of starched and uncomfortable boys, he asking questions to which they were to give precise answers — such as, "Who made you? Answer: God."

At first glance, beginning with the collars, the image is wholly repellent to us today. The boys cannot think for themselves or put it in their own words. They must give the book answer. While the minister may be kindly enough to help them with a forgotten word, he is not aiding them to think out its meaning in their terms. He is a relatively impersonal examiner rather than a teacher. How they actually were induced to memorize is not shown in the image, nor is there any revelation of what the memorizations mean to the boys.

Obviously I can hold no brief for the collar, the sheer memorizing, the lack of authentic exchange, and the like that this image contains. But there are two facts about it which we seem to have discarded too easily. The first is the simple fact that the minister himself has some place in the teaching process — no matter who got the material into the heads of the boys. The second fact is that some kind of examinational procedure is regarded as natural and normal.

Of course I am for modern theories and methods of instruction, with exchange between teacher and students and with students encouraged to take all the initiative of which they are capable. But where in the church today is anybody, with his own consent, ever really examined about what he has learned? The purpose of such an appraisal may indeed be to make possible a decision, as in connection with passing or failing a formal course. But if that exhausts its function, poor teaching is taking place. An examination in itself, no matter what its nature, is to help the student toward better capacity for self-appraisal, getting appropriate confidence in his strong points and learning about the weak ones that need more work. Thus, a proper examination is a part of the learning process and not merely a formal testing of what it has accomplished to date. I suggest that this notion, in however backhanded a way, was present in our frock-coated minister, and that we should recover it and bring its attitudes and methods up to date.

The minister, further, although he could not possibly sit down at length with every child or small group of children and teach them all that they should learn, was nevertheless involved in the teaching process. Presumably it was parents, and then later church school teachers, who got the material into the boys initially. But even today I believe these lay teachers might go at their task differently if they knew that the product of their efforts was to be appraised, in some proper way, and that this appraisal too was part of the teaching and learning process.

In the previous section, building from the activities of the Reformation, I suggested that the image of instructing the instructors is valid if brought up to date as to method. In the present section I have argued that the image of appraising, in proper ways, as a part of teaching, and with the minister having some part in it, is important. I see no reason why these two general kinds of function are any less proper "teaching" than direct instruction of an individual or a small group.

The Motherly Teacher

I am not sure when it began to happen in a big way — probably not until the latter half of the nineteenth century — but the image of the real teacher of children became the motherly person in the Sunday school. My own entire career in Sunday school had such motherly persons as teachers. One of them, the best, is still vivid in my memory. She stood for no nonsense like spitballs; yet in spite of the authority we respected, she was kind and honestly interested in each of us, and we knew it. If we forgot to bring a verse for the day, she would give us a hand while exercising some precautionary scolding against next Sunday’s verse. Of course I remember my fellow student who brought in "Jesus wept." But he could not place it in the biblical numbers game. It may have helped that this teacher was a good friend of my mother, and that we had family social affairs together on occasion.

The image of the motherly person actually trying to get it into the heads of the boys was an improvement in some obvious respects over the frock-coat image. It was directly concerned with the learning process and did not concentrate on testing the results. The motherly person was there to nurture, firmly but kindly, at a period in American cultural development when a man would not have been believable in this role with children. Like my own teacher, she represented a movement toward acknowledging the boyishness of boys or the girlishness of girls; but being a step removed from the actual mother, she could be firmer and more systematic.

Like the Sunday school system itself, this motherly-person image was a recognition that, in terms of method, the family could not be counted on to do the whole needed teaching job along with services of worship. This was realism, for the function of the family was changing; and here was recognition of the fact, even though there may have been little sociological theory behind it.

Having said good things for the motherly-person image, however, we must also note some deficiencies. To begin with, it is vaguely anti-intellectual. If her attitude is good and she follows the written instructions, she can teach what is needed — even if she knows nothing about "theology." In addition, the motherly person is teaching, but she is not concomitantly learning except through reading her lesson materials. And indeed, as the Sunday schools developed, their administrators as well as teachers were laymen; and only on some special retreat did the teachers have direct contact with the ordained minister about the content of their task. There is the strong suspicion, in a look at the image, that the minister has unloaded teaching altogether because it is only an anteroom function.

It is a good thing indeed that men as well as women, young women as well as matrons, and talented older people of both sexes have also been engaged in the teaching enterprises of the churches. The shift away from fixed male-females roles has helped the churches to get more men engaged where they should be. But the image of church school teaching is still the matronly, motherly person; and it requires a secure man to take up that particular cross.

Not a little of the everlasting new curriculums that are issued from the boards of Christian education is, at some level not clearly conscious, aimed at qualifying the motherly-person image in the direction of masculinity and the intellect — without getting rid of Mom altogether. Thumping about theology (which is a masculine discipline) is one way. Beating the table about the Church in capital letters (in capitals it too is male) is another. Maybe the motherly person had it coming to her. But heaven help us if her combination of kindness and firmness is lost, no matter what her theology or her sense of the Great Church. The motherly person was not far from being the Mary of Protestantism. And in actual fact, if we lost her tomorrow, most of our church "educational buildings" would have to be closed.

The Image of Teaching as "Higher" Calling

One of the genuine achievements of the past quarter-century has been the increase in formal teaching of religion in colleges and universities. In tax-supported schools such teaching must be both competent and fair to all positions; and with rare exceptions it has been so in schools that are related to particular churches. Qualifications for the teachers run high academically. If the teacher does not have an earned doctorate, he is always a bit under suspicion. The earned doctorate in theology is rarely secured with less than seven years of full-time graduate study after the undergraduate college work. Except for surgeons and psychoanalysts, therefore, the school route to becoming a full-time teacher of religion in higher education requires more years than any other field.

Among such teachers who meet all qualifications, there is a growing number who do not wish to be ordained as ministers. In any individual instance such a decision may be excellent, and proper for the person. And as the situation stands at present, the line of division is not between those who are ordained to the ministry and those who are not. The line is, I think, between those who see such teaching as a form of ministry and those who disassociate teaching from ministry and regard religious teaching as a "higher" calling than the ministry.

The higher-calling notion has a long history within the Christian church. Are you a monk, or only a "secular" priest? Are you ordained, or only a friar? Are you a missionary, or only ministering to an established domestic congregation? Are you properly "itinerating," or are you beguiled to settle down somewhere? Even in these modern days I have had long and agonizing interviews and counseling sessions with overseas missionaries who were trying to decide whether, if they exercised ministry back home, they would be recreant to their "higher calling."

Today the higher calling of all higher callings seems to he teaching. For nearly a dozen years I was a member of the Committee to Visit the Divinity School, of Harvard University, a quaint but sometimes useful device dating back to early days when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had its suspicions about Harvard and exercised them through insisting on such inspection. I "inspected" during the period when Harvard Divinity School moved from an almost moribund institution to the school that it is today.

When the Harvard Divinity School got back on its feet in the early 1950’s, it became very "churchy." At the same time, and until this day, a goodly number of its students alleged that they did not want to become "ministers," but rather were interested in becoming "teachers." In this respect Harvard is only an extreme example. Most other theological schools find the same thing in less severe statistical form.

It is certainly possible and, for the particular man, necessary that he take all the training to be a teacher of theology or religion without necessarily becoming an ordained minister. And if he is competent, he is likely to do a great deal of good with his formal teaching in college or university. What he accomplishes may be quite independent of his being ordained or not. What troubles me about the situation is not what happens to this full-time teacher, but the inferiority complex which his training and his (collective) sense of a "higher" calling give to ordained ministers. It is almost as if it were said to the minister: "You aren’t equipped to do real teaching; leave that to us."

In a report on "The Nature of the Ministry" to the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in 1964, it was proposed that a teacher be a special kind of minister. It is true that this report met a good deal of opposition and has not been adopted. It suggests, however, the uneasiness of many who do full-time teaching in higher education about separating their status and function from that of ministers in general. My objection is not, of course, to functional specialization, in teaching or any other function. It is using that functional specialism backhandedly to deprive the minister of his own proper commitment to the teaching part of his duties.

A New Teaching Image

I suggest that a new image of the ministry as teaching looks like this. A minister and a layman are seated together at one point of a round table. Seated with them, all round the remainder of the table, are adults of different sexes and ages, but all plainly responsible if part-time teachers. The minister and the lay administrator are jointly instructing the instructors — in dialogue, of course.

When a church educational program is operating effectively, that is the actual situation. The many persons needed for a program must of course be lay men and women. And many aspects of the administration can properly be under lay supervision. But the minister bears ultimate responsibility for the teaching; and unless he has been stampeded away from regarding this supervision as his principal "teaching," he will feel a deep commitment to the entire teaching work of the church through this redefinition of his teaching function.

As more of our local churches become large enough to have more than one minister or professional person on their staff, it is increasingly customary for one of the persons to have functional charge of the Christian education program. Earlier in the century most directors of religious education were not ordained, and nearly all were women. Certainly this is an excellent spot for competent women to serve the church; but of late years more men are holding such positions, and more directors, both men and women, are ordained ministers.

In the new image it should make no difference whether the ordained minister is a man or a woman, a generalist or a specialist minister in education. "Teaching" as such belongs indissolubly with "ministry," special function or no. If we have enough specialists to warrant it, perhaps the image could show two ministers at the round table along with the others. And one might be a woman.

A few props might be inserted into this cartoon image. Of course there should be some curriculum materials on the table. I suggest a couple of hefty Bibles besides. And to show that even very young ages are included in the concern, there might well be some gadget or pictorial device. A newspaper — to show the attempt to connect the gospel with the world — would be appropriate. Perhaps that is sufficient.

In speculating on this image, I suggest that the reader bear in mind that no attempt has been made at a general discussion of Christian education whether in local church or elsewhere. The focus has been on the teaching function inherent in the total work of every ordained minister. I believe that he does far more real teaching than he realizes. I want him to rethink his teaching ministry, and to see it as an essential part of his total ministry.

Whom Shall the Minister Teach?

For the sake of convenience, the locus of the minister’s teaching efforts has so far been assumed to be the local church or some extension thereof. That is, it has been assumed that the co-workers and the students are all, at least in some degree, sharers of the basic point of view and commitment that the minister himself has. Certainly this is the center of the teaching work of most ministers.

But no minister, unless immured within his local church structure, is devoid of teaching opportunities in other settings — if he sees them as such and responds appropriately to them. He makes hospital calls; does he, by however indirect means, properly teach what the ministry is, what the church is, and so on, in his hospital relationships? If he belongs to something like the Rotary Club, he does some kind of teaching there, whether for good or ill. In social action projects, too, there is always teaching as well as action.

Unless such situations are invitations to make a formal speech, however, I suggest that ministers today seldom think of the teaching potentialities they afford. One of the factors in my own experience that has made me increasingly regard this as basic to the teaching function of ministry has been my service as theological consultant to mental hospitals, especially the Menninger Foundation.

In hospital parlance a "consultant" is a responsible professional person who appraises the whole situation (be it a case or an idea), engages in responsible mutual discussion about it with the persons regularly in charge, and tries to aid them to improve their ways of understanding the situation and approaching it. The consultant does not "stay." He does not assume the ongoing responsibility.

In my early work as consultant I of course had opportunity to give speeches, to lead special discussion sessions around particular topics, and the like. But I found much that was most significant when I sat in, for instance, in a team case discussion that would have been held anyhow. If I had anything to contribute in shedding light on the situation before us, I could do so. But nobody had to attend a special meeting.

This kind of situation is, I think, something that nearly every minister finds himself in quite often; for the subject matter may be varied, and yet the principle remains. It may be argued that my special status as a consultant facilitates my own way of teaching in such ongoing situations, and that is true. But that only helps things to get started. Something else is needed to make it work.


In summary, my argument is that the minister is, in some sense, a teacher of everybody. To hold this position of course requires that teaching involve the supervision of education, and not be confined to classroom or pulpit-and-pew encounters. Teaching includes the instruction of instructors.

This shift in thinking about teaching is made easier by the new image proposed — a round table, a minister and a lay leader, and other persons, with Bibles and other paraphernalia to show the focus on inquiry. If this image is adopted, it should also aid in closing the gap that now so often exists between ministers and teachers of religion in higher education.