Our Most Basic Immediate Need (2)


In the May 1 issue we called attention to the urgent need in our churches of men to serve in the work of the ministry. We noted that this is a need which very basically affects our communion of churches in more than one area of our ecclesiastical life. This last fact is important to remember. Too often, I think, we view the shortage of ministers only from a very short-range and very local point of view. Then, of course, vacant congregations can rightly say that they feel the shortage most keenly: after all, they are entirely without a pastor of their own and are dependent upon classical appointments for pulpit supply and dependent upon neighboring ministers or upon their elders for various labors in the congregation during the week. And then those congregations which must repeatedly loan their pastors to sister congregations for a Sunday, and in some cases for two or three weeks in succession, also begin to complain, perhaps, that their pastors are absent too often. All this is understandable. It is neither normal nor healthful for a congregation to be shepherdless, especially not when the vacancy becomes lengthy. Moreover, while an occasional absence for classical appointments is quite bearable, it is nevertheless true also in this regard that there can be “too much of a good thing.” Yet there are, as was pointed out last time, other areas in our ecclesiastical life which are undoubtedly very seriously affected by this shortage of laborers. From this point of view, this shortage is indeed a problem for our churches in common. Besides, if we take a longer range point of view, we face an eventual replacement problem. 

Summarizing our needs, therefore, it is not difficult to conclude that in the course of the next several years, as matters now stand, we will need ten or twelve ministers only to meet current needs, that is, to meet our present needs in the home churches and in our mission work, and to meet the need for replacements which we may normally expect. This leaves out of view any need created by possible growth. It also leaves out of view any possible need caused by unexpected loss of any of our ministers through sickness or accident. I am speaking only of reasonably foreseeable needs. Hence, I would classify the figure of ten or twelve ministers over the course of the next several years as a conservative estimate. 

What can be said as to possible solutions of this problem? 

In the first place, we should note that, even though the shortage might gradually be eased in the coming years, the problem will be with us to a degree for some time to come. Again, of course, I am speaking in terms of what we are wont to call the “normal.” It is equally conceivable, of course, that the problem could become more acute, and that too, very suddenly. We do not know the details of the Lord’s way for us in the future. Nor need we know them. Nor,—by all means, let it be emphasized,—must we be anxious about the future. To be anxious is wrong; it is sinful. And when we consider these needs and the provisions which we may attempt to alleviate those needs, we must certainly do so in the confidence that the Lord will provide for us even as He always has done in the past. He will also provide in His own way and at His own time. But the Lord uses means, and He uses His church to employ these means and thus to make provision for the work of the ministry. As I said last time, the Lord does not simply drop ready-made ministers from the sky. Hence, the churches are called to consider the means which the Lord provides and also to consider the best possible way of employing whatever means and whatever laborers the Lord does provide at any given time. From this point of view, we may speak of shorter range measures to meet this urgent need and of longer range measures. Let us consider both. 


What can be done, first of all, with respect to our labors in Jamaica? on a rather immediate or short-range basis? Permit me to suggest a few possibilities in this regard and to point out the implications of these possibilities, without directly arguing for or against one or another course of action. They are as follows: 

1) We can continue on our present course of maintaining as much contact as possible by correspondence and by material assistance in the form of funds and clothing and of annually sending a minister and an elder for a period of several weeks. Against this policy it may be argued that this method of labor is very inefficient. No one, I think, will challenge the assertion that attempting instruction by means of correspondence and tape-recordings is a most laborious method and but a poor substitute for on-the-spot labor. This is in no way intended as derogatory of the labors expended by our Mission Board and by the two ministers who have done so much work in the preparation of these correspondence courses: under the circumstances, it was felt that this was the best we could do. But not only is the method of correspondence inefficient, The method of sending emissaries to the Jamaican churches on a short-term basis is also, it should be remembered, an inefficient method. Labors must be divided over a considerable territory and among several churches in a relatively short period of time. The result must needs be that with every visit time must be spent anew by our men to get their bearings, to survey the specific needs, to begin the labors anew. They must find a place of lodging. For their classes of instruction they must determine upon a meeting place; they must make contacts with the ministers there. And to no little extent, when the work is nicely progressing, and when an idea is obtained of what must be done and how much must be done and could be done, the time to return to the States is almost at hand. Besides, the continuity of the labors is broken, the more so if the personnel for these visits is changed. It all comes down to this: we have been making visits to Jamaica rather than engaging in continued and extended labors. And it is the latter that is sorely needed, judging from the reports furnished us. This says nothing yet about the inefficiency of these visits from a financial point of view. Travel expense is a repeated item under this method; and even lodging expense must needs be greater on a short-term than on a long term basis. Let me add, however, that this financial aspect should not be a preponderant consideration: if this is the only method we are able to follow at present, then we will and can also meet the expenses. In favor of this method, of course, is the argument that under the circumstances this is the best we can do. We cannot afford, in view of our shortage of ministers, to miss a minister on the home front on any long-term basis. Whether or not this is actually true, of course, is a matter of the judgment of the churches. Perhaps the question should be phrased as follows: Does the Lord call us as churches in the present situation to sacrifice one of our ministers, and does He call one specific congregation and one specific minister to make this sacrifice, in order that the Jamaican field may be provided with a permanent laborer? 

2) In the above I have already suggested the opposite extreme, namely, that our Synod appoint a calling church to call a missionary specifically for the Jamaican labors. This would solve many, if not all, of the difficulties already mentioned. But this would mean, as was suggested above, that our shortage at home would become just a little more severe. Personally, I would not hesitate to advise this course of action, were it not for our shortage: for I am surely convinced that there is a field of labor for us in Jamaica. But under the circumstances, this is indeed a question of very careful judgment. Even should Synod decide upon this course of action, eventually some congregation and some minister would face the problem perhaps much more concretely than Synod can face it. But I take it that Synod should not and would not embark on this course unless it was deemed wise and necessary and feasible, unless Synod really intended that some minister should seriously consider leaving his home church to take up-the Jamaican labors. 

3) A third possibility lies somewhere between the first two, namely, that one of our ministers be given a lengthy leave of absence, as long as half year or even a year, and that he, accompanied by an elder, would then labor for an extended period. This would have the advantage of affording a considerable period of time for some continued and intensive on the spot labors; and this advantage is not to be discounted. The big question, again, is whether this is feasible at this time, and, of course, whether any congregation is willing to be deprived of its pastor for such an extended period. The only possibility of this which I can see would be in the Michigan area, where our churches are close together and where it would be possible for the sister churches to help the congregation which sacrifices its pastor. Pulpit supply is readily available in this area; and neighboring ministers could render assistance with various congregational labors. And I would emphasize that the only fair conditions under which this could be worked out, in my opinion, would be under a promise from the sister churches that the temporarily vacant congregation would have ample help. I would also suggest that the ideal way to accomplish this would not be for the Mission Board to “put the finger” on some consistory, but for some consistory to volunteer the services of its minister. 

4) Another possibility which has been suggested is the sending of elder emissaries only. Now there is no doubt that the elders who have previously gone to Jamaica have done valuable work; nor is there any doubt about the fact that even should a minister be sent on a long-term basis, the presence and assistance of an elder would be helpful. The great drawback, however, lies in the fact that much of the work which needs doing in Jamaica is work that belongs to the office of minister of the Word; and unless the distinction between the offices is ignored, this work cannot properly be performed by elders, no matter how capable such elders may be. In the past Synod has frowned on the idea, exactly because of this soundly Reformed distinction between the offices; and I believe that it is a matter of principle that Synod should continue to frown on any proposal to assign the labors of the minister of the Word to elders. And if this principle is to be observed, then the sending of elder emissaries only would not be an adequate solution to the Jamaica problem. 

5) Occasionally the suggestion has been made that perhaps some capable member of our churches (not necessarily an elder or deacon), a man with a combination of business acumen and a knowledge of the building trades, could profitably be sent to assist the Jamaicans with respect to some of their material problems, as, for example, the problems concerning their church buildings. Perhaps this suggestion is worthy of consideration; I do not know. It seems clear from reports given last year that there are consider able problems in this area. From that point of view, such a capable man, possibly even a volunteer, would be able to accomplish something. Whether the amount and nature of the work would justify such a step, I am not in a position to say; undoubtedly our Mission Board could furnish helpful information on this score. I would sound a word of caution in this connection, however: it is that if there is any suggestion of going in the direction of so-called lay-missionaries, then this is not the direction in which our churches must go. The idea of lay-missionaries is foreign to our Reformed view, popular though it has become in recent years. 

6) Finally, I may mention a possibility which has sometimes been mentioned, that of a missionary minister under Article 8 of the Church Order. This I consider a very remote possibility. In the first place, the initiative in the ordaining of such a minister under Article 8 can hardly come from the churches: it must come from such a man with exceptional gifts himself. But there are other weighty considerations. Is the need of our churches such that we must go in this direction? The ordaining of such ministers is by far the exception, not the rule, especially today. Moreover, it must be remembered that legally such a minister under Article 8 is eligible to be a minister anywhere in the denomination; he could not very well be limited to the Jamaica work, even though he might be called for this work originally. Hence, the churches must be cautious about a move of this nature. 

These, then, are some of the possibilities. Perhaps other suggestions or a combination of some of these suggestions will be considered by the coming Synod. 

It ought to be obvious, however, that the real solution to this problem on a long-range basis would be that our churches would have sufficient ministers that we could freely call a minister-missionary for the Jamaica work. In fact, it might be good if a young prospective minister,—should the Lord send us more students for the ministry,—would be trained and prepared specifically for this work. Such a student, if he were committed in advance to this work, could even receive on-the-scene training if he could accompany one of our ministers to Jamaica in the summer months. 


Meanwhile, we must not forget our mission calling here at home. There is possibly an inclination to do this simply out of pre-occupation with Jamaica. Besides, perhaps this work seems less attractive at present for lack of great results and by reason of the very difficulty of the work. It is to be hoped, however, that our churches do not neglect this aspect of our calling, either within or outside of the so-called Reformed community. Nor must our Mission Board allow itself to become so busy with the Jamaican work that they neglect supervision of and efforts toward activity in our home mission work, even with our present limitations. 

But what can be done? 

Again, our churches confront the question whether at this particular time we can spare a man from the home front, that is, from our established congregations. As is well known, efforts to call a home missionary from time to time have in recent years met with repeated declines. It even appears that the efforts to call become increasingly sporadic. Apparently, some argue, it is not the Lord’s will that we have a home missionary at present, and therefore we could better wait with calling until our shortage of ministers is alleviated. Perhaps this is correct reasoning. But I hasten to add that I would underscore the wordperhaps. And I would add to this the suggestion that here also our churches should give very serious consideration to the question whether or not it is the Lord’s will that we sacrifice the presence of a minister in one of our congregations in order to have a home missionary. That this would involve sacrifice, I do not doubt. That we can reach a point where the home churches are so weakened that it is indiscreet to give up yet another minister, I also do not doubt. I am not one of those who feels that our mission needs override all other considerations. Nevertheless, I would call attention to two items. In the first place, there is the reality of the dismaying and rapidly increasing apostasy everywhere evident in today’s ecclesiastical scene. To me, while it may be true that there are not evident at present many actual fields in the sense of localities in which we could immediately perform home mission work, the very fact of this increasing apostasy points to a home mission calling for us. Besides, in this same connection, we must remember that things go hand in hand in this regard. It is not inconceivable that if we once had a home missionary, a field would be opened to him or that through the instrumentality of his labors a field of labor would be uncovered. And, in the second place, it seems to me that it is a patent fact that we must not pessimistically stagnate and that we may not say, as long as the Lord tarries, that we have no mission calling at home. Moreover, from a practical point of view we should also bear in mind that it is a fact of ecclesiastical life that where there is growth and where there is need of more ministers, there will also be young men who present themselves for the ministry in order to meet the need. 

But as long as we can have no full-time missionary in the field, what must be done? 

The answer is not that we must sit back and wait. It is rather that we do what can be done with the means and the men available. And there are several things that can be done. There is, in the first place, the church extension activities of the local consistories and congregations. These must continue; and ways and means of improving these activities must ever be sought. In the busy internal life of our congregations this work must not be overlooked and shunted aside until that elusive less busy time comes. In the second place, there is our radio work. In the nature of the case, it is frequently difficult to determine exactly how effective this work is and how many are reached by our Reformed Witness Hour. But that our radio voice is heard, and sometimes by more listeners than we imagine, is an established fact. This work also must continue, be improved, and, if possible, be judiciously expanded. I would also like to suggest in this connection that some of the efforts toward expansion and the investigation of possible new outlets and replacement of old outlets could be followed through more consistently. As an example, I may mention recent investigations of a possible eastern outlet and a southern outlet which have never been followed through: at least, to date we have no such outlets. It is not my purpose in this connection to assess blame. It is my purpose to urge action. In the third place, as far as actual in-the-field mission work is concerned, this can only be conducted (as it was also in our early history) by releasing a minister from his congregation for several weeks at a time in order that he may labor outside the pale of our churches. Also this requires a degree of sacrifice and cooperation on the part of congregations who have ministers. But this is the least that can be done, and we should be willing to do it. In this connection, I believe a suggestion is in order that if at all possible a more consistent effort be put forth to implement some of the plans drawn up a few years ago and approved by synod. I am afraid that we sometimes do too much planning and not enough acting. And even though we are beset by the problems accompanying a shortage of ministers, and though our available man-power must sometimes be spread rather thinly, I would urge nevertheless that we put forth a more concerted effort to get our testimony out and to let our voice be heard to the utmost of our ability and energy outside the pale of our churches. If we indeed appreciate the heritage which the Lord has given us and in which He has preserved us hitherto, then we should also be genuinely concerned about reaching others with the message of that heritage, and that too, with unflagging zeal. 

But again, the long-range answer to our home mission need is a greater supply of ministers. I am not by any means saying that we must wait with calling a missionary until all the home churches have been supplied. But undoubtedly if the shortage were somewhat eased, it would be and should be easier to obtain a man to take up this task. And when that time comes, our churches must not be slothful in their efforts to put a man or men in the field.


Finally, of course, the shortage of ministers is in a concrete way felt most acutely right at home, and not only by pastorless churches but also by the churches whose ministers must frequently be absent for classical appointments. 

What does this entail? 

It certainly means that we must not accept our present lot with grumbling and complaining, nor with pessimism and discouragement. The basic reason for this is that our lot is from the Lord—the Lord Who makes no mistake in caring for His church. And I mean this reference to grumbling in a very concrete sense. Sometimes sounds of it are heard, and the complaint is voiced that it is hardly fair to expect the minister of a larger congregation to leave in the midst of the busy season in order to help a much smaller congregation. This is not a good sound. We must bear one another’s burdens in this regard. We must also keep in mind that the Lord has indeed abundantly provided for us, and that, all things considered, our churches are being rather well cared for as far as supply of their pulpits is concerned, in view of the shortage. We ought not to be loathe to share our ministers with our vacant churches, and. I mean generously. This holds true for the East, where pulpit supply is usually readily available from the seminary; but it also holds true for the West, where distances are greater and where most of our vacant churches are at present. We all, churches and ministers, must be willing to be spread a little thinly for the sake of our sister churches. 

It also means that we must continue in prayer to the Lord, “Lord, send us men!” And not only must we pray, but we must as consistories and pastors and also as parents continue to hold this need before our young men for their earnest consideration. The need is there, and to all appearances that need will continue to be with us for some years to come. 

Meanwhile, let me call attention to the fact, in conclusion, that the outlook at present is brighter than it has been for some years as far as students for our seminary are concerned. True, it will at best be a few years before we see these young men as seminary graduates, the Lord willing. But there are several young men who are engaged in their pre-seminary studies and who within a few years hope to be busily engaged in their seminary studies. Moreover, our Theological School Committee is at present making a thorough study of possible ways and means of hastening the preparation of these young men without harming their education. Perhaps by the time our Synod convenes the committee will have something definite to report. But this, I believe, is surely a step in the right direction and a hopeful sign. 

All of which does not mean that we are by any means in danger of having an over-supply of students. The fact that we have expectations of a few new students must not deter us from prayer and from consecrated efforts to obtain more students. The need is great!