I would be a poor one indeed to try to give any advice to a group of budding theologues, and so I am not going to try that. This will be an extremely informal talk, in which I shall try to give you a few thoughts I have about ministers and their wives and their work. It may be that I can give you something of a new perspective on the ministry, or perhaps plant some seed thought that God will be able to use for His glory as you approach your ministry for Christ.
A few weeks ago I was talking with a Methodist minister here in the city of Washington. Having some acquaintance with him and his wife, I sensed the fact that the two of them are particularly close. At the heart of this minister's work is real power. You know, and I know, that spiritual power is something one senses acutely when with certain individuals. So I asked this man the point-blank question: "What is the story behind the extraordinary vitality that I feel in your church and in you?"
"Well," he said, "several years ago my wife had a severe nervous breakdown. Somehow I had the sense to go through that experience with her fully and deeply not just as a bystander who sympathized and let it go at that. As a result of that experience when my wife and I shared our sorrows and learned from God together, my ministry has been completely changed."
Now, if you have ever tried to go through any difficulty with someone else to, as the apostle Paul put it, "bear one another's burdens" you have discovered that there is a great deal of difference between just offering sympathy from the side lines and really getting underneath the burden to seek God's way out of the difficulty. That is just as true of a husband and wife as it is of anyone else.
We might ask ourselves, "Why?*' Why did the process of going through the experience of a nervous breakdown in his wife's life change this man's ministry?
First of all, we see in our experience that spiritual life and spiritual power do bloom in the ashes of difficulties, defeat, pain, and heartbreak. Do not our prayers immediately take on new vitality, new depth, when we are in trouble? Mine do. It is a sad fact that we do not often maintain the spiritual discipline that would bring us close to God when our lives are all sunshine.
But back to my story not only did the wife recover from her nervous breakdown, but out of this came an entirely new concept of the wonderful will of God, the love of God, and the power He still has for us in this twentieth century.
This particular minister and his wife have since then continued to seek, have developed and used, this new oneness between them for the kingdom of God.
When Jesus sent out the seventy He sent them out two by two. God wants every Christian marriage to be the most powerful twosome that there can possibly be in this life. That unity has to be not just physical or even intellectual but a genuine spiritual partnership. True Christian marriage is really a threesome, because Christ is always included.
I know ministers and their wives pretty well. I've met hundreds through the years, and it is the exception rather than the rule to find between a minister and his wife the sort of spiritual partnership I've been talking about.
Why should that be true? We cannot be hypocrites. We cannot fool people. Even the young people in any church know perfectly well whether or not their minister and his wife are really happily married, whether or not there is a bond between them that nothing in heaven or in earth can ever shake.
In order to achieve that, such a minister and his wife must share everything in the fullest sense of the word. They must take time each day to pray together about themselves and the specific needs of their congregation. They must take the time to think together about problems in their own lives and in the lives of individuals in their flock. Such time spent together each day becomes the power center at the very heart of any ministry the power center from which everything else flows.
For the most part, ministers are idealists, and they are dedicated men. What, then, prevents this kind of spiritual partnership?
The main difficulty, I think, is the pressure that we are encountering in our lives today. Each of you will have to face this pressure as you go into your churches. How are you going to find the time to do all the things that your church people, those in your community, and your family want you to do, and still find time for the kind of leisurely prayer and searching I'm talking about?
You know the words of the hymn "Take Time to Be Holy." There is far more to it than meets the eye. It does take time to be holy; it does take time to find the will of God. Usually it can't be done in the fifteen minutes left just before you catch a train.
It does take time to think through our problems under Christ's tutelage. One of the attributes of God is that He seems so leisurely. Have you noticed that? He seems to have the viewpoint of all eternity. Somehow we still haven't succeeded in persuading Him to accept the speeded-up tempo of our lives. Often He seems to us to take so long so terribly, maddeningly long to answer our prayers. Sharp conflict results.
I've been interested in questioning several ministers recently about how they managed to find the time needed for prayer, study, and meditation in their busy lives.
One Washington minister decided to live out of the city, all the way out in Mount Vernon. He built a little house there. Now in the woods behind the house he is building a study in which there will be no telephone.
Another minister in Washington follows this rule: When he and his wife want to have prayer together, or he wants to read or study, they just put the telephone which has a long wire into the closet, shut the door on it, and do not answer it when it rings.
"If the call is really important," they explained to me, "the party will always get in touch with us eventually. We have learned to be philosophical about the telephone."
Some bright person has said that the three tyrants of modern life are the calendar, the clock, and the telephone. I have surely found that to be true.
I have a friend who writes, who simply does not answer her telephone in the mornings. She tells all her friends that if they want to get in touch with her, they should call her in the afternoon.
I myself could never have written A Man Called Peter if I had not stumbled onto hat procedure. I found during the very first few weeks of writing that the telephone was a tyrant, and that if I always answered it when it rang, the book would never be written. So I too asked my friends not to call me during the morning hours.
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick is said to have solved the problem of the pressure of life in New York City by renting a room downtown. Nobody but his wife and his secretary knew where that room was. There was no telephone, and there he went to do his studying and his writing. The result of such discipline was a fruitful ministry in deed.
The simple, practical point I am trying to make is this: If we are to accomplish the job to which God has called us, then we can't drift through life. We can't let ourselves be pushed around by the pressure of modern life, not even by the demands of well-meaning or even loving friends.
There is, for example, the problem of invitations to speak. Obviously, we cannot do everything that we are asked to do. No human being could. How, then, are we to choose? On what basis?
Well, of course, we have to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Yet even that takes time, doesn't it?
I believe that one of the real flaws I long to use a stronger word in our American society is the matter of overorganization everywhere and too many speakers and speeches. Every organization from Sunday school classes to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has to have a monthly meeting and an annual banquet. And every meeting and every annual banquet has to have a speaker. Never does the idea cross even the most enlightened mind that they might get more accomplished, and even, indeed, have more fun, without a speaker!
But in our churches there is something even more insidious about this tendency. The major part of the time that most church members give to their church is dissipated in the details of organization, committee work, meetings, and listening to talks. Our church people are all too inclined to think that such activities are Christianity. This fact lulls us into thinking that when we have come to a church service, or listened to a good sermon, or even read a religious book, that is a substitute for doing something about Christianity ourselves. We in America have largely become spectator Christians when actually there is no such thing. "Why do you call me: 'Lord! Lord!' and not do what I tell you?" Jesus asked. Luke 6:46, Goodspeed. It was one of the major emphases of His message. Over and over He asked the same question, in many different places and with many word variations, but always with the same poignant meaning.
God does have a specific plan for each of our lives. Even each minister of the gospel has a slightly different and unique sphere of influence which God has planned for him. If our particular task is not to go by default, we shall have to make a clear- cut decision about what shall have priority in our lives.
I believe that for the minister and his wife this decision has to be clear-cut indeed. Are they to be more concerned about pleasing the people around them as to how their time shall be spent than about pleasing their God? Will they allow their own congregations to scatter their energy, strength, and talents by bowing to pressurized living? How much time are they willing to spend each day together, on their knees, the minister and his wife, in order that there may be a power center at the heart of their joint ministry?
I do not pretend to you that the answer to these questions is easy. Jesus too had pressure in His life on earth; it was not easy for Him. But I am convinced that herein is one of the great secrets of a God- used, God-guided, and God-powered Christian ministry.
(To be continued}
Chapel talk given May 5, 1952, at the S.D.A. Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., by Catherine Marshall, wife of Dr. Peter Marshall, who until his death was pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C., and chaplain of the United States Senate. Mrs. Mar shall is the author of the inspiring best seller that tells the story of Dr. Marshall's life and of their life together A Man Called Peter.—EDITORS.