How to Fail in the Ministry Without Really Trying

Time-tested rules for nonsucces

S. Maclean Gilmour is Norris Professor of New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. He holds the B.A. (University of Manitoba) B.D. (Union Theological Seminary, New York) and Ph.D. (University of Chicago). 





You HAVE invited me to charge you on the occasion of your ordination to the Chris­tian ministry. What can I say in six min­utes that my colleagues and I have been unable to impart in six semesters? There are no more didactic pearls to cast. The theological cupboard is bare.

Since I cannot say anything about how to succeed in the ministry without repeat­ing my colleagues or myself, I have chosen to speak on how to fail in it. There are ex­perts on this platform on how to fail in specialized ministries—how to fail as a min­ister of Christian education; how to fail as the moderator of an association; how to fail as a preacher; how to fail as a pastoral counselor. But thirty years of experience on various theological faculties have made me a kind of general-purpose expert on ministerial failure. Let me share a few ob­servations with you.

One royal road to failure is to get rid of all your salable books on theology a few weeks after you are ordained, forget all about the libraries, subscribe to some book­a-month club for appearance sake, and read avidly only in the morning newspaper, Time, and Look, and the monthly journals of canned homilies.

It will help if you never write your sermons, think through pastoral prayers, or plan your worship services. If you depend on the inspiration of the evening before, you can, as you will soon find, mix metaphors, split infinitives, dangle partici­ples, bury ideas under a mass of verbiage, bring the Lord up-to-date on the latest de­velopments in the world and in the parish, and generally say nothing and accomplish nothing with much greater effect than you could by spending fifteen or twenty hours with your pen or typewriter.

There are several other ways to fail in the ministry. -While these seem to lead in different directions, they arrive at the same destination.

When you are called to a parish, you can tell the congregation that your heavy ad­ministrative duties and the demands of your study will make it quite impossible for you to do any old-fashioned visiting. When the parishioners need help, they will sim­ply have to come to you. You will an­nounce regular office hours as a marriage-counselor, logo-therapist, faith-healer, or what have you; but you will not get to know your people in their homes, at their work, or at their recreation. That some men succeed in the ministry despite such a program does not invalidate the rule. It works 99 and 44/100 per cent of the time.

Strange as it may seem, you can become almost as successful a failure by reversing this procedure. Just spend all your time pounding the pavements of your parish, taking part in your young people's, men's, and women's meetings, attending congrega­tional, civic, and denominational commit­tees, supporting every good cause anybody proposes, and eating innumerable dinners with the Lions, the Elks, the Moose, and the Republicans. This will alienate your wife and children, undermine congrega­tional initiative, and make you a nuisance.

Another way to fail in the ministry, though it will take some time, is to empty your spiritual reservoir without making any provision for refilling it. Never read the Bible except from the pulpit or when you are hunting for a text. Pray only in public. Talk all the time. Make yourself the center of every circle you move in. Never take a real vacation (there are al­ways summer pulpits to supply). Eschew the reading of biography like the very devil. In time, even the least discerning of your parishioners will discover that you are an empty cistern.

Time fails me to do justice to my subject. I have said nothing about riding a theologi­cal hobbyhorse; about using theological jargon like "demythologizing," "the-death­of-God," "realized eschatology," "existen­tialism," Sitz im Leben, "dialectic"; about preaching on everything but Scripture. I have not mentioned the contribution to genuine failure that superficial success makes. Nor have I said anything about how to fail by cultivating racial, national, confessional, denominational, or class ar­rogance. There are some ways to fail in the ministry that you will have to explore for yourself.

But if it is possible to fail ignominiously in the ministry without really trying, it is also gloriously possible to succeed in it. To do so, you must be prepared to give your high calling the best you have. For a suc­cessful ministry you could invert most of the rules for failure.

After his ordination a man can keep on with the job of increasing his intellectual and professional competence by a disci­pline of study and of application of what he learns. (The current euphemism for this essential practice is "a program of con­tinuing education.") He can learn to preach with power by proper, prayerful preparation and careful concern for the content, style, and Biblical basis of what he has to say. He can get to know his people and serve them without becoming an or­ganization man and even without neglect­ing his home and family. Like the man of the Psalmist's beatitude—the man whose strength is in the Lord of Hosts—such a pastor can, as he goes through the Valley of Weeping, make it a place of springs.

To a ministry like this your former teach­ers, your ordination council, and your fu­ture colleagues now commend you.


Copyright 1966 by Christianity Today; used by permission.

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S. Maclean Gilmour is Norris Professor of New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. He holds the B.A. (University of Manitoba) B.D. (Union Theological Seminary, New York) and Ph.D. (University of Chicago). 

January 1967

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