Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

You know that recently I have been writing you about the responsibility of the people of God in the pew. I was somewhat surprised by the reaction which this discussion stirred up. Some of those who reacted were not very happy with what I had to say; a number insisted that I was missing the point and talking to the wrong people. I should be talking, they said, to the minister because the preaching is not always what it ought to be. If there is a problem in the pew this problem is really one of poor preaching. 

It might be well to discuss this whole matter. 

Now, let it be understood, first of all, that it is my firm conviction that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find in all the ecclesiastical world men who work harder at their calling than our ministers. The reasons for this are not hard to find. Our denomination is a small one and there is much work that has to be done. There is the ever present work of committees—committees of Synod and committees of Classis. There is a great deal of writing which has to be done for The Standard Bearer, the Beacon Lights, the many pamphlets which are written for Church extension work, etc. There are many speeches which have to be made. (I myself was somewhat surprised to see from my records that over the course of better than twenty-five years in the ministry, I averaged almost one speech a month. This is not, I think, an unusual number for many of our ministers.) There are radio sermons which have to be made so that the Reformed Witness Hour can continue its ministry. 

And this is all work outside one’s congregation. 

Within the congregations, generally speaking, more is demanded of our ministers than anywhere else in any other denomination. They teach most, if not all, the Catechism classes, from five or six year olds up to and including post-confession classes. They lead at least some of the Bible study societies in the congregation. They do a great amount of pastoral work which includes visiting the sick and aged, the widows and orphans, new parents and bereaved families. They work, sometimes for long periods of time, with people who have troubles and problems, with marriages which are rocky and weak, with those who battle against the sins of the flesh and need the constant support and help of their pastor. Many of their nights are taken by family visitation. They preach twice a Lord’s Day and take all the special services besides. 

There is no question about it that our ministers are busy—whether they are in small congregations or large congregations. 

To be so busy and to do good work requires of our ministers a dedication and zeal for the cause of the Lord and a devotion for the welfare of the Church of Christ which is often beyond the call of duty—if I may use that expression in Christ’s kingdom. They are involved in the work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They are not like the minister who, upon moving to a new congregation, put a notice in the bulletin that he would be available for pastoral work between 2:00 and 4:00 P.M. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. His elder hit the nail on the head when he said to his new pastor: “Pastor, I hope that when I die it is between 2:00 and 4:00 on either Tuesday or Thursday.” They are pastors in the true sense of the word. 

But the question nevertheless arises: Are our ministers too busy? That is, are they so busy that they cannot give the attention which they must to their preaching? Does it happen sometimes that their work is so extensive and the demands made upon them so great that their sermon preparation suffers? 

That this question has to be faced is clear from the fact that the preaching of the Word is central to their calling. Those who labor in the pastoral ministry are, first and foremost, preachers. There lies the heart of their calling. If they fail in this or are negligent in this, they ultimately fail in all their calling in Christ’s vineyard.

Now there are a number of different viewpoints on this whole matter; and it is certainly an evident fact that no rules and regulations can be laid down to govern the problem which arises in this connection. It is certainly true that preaching comes before committee work—even the work of the Mission Committee and the Theological School Committee. But this committee work has to be done if the work of the Church is going to be done. And the minister must find the proper balance for his own life so that he can be faithful to his primary calling. It is true too that preaching comes before the work of leading societies; but it is also true that a minister really gets to know his sheep in the life of the societies in the Church; and these society meetings are often like moments of spiritual refreshment and renewal in the pressures of the work. Somewhere here too he must find a proper balance; and no one can do that but he himself. But, even then, let him remember that he is first and foremost a preacher. 

And so it is that there are many demands placed upon his time and many things required of him which are only indirectly related to his calling to be a preacher. Some of these things are important; some less important; some not important at all. He must make his choices, and he must do so before the face of the Lord Christ Whom he serves and before Whose judgment seat he must render account. But he must remember that he is first and foremost a preacher. 

When I say that the minister is first and foremost a preacher, I do not mean simply that his most important work is performed in that two hours or so that he stands on the pulpit on the Lord’s Day. I refer to all that is involved in making those sermons which he brings to God’s people during the worship services. I refer to the fact that the minister spends much time in prayer and study as he wrestles with the Scriptures and prepares a sermon of which he can confidently say: “This is what the Spirit has to say to the Church.” I refer to the fact that, if he is to continue to bring that Word of God, he must constantly study beyond what is immediately necessary to produce a sermon. He must read and read and read. He must fill his soul with all that he can of what the Church of Christ has confessed to be the truth. He must himself grow and develop in the knowledge of the riches of salvation in Jesus Christ if he is to preach in such a way that his congregation grows and develops. And this requires hours and hours in his study. It is essential. Without those hours and hours he will ultimately fail in his calling. The well of his soul will run dry if it is not weekly replenished with the study of the Word of God in all of its broad context of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. 

What the ultimate solutions to the problems which a minister faces are, only the minister himself can decide. But decide he must for the sake of the welfare of Jerusalem and the peace of Zion. 

But one aspect of this question especially I want to discuss with you; that is the relation between the pastoral work of the minister and his calling to preach. I am personally convinced, also from my own experience in the ministry, that it is entirely possible for pastoral work to take away from the time which a minister spends in his study. 

There are reasons for this. 

For one thing, there are those in the congregation who demand of their pastor pastoral attention when it is not really necessary. If God’s people were spiritually mature and struggled to attain such spiritual maturity, there would be a spiritual strength to solve many problems in life which now the minister must help solve, but which mature people of God ought to be able to handle on their own. I am saying that our people sometimes place too many and too great demands upon their pastor. 

Looking at the matter from the pastor’s point of view, I think that there is, at least, the temptation to make pastoral work the top priority on a minister’s list of things to do. It is a temptation. There is no excitement, no glamour, no public acclaim, no possibility of popularity in steady, unnoticed, but hard, patient, diligent work in the study. Nobody sees it. Nobody knows the hours spent there. Nobody understands what blood, sweat, and tears go into a sermon which is the fruit of soul-wrenching wrestling with the Word of God. Pastoral work is different. That is in the public eye. There is a certain excitement in it. There is no drudgery involved, for every visit, every problem is different. There is a certain challenge which quickens the blood. There is a certain praise of men which can be acquired from skillful counseling, from ability to solve knotty problems, from getting a tottering marriage to stand firm once again. You understand what I mean. 

I am not saying that these things are the motivation behind the pastoral labors of our ministers in every case. But I am saying that the temptation is there and is very strong—I know. And so it is easy to seek that work, to prefer it, to make it top priority, to drop the books and pen in the study at a moment’s notice and be winging one’s way off to more exciting matters. 

This is wrong. 

There is still another point of view. In the ecclesiastical work at large it is pastoral work which gets all the attention in magazines, journals, religious periodicals, ministerial workshops, etc., etc. Is it just possible that we have been influenced unduly by these things? 

There is pastoral work that has to be done. There is no question about that. And pastoral work is also part of the minister’s calling. He is a servant of the Word also in this aspect of his work. 

But if this aspect of his work takes him out of his study too much and if it results in sermon preparation which is hurriedly and slovenly done, then there is something radically wrong. If his pastoral labors leave him no time to read, to study, to broaden his understanding of the Word of God and the heritage of the truth, then he does wrong and his preaching will suffer. If he puts his pastoral work above and before sermon preparation, he does injustice to the Word of God and will have to pay the price. 

The minister is first and foremost a preacher. 

Next time we will talk about some solutions to this problem. 

Farewell for now. 

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko