Why I Stayed In The Ministry
Word Magazine June 1963 Page 8, 9/11
WHY I STAYED IN THE
Don’t enter the ministry if you can possibly do anything else and be happy.”
Young men often hear this kind of advice from working preachers. I myself have
tried to quit a hundred times! During the sleepless gray hours after many a
Sunday I have worked countless letters of resignation to be read the following
week to what I hoped might be a stunned congregation. But the letters have never
been read, never even been written.
One day, perhaps, the gnawing sense of personal inadequacy and the mounting
pressure of humanly insoluble problems may be too much, and I will write and
deliver such a pronouncement.
I’ve been in the ministry twenty-seven years now. I started preaching my first
sermon while a sophomore in college. The vision began, however, at a Christian
youth camp when I was sixteen. Never have I forgotten the vigor and enthusiasm
of several voting ministers who at the time stimulated a burning and abiding
My father died suddenly when I was eleven, and I was deeply impressed with what
I can only call a “God-consciousness.” My attitude toward church became less
casual. One summer the usual interests in sports and girls and the long hours of
after-school work in a grocery store were capped by a special climax. In those
depression days one week of camp in a rented fairgrounds was all either the
church or the church families could afford. During such a week came my crucial
decision. Standing alone under the stars on a warm, sweet summer night, I knew I
had to preach. Unsophisticated as it may sound, I was aflame with the desire to
spend my life in sharing with all whom I could reach the transforming power of
Christ that I had come to know.
My courageous widowed mother sold everything, and we moved to the state capital
college town so I could secure a good liberal arts education. Ten dollars a
week from my paper route sustained us for months, until mother got work. Then at
nineteen I preached my first sermon. I hitchhiked to and from a small
open-country church, occasionally arriving just after the benediction! My
“salary” was the offering, usually about five dollars.
But I really got ever so much more. These saints were patient and encouraging,
long-suffering with my crude sermons and pastoral ministrations.
Slowly in the course of several student pastorates my illusions took on more
realistic form. I learned that quarreling, hypocrisy, and sheer evil can
infiltrate any congregation.
After graduation I moved to the smallest county seat in our state, a town of
1,200 population. There a preacher’s daughter, who had said the parsonage was
not for her, gave up her teaching career and joined me in a ministry that has
continued in that small town for twenty-four years.
Ours is hardly a typical town or ministry in these days of crushing cities and
sprawling suburbs. Yet America still has thousands of towns like ours —
population now 1,300 — and countless congregations like the discouraged handful
that welcomed me in a damp dungeon of a building here twenty-four years ago.
From such churches people flow into distant colleges, factories, and offices.
Too often such churches have no relevance for daily living, too often are not
even respected. Too often, too, success-mad seminarians have abused and trodden
them under foot in their ambitious ministerial climb. Realizing this despicable
fact I vowed, by the grace of God, to bring relevancy and respect to at least
one such church.
This, I suppose, is one reason I have remained in the ministry, and for so many
years in a given pastorate. The adolescent dream of sweeping the world with the
love of Christ has admittedly grown dim at times. But the conviction has
remained, and grown stronger, that the small towns with their neglected churches
are a vital key to America’s overall religious, social, and moral condition.
We have seen changes in our small church. Three major building programs have
replaced the little crumbling concrete block structure with a striking edifice
of semi-modern design. The brilliant young architect was a boy in the Sunday
school when we came. We have seen the baker’s dozen of discouraged people
blossom into a strong congregation of over four hundred. The once ineffective
Sunday school has grown into an educational organism whose young superintendent
last year was selected “Superintendent of the Year” by a national Christian
education magazine. We have seen young men and women go into medicine,
teaching, business, and the arts with a mature Christian faith. We have seen new
families firmly established, and older families reestablished. I say “we”
because these results came through the work of many God-empowered people who
found joy and vigor in their Christian faith.
One of my teachers used to say that “God made the country, man made the city,
but the Devil made the small town.” Wife-trading, alcoholism, secret dope
addiction, stone-cold indifference to even the simplest spiritual truth are no
strangers to the small town and to its churches. Small towns present unique
problems of survival, too. Our first baby died at nine months of age with spinal
meningitis; his strong little body, nearly ready to walk, was not equal to the
stove-heated, out-house-supplied, cold-water shack we rented for ten dollars a
But when I faced the decision of moving to a better church, leaving the
ministry, or finding part-time employment to augment the seventeen dollars a
week from the church, I decided to apply for work in a steel foundry. Steel
foundries were busy in the early forties, and I went to work almost immediately;
there was no chance to consult with the men of the church. The next Sunday,
before I could call the board together, the church treasurer, who worked in the
payroll department of the foundry, handed me my weekly preacher’s check which he
had reduced to fourteen dollars. The board upheld his action, a gesture that
sorely threatened my loyalty to the ministry. For six months I divided my
energies between foundry and church. Now, nearly twenty-five years later, the
men on that board have grown in Christian spirit no less than the church and I
Yes, the Church is full of human weakness, and spiritual progress is agonizingly
slow. Yet it is an important finger in the dike against the chaos that threatens
our very existence. Carl Jung has said. “Among all my patients in the second
half of life . . . there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was
not that of finding a religious outlook on life.” And according to Rollo May,
the question “Who am I and what is the meaning of my existence?” most tersely
reveals the basic anxiety of our time. Who but Christ can be the answer for
mankind and for the Church?
How else except through Christ and his church can we adequately meet the problem
of race relations? Or take the matter of nuclear power: can a small congregation
in a small town somewhere do anything about this monstrous horror? It was
General MacArthur himself who said the world’s only hope lies in “spiritual
recrudescence.” The only power that can control man, any man who in turn
controls the released atom, is found in Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church.
I remember the successful salesman who hit my doorbell very late one winter
night and blurted out, “I don’t know what I’m living for!” Drinking, divorce,
debauchery were not his problems — just the stark meaninglessness of life
without God. He was a victim of today’s unbalanced emphasis upon scientific
progress. Even if we escape nuclear annihilation, we still face the concept that
life has no purpose, a theme which modern literature hurls at us from every
side. It is precisely here that the Church, despite its faults, alone can offer
healing and creative power. The young salesman, we ought to add, is now entering
the ministry, for all my warnings! God still works through the Church, still
changes people’s lives!
The Apostle Paul knew something about incest, drunkenness at the communion
service, and general debauchery in the church at Corinth. Yet his letters to the
Corinthians are an important reminder that to desert the Church because of its
moral weakness is to beg the question. God still changes human life through the
witness and influence of the Church.
Remaining in the same small church for twenty-four years lets one observe these
changes which occur only in God’s own time. Recently a handsome young basketball
coach met with his boys before a game for prayer. For these kids who live in the
moral jungle of a modern high school this coach, who twenty years ago was a
little thief and liar, is a moral guideline. I remember the time when we
seriously thought of banishing him from our Sunday school and youth meetings!
Slowly through the influence of the church youth program, summer camps, a good,
church supported liberal arts education, plus marriage to a fine Christian girl,
this onetime delinquent became an excellent coach and Christian leader.
Let me share only one more of countless experiences that have encouraged me to
stay in the ministry. Five years ago a baby was born to an older couple in our
town. The father, a retired state trooper, was slowly drinking himself to death.
The mother, a county official, active in politics, capable at her job, was
surprised at this late motherhood. The baby, as babies will, brought changes
into this home. Listen to the mother’s own words before the congregation just a
few Sundays ago: “I’m happy to tell you of my faith, and I would gladly shout it
to the world!
“A little over five years ago we received one of the greatest blessings of our
lives. The birth of our little girl was a near miracle, and I was sure she was a
gift from Heaven. I felt that I wanted to do something about it, but I didn’t
know what to do or where to go.
“I shall always be grateful to the young man from the church who came to our
home and gave us a warm and personal invitation to attend the services. Without
this, I might still be sitting at home wondering what to do.
“A year ago this Sunday my husband and I made our confessions of faith and were
buried with Christ in baptism, and it was a true rebirth to a new life! I
couldn’t have believed the difference it can make in one’s life. It has been a
“I used to sleep late in the morning trying to put off having to face the
burdens, troubles, and worries of another day. I still have troubles . . . I
think we are supposed to, but I find that by getting up a little earlier and
having a period of quiet meditation and prayer before beginning each day, the
troubles are not nearly so big and, with God’s help, not nearly so hard to meet
. . .”
Her husband has lost the shakes, and is slowly conquering the drinking.
Teacher Annie Sullivan, after weeks of bleak failure in trying to reach the
imprisoned mind of Helen Keller, has been quoted as saying “It is my idea of
original sin, giving up!” Perhaps with something of the same conviction I have
remained in the ministry, often in spite of myself and often wanting to quit. I
remember once during my years as an army chaplain in World War II writing to
Harry Emerson Fosdick. Whatever our theological differences might be, I knew his
ministry had been far-reaching. Could he recommend a book, I asked, that would
help me solve some of the hundreds of counseling problems I faced in the
chaplaincy? His wry response said, in essence, “Son, if you find such a book,
please let me know. I need it too)!” I called him recently to indicate that the
fact of his long ministry and rich life had encouraged me to keep on in the
ministry, especially as I grew older. “How old are you, son?” he asked.
“Forty-five,” I answered. “Well I’m eighty-eight. But I must hang up now and get
back to a book I’m working on!” What book? A life of Saint Paul for teenagers!
In a recent biography of his artist father, Jean Renoir tells about one day when
the painter was confined to his room by a lung infection. The
seventy-six-year-old master needed someone to place the brushes in his
arthritis-stiffened hands while he worked on what was to be his last painting.
“I think,” said Auguste Renoir, looking at his work, “I am beginning to
understand something about it.” After these years of struggling with what is
always too big a job for any man without the grace of God, I am beginning to
understand what the old painter meant.
Let me close with a story that expresses the feelings of most of my friends who
have remained in the ministry. A veteran missionary to China was approached by
an American businessman to accept a position with his corporation. The firm
would pay him well for his knowledge of the country’s language and culture.
Salary offers grew to $25,000 as the missionary refused each successive
proposition. With some exasperation the corporation man finally asked, “Well,
just how much would it take to get you?” “Oh,” said the missionary, “your first
offer was more than enough. The salary is fine, but your job is too small.”
Perhaps a few more men like that in China might have changed the course of
history and of the Christian faith in that part of the world. Men with that kind
of faith might well turn the tide in the present terrifying crisis. To the young
men who may read this story of the old missionary, let me just say this: If his
words strike you with a peculiar force, if you cannot forget their challenge,
then do not enter the ministry if you can do something else and be happy.
Douglas A. Dickey
Minister, First Christian Church,
(Reprinted from “Christianity Today”)
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