PT Forsyth on ‘How To Help Your Minister’

help‘By great care in his (sic) selection. I do not mean merely care as to his ability and character. I mean care that he is one who increases your own faith and ministers to your own soul. It is fatal to our Protestant principle to vote for a minister because you can just tolerate him yourself, but think he will be of great use among the young or in the town. The minister is first and foremost minister to your faith; and he will not feel that he gets from you what he needs unless he feel also that you are united in the bond of a growing faith and love. Select your minister for yourself, and not for your neighbour.

Let him feel that his ministry is a real factor in the reasons which lead you to live where you do. What help can you give to the minister’s work and soul if he feels that you are ready to remove to the other side of the town for better tennis, a better golf–course, or for a change merely? It is amazing that Christian people should take a house without any inquiry what the neighbourhood offers a family in the way of religious advantage. When men complain that they cannot hold their family to their faith because there is no church near they can profit by, whose fault is that?

Represent to him that it is unnecessary for him to attend every meeting held in connection with the church, that to be out most nights at such meetings is mischievous to next morning’s study, and that he cannot hope to be the blessing to his people that he might be if Sunday arrive simply at the close of a jaded week. Do not forget that what starts you on a new week is for him the end of a stale one, so far as nervous condition goes.

Tell him when he first comes to see you that it will make no difference to your sympathy or your Sunday attendance if he never comes to see you at all except in some crisis. You stand some chance then of being the best–visited family in the congregation.

Tell his wife the same thing, especially if she have a family of children.

Send him a note when the sermon has done you special good; and add that if he answer it, you will not send another.

But if a text trouble you, or a problem, put it in black and white, and say that if he is at a loss for a subject at any time, you would be grateful if he would take that, or would let you talk to him about it.

Use your opportunity to practise local preaching and the conduct of a service. Few things carry home to the pew so well as that what it means to be in the pulpit every Sunday. The minister has this reason of his own for wishing that all the Lord’s people were prophets. Besides, it is a great thing for a minister to know that he preaches to preachers, and is giving to givers. If you have a class, treat it not only as a teacher, but also as a pastor. Have a care of souls. That will open your eyes a little to what pastoral concern is. Faults and failings which to an outsider are mere matter of curiosity are to the pastor an anxiety and grief. You will help him to carry it if you know by experience what this divine concern is, if you have souls you watch for, and lives you train for Christ. Your family may teach you this pastoral sympathy if no other sphere does. Do not omit or neglect this pastoral office at home, as the manner of so many is. It casts on the minister a burden he was never meant to bear. The father is the true pastor of the young. You have no right to blame the minister for the indifference of your young people unless he is palpably incompetent, or worse. It seems to me sometimes that the congestion of work thrown on the church, the dispersion of its energies over trivial efforts to catch youth, the oppressive distraction of the minister, all have their root in the general neglect of family religion. The church and the minister are called on for work which God never meant should be done by the church at all, but by the home. The church is but one organ of the Kingdom of God, and the home is another. And we know what happens when a vital organ refuses work and throws a long strain on another. The end is weakness, illness and death.

Bring to church affairs business methods, but not the business spirit. A Church Meeting is not a committee, nor is it a political assembly. It is the sphere neither of criticism nor of mere discussion, but of Christian work and fellowship in faith and love. Let all truth–telling be the telling of the truth as it is in Jesus.

When the minister asks you to do something, do it without excuses, and without deprecating yourself as compared with someone else. If you wish to escape being asked, do what you are asked and let your unfitness be proved. People will not believe it till you convince them. Then you will have peace.

Do not ask him and his wife to tea “and spend the evening”. At least, do not regard it as part of his ministerial work.

punctualInsist that he be punctual in keeping engagements, answering letters, and especially in beginning service. You can sometimes see the whole secret of an ‘ineffectual ministry in the ten minutes after the hour at which worship should begin. A man who is systematically late at public meetings loses more influence than he knows. How can he hope to be effective with business people whom he exasperates to begin with? Besides, it is an offensive liberty to take.

It might help him if he thought there were the occasional risk of a deacon calling on some pressing business at 9 a.m.

If you are absent from church, let it be when he is there, not when he goes away. The minister supplying finds and reports abroad a poor congregation. It is gauche flattery to say to your minister you only miss when he does.

It would be a help to some if you made it understood, in some kind way, that the minister’s speech at a social meeting need not always be funny, so long as it was sunny.

Do not omit to thank him for asking a subscription. They do you a true service who suggest to you, or collect from you what it is your duty to find means to give. Let him know that when he has a case of real need, he may always reckon on you according to your power. Few things are more disagreeable to most ministers than to ask for money. Remember, those who ask you for Christian money are your agents, not your duns.

Make it clear that you have a higher respect for the office of the ministry than even for the man who fills it. A minister who holds his place only in the affection of his own people carries a too heavy burden; it puts too much of the responsibility upon his personal qualities alone. After all, the church is more than the minister, and the apostolic office is more than the idiosyncrasy of its occupant. No minister should be encouraged to think that he improves his position or usefulness by what doctors or lawyers would call unprofessional or undignified conduct, or by any course that lowers the standard of his office. Your minister, to be sure, needs sympathy, and he must have it; for with us the whole ministerial bond is dissolved when sympathy ceases between pulpit and pew, and divorce should quickly ensue. But there is something that the true minister craves more than sympathy with his person, and that is sympathy with his gospel. “I believe in you, but I don’t believe in your truth,” is no Christian relation. It is mere personal friendship, and the minister must have a higher aim than being his people’s friend; he must be their guide, teacher, and at need corrector. When he is appointed, he is appointed to this. He is not merely the representative of his own community, he is a representative of the whole Church and a special trustee of what Christ committed to the Church. He must speak sometimes to his own church in the name of the Church universal and invisible. You should help to protect him from a frame of mind that overlooks this or makes it impossible. You will lose as well as he if he become parochial or conventialist, if he be a mere prophetic individualist and make nothing of his office. A freelance may rouse and pique, but a lance of any kind is very apt to wound, especially when it is nothing but free.

The old–fashioned advice, “Pray for your minister”, is never out of date. I would only press it into detail.

Pray with him–i.e. let your private prayers include what is most on his heart.

Pray for him–not generally, but in detail. Realize his position by an act of imaginative sympathy, and pray for the special things you divine he needs.

reading-bibleIt may help him even more if you really and privately study your Bible. The minister is hampered by his people’s ignorance of their Bible more than by most things. It is a joy and a power to minister to a people exercised in the Bible and hungry for its light. The more you pray over your Bible, the more you pray with and for your minister. You both work with the same textbook. What must it be for the teacher when the class is habitually unprepared?

The more you do to help your minister, the more he will feel, if he is of the right sort, that he is there to help you rather than to be helped by you. He comes not to be ministered unto, but to minister. Your help will be abundantly returned to you. Help his gospel if you would have him help your soul. But if you go on neither really helping the other, then God help you both!’

– PT Forsyth, ‘How to help your minister’, in Revelation Old and New: Sermons and Addresses (ed. John Huxtable; London: Independent Press, 1962), 115-19.

[Editorial note: I have left unchanged Forsyth’s non-inclusive language. He was a person of his time after all, a truth evident not only in terms of grammar but also in terms of the shape that pastoral ministry took, and the way the home was understood. Still, there is enough truth and meat in this short piece to encourage and challenge pastors and pastored alike.]

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