In my last letter to you, I began a discussion of the work of the ministry and the central importance of preaching. More particularly, I discussed the relation between the work of the preaching on the Lord’s Day and the pastoral labors of a minister, and suggested the possibility that it was possible for pastoral work to take so much of a minister’s time that inadequate time was left for sermon preparation.
I do not want to be misunderstood at this point. There is no doubt about it that pastoral work is also a part of the preaching of the Word. Paul speaks of the fact that, while in Ephesus, he preached the Word from house to house; and that certainly includes what we today call the pastoral ministry of the Church. God’s Word must be brought to the people of God in their many needs as the minister is shepherd of the sheep. But it remains a fact that central to his work is the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s Day. That is first and foremost his calling. And to be a good preacher requires that he spend a great deal of time in his study working on his sermons.
This point was driven home to me this past week by a book I was reading entitled, “Toward An Exegetical Theology. The book is written by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. and is published by Baker Book House. I recommend the book to you. It is well worth reading. In it he speaks at great length of the calling of the minister to be a good preacher and argues in great detail for the need of sound exegetical work to make good sermons. He even states that a minister should figure on a minimum of about 20 hours of work for a sermon. I do not think that a minister in our Churches who has to prepare at least two sermons a week and who has much other work can possibly spend 40 hours a week on sermon preparation; but it gives you some idea of the importance he gives to work in the study. In a very interesting quote he writes:
Facility with grammatical and syntactical structures requires more than rote memorization or even the ability to locate the discussions of these items in grammars and handbooks. Eduard Haller (another author to whom Kaiser refers in this section, H.H.) referred to the “faculty of discernment,” the ability of lovingly staying with each sentence until we can discern the finer points of its style, structure, beauty, and the special nuance of meaning the author had in mind. Haste, superficiality, and an unreceptive heart and mind are dangerous enemies to sound exegesis, warns Haller. They can be even more detrimental to a sound exegesis than can a lack of linguistic facility—and that is bad enough!
Haller also urges the aspiring exegete to have a patient persistence, a disciplined mind and methodology, a confidence motivated by a personal faith and born of a hunger to experience firsthand the transforming impact of what is discovered in the text. Rewarding results will come only if the search is sustained by an enthusiastic joy of discovery through the long hours of hard and patient work. And in all, it must be tempered by the experience of prayer and suffering, cautions Haller, The exegetical route is not easy; it requires a lot of work, but in the end it is just as rewarding as it is awesome in its initial demands.
How does one get the necessary time to do that kind of work?
It is not easy. One must simply make that kind of time. It does not come of itself. With all the responsibilities which come upon a minister, the time available for sermon preparation gets smaller and smaller—unless a conscious and deliberate effort is made to change all this. Nor can a minister always do this himself; he needs the help and cooperation of his elders. Else it would be impossible.
But our immediate concern is the press of pastoral work. There are a few remarks that need to be made in this connection.
In the first place, the people in the congregation need to learn that their pastor cannot be troubled with problems which ought not really to be brought to him. I am reminded of what Jesus told a certain man who pressed Jesus to solve a problem he faced. You will recall that Jesus was preaching in Perea when His sermon was suddenly interrupted by a man who asked: “Master, speak to my brother, that he divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus’ answer to that man was: “Man who made Me a judge or a divider over you?” (Luke 12:12, 13).
There are two aspects to this matter. On the one hand, there are certain problems which are brought to the minister’s attention which are not of a kind with which he can deal. I suppose that one such example (admittedly rather farfetched) is people who ask their pastor for medical advice: what doctor to see; whether to go to Mayo Clinic; whether to take a prescribed medicine; whether to proceed with a certain operation. To such questions a minister ought to say: “Man, who made me a doctor over you?” On the other hand, there are problems which God’s people ought to be able to solve on their own—if only they are sufficiently mature spiritually. And if they are not, then a minister ought to tell them to grow up and attain such a spiritual maturity that they can do these things. After all, all God’s people are prophets, and they need not that any should teach them, saying, Know the Lord.
But there are also many problems in the congregation for which the people of God need the help of those whom Christ has put in the Church to bring the Word to them in their need. James specifically speaks of this inJames 5:13-15: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
While some of this work ought surely to be done by the pastor, nevertheless it seems to me that part of the solution to our problem lies in the fact that much of it can and ought to be done by the elders in the Church. This is also the clear testimony of Scripture as is evident from the passage which we cited above; and this is, in fact, done when a congregation is without a pastor of its own. There are several obvious advantages to this, not the least of which is that this will free the minister for much needed time in his study. But it has also been my experience that oftentimes elders in the Church can do this work as well as, and in some instances better than, the pastor. After all, the elders are usually members of a congregation much longer than the pastor. They know the congregation much more completely and intimately than a pastor ever can. They know the people, know their needs, know their problems, know and understand the congregation well. And the work which needs to be done can be done by them with greater knowledge of the problems than a pastor who works in a congregation for a few short years and then takes up his field of labor elsewhere.
There are, I suppose, objections. But none of them seem to be insurmountable. Let us look at a few of them.
There is the objection that ministers are trained for this work while elders are not. While it is true that ministers receive some instruction in these matters from the Seminary, nevertheless the material is available to all. And, more importantly, the calling is always to bring the Word of God. This elders can do also.
There is the objection that oftentimes the people themselves prefer to have their pastor rather than an elder. I do not know if this is, in fact true; but it ought not really be that way. Elders are appointed by Christ as well as ministers are, and the Word of God which they bring must be the authoritative Word to the flock as much as the Word which ministers bring.
There is the objection that elders are too busy, for they must work all day and their evenings are limited. There is a certain validity to this objection; I cannot deny it. Especially in a larger congregation the elders are very busy and have little time home with their families. But I do know too that many of our congregations have had elders serving who are retired from their daily occupations and who have served almost full time in this sort of work. I would guess that many, if not most, congregations have elders available of such a kind, and Consistories ought to take this into account when nominations are made. It might even be well to consider keeping such men as elders, not only for one term, but for as long as the Lord gives them strength to do the work.
It has also been argued that not all elders are equally capable of doing this kind of work. Of that there can be no doubt. This is true of ministers too. But Consistories ought to consider these matters also when making nominations and when assigning work to various elders. It ought not be an embarrassment when a Consistory recognizes that some of their elders are more gifted for pastoral work than others.
The whole point is that also pastoral work begins on the pulpit. It is inconceivable that a minister who works hard at his sermons to bring the full counsel of God from the pulpit will not also do good pastoral work. Effective pastoral work in the flock begins with the pulpit. There is the heart of the preaching, the central means of grace. All the grace of the Word brought to God’s people, even in pastoral calls, begins with a strong pulpit. If a minister, because of pastoral demands, neglects sermon making, his pastoral work will founder.
The strength of our Churches has always been the strength of our pulpits. Let us labor with might and with main to keep our pulpits strong. The Son of God is still pleased to gather, defend, and preserve His Church through the preaching of the Word. That begins in the study where the faithful minister of the Word wrestles with that Word to bring it in all its power to God’s people.
Fraternally in Christ,