Ferment in the Ministry
by Seward Hiltner


Beginning about ten years ago and lasting through the present, we have had a new kind and volume of criticism of the ministry and the situation in which it finds itself today. Even on a second look, none of these books and articles is without validity and merit. It was charged that the ministry had been softened, that ministers were breaking down, that ministers were getting out, that the job description was impossible, that the ministry was a slave of the Establishment, and so on.

These critiques began in the Eisenhower era, and reached their peak in the brief Kennedy period. Under both of these regimes things seemed secure. Pejorative criticism, even if it carried traces of positivisitic Philistinism, could still regard itself as having constructive intent — because, overall, all seemed well. In good times, prophecy about the stench may very well regard itself as constructive.

All this was, however, before our serious involvement in Vietnam, before the race riots in our cities, before the two Kennedy and one King assassinations, and before the incredible fact of the nation’s increasing wealth and yet the horrible poverty of many of our citizens had become clear to the public.

This is neither a political nor an economic book, and I have no solutions to suggest for either the nation’s wealth or its poverty. But I hope I do have something to say about priests and ministers as we work in this complex situation. We have been going through a period of "failure of nerve," to use the phrase applied originally by Gilbert Murray to Hellenistic civilization. We have become conditioned to listen, Pavlov-fashion, to every conceivable critique of the ministry (and of course of the church as well). Unlike the men who handle jets on our airports, we have had no earplugs that could enable us to separate the sheer noise and push from the genuine problems. Consequently, we have become inclined to listen to the worst we could hear; and, while never taking it wholly, we regard it as a mark of Christian repentance to meditate on the charges as a theological work of merit. Most of us have got on with our jobs of ministry, but with a kind of unexamined uneasiness that does neither God, the church, the world, nor ourselves any good.

For myself, I am through with this well-intentioned but misdirected kind of oblique repentance. Whatever its faults, the ministry in virtually all our churches is more able, better educated, more sensitive to the actual situations of need, and better informed about its tradition, than ever before. It is also, as I shall analyze in the first chapter of this book, in "ferment." But ferment is a stage in the process of wine-making which, while full of agitation and bubbles, comes out at a constructive point if it is not taken as a finality.

I believe I am offering some kind of solution to this failure of nerve in the ministry. My thesis is that the ministry is a unity, a complex unity to be sure, but a unity nevertheless. A complex unity implies some ambiguity, at least temporarily. Therefore, the practical solution to the present failure of nerve comes with a better understanding of the complex unity of the ministry, and capacity to confront the ambiguity of the complexity without losing sight of the unity. I shall argue this thesis during most of the book through cartoon-like images of the actual functions of ministry, attempting to demonstrate that, although details of function differ, they are attitudinally coherent and integrated.

There are new forms and settings of ministry, and new challenges. I trust that my discussion will give them due attention. But to whatever group of general or particular need, and in whatever setting, and no matter who pays the bill, the ministry is finally a general (or "monoepiscopal," to use the scholar’s phrase) leadership of any Christian community that is trying to do something significant. New forms of ministry are peculiarly needed in our own day. But if their practitioners have to denigrate all other forms of ministry in order to defend their own, then there is a psychological screw loose somewhere.

This book has been in preparation for almost ten years. In 1958, when I was at the Chicago Theological Seminary and the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago, the director of the mid-winter conference for ministers twitted me into discussing the ministry today. Thus began the notes from which this discussion evolved. My next excursion into the material was at the summer ministers’ conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1960. Then at Brite Divinity School of Texas Christian University in 1961, and at the annual conference of the United Church of Canada on evangelism in 1962. Through these "tryouts" I had only notes.

My first on-paper chapters were for the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt University in 1964, where four of the chapters were presented in substantially their present form. All the remaining chapters were written in 1967 and 1968, and none of them has been presented in lecture form. I am indebted to my doctoral seminar at Princeton Theological Seminary during the past year for helpful criticisms on the discipline chapter.

In writing a psychological analysis of the contemporary ministry during the past year for the Temporary Commission on Continuing Education of the United Presbyterian Church, which will make its report to the General Assembly in May of 1969, 1 drew upon the work I had done for this book, but there are no identities of text. In lecturing this past spring at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, I also drew upon these materials, but also with no identity of text.

My fundamental presentation of a theory of the ministry was made in my book Preface to Pastoral Theology (1958). There the theoretical apparatus and reasons for it are obtrusive. In the present volume I am rather more like a pamphleteer. I think the ministry is in much better shape than most of its critics allege. I am trying, although hopefully with some objectivity, to argue this thesis throughout. Hence I have even dispensed with references because I want nothing at all to interfere with my deeply felt conviction that the ministry can make it with a bit of understanding here and there. As any reader of my previous books knows, I must be worked up to dispense with references.

Because of the piecemeal way in which this book has been put together, I have never had a whole copy I could lend to anybody; hence I cannot thank anyone for reading the whole thing except the readers of the book itself. But I do want to thank, and warmly, the folks at Vanderbilt, Brite, Union, Chicago, Toronto, and Indianapolis for their responses to the aspects of this material that they heard.

I want, finally, to put in a word of appreciation to my Princeton colleague W. J. Beeners, the sole Princeton faculty member who is a better carpenter than I am. When I discovered that, with all its projections into the technological future of civilization, the great IBM Corporation did not make a case that would enable me to take my typewriter to Maine to finish this book, I appealed to Professor Beeners. Between us, we are ahead of IBM; for the typewriter has both gone and returned in perfect safety.