This article was found in the August 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. The following address was given by Mr. Ebenezer Cunningham, a Deacon of Emmanuel Church, Cambridge.
The Relationship Between Minister and People in a Congregational Church
That there is something different between the relationship of minister and people in a Congregational Church and the relationship which one obtains in an Anglican Church is fairly apparent. It shows us clearly in the way in which a member of the Anglican Church will speak to his minister as "Vicar", while we should almost invariably address him as "Mr. Smith", or as often happens in these days, as "John" or "Eric". In the former case he is the official representative of the Church. In our case, he is a friend and equal among us. And of course this is related to the difference in the way in which he comes among us as compared with the advent of a vicar. The bishop appoints a vicar. The Congregational Church invites a minister. Our Anglican friends would perhaps consider that our way is informal and lacking in weighty sanction. But in principle, though not always realised in practice, the invitation of a minister to a Congregational Church in the action of the Church, of the members covenanted together in Christ under the guiding of the Holy Spirit. It is one of the most solemn actions of a church. It is the action of the Church in its most complete sense. This is evident in the way in which, for a great many Churches, notice is given publicly at each service on two Sundays previously of a special meeting for the consideration of a call to a minister. The call, like all subsequent relations with a minister is conditioned by all the frailty and failings of ordinary people; but in this matter, as in every true Church meeting, the members are acting at their highest level, Indeed, that the Church is wise which never sends a call except on the unanimous feeling of the meeting.
And the minister, on receiving the call, awaits the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that he may reply rightly. And if he accepts the call, he trusts himself into the keeping of the Church, for good or ill, to serve and not to count the cost. It is a solemn engagement into which minister and people enter. They become responsible to, and responsible for each other. The minister becomes a member of the Church on the same terms as any other, entering into the same covenant with the Church to walk together in the ways of Christ and to be guided by the one spirit.
And so the first element in the relationship of minister and people is the same as the relationship between any two members of a Church. This, of course tells both ways. It raises the conception of the relationship between any two members to the level at which each ministers to the other. It is said that "there is no laity." We are all ministers. This is a fact which we often lose sight of. But if it became a reality among us or in proportion as it does so, we are realising the true nature of the Church. Feebly we try to make it so. But how much further do we need to go?
And so our first duty to our minister is to minister to him. We have to minister to his ordinary needs and the needs of his family. We become responsible for his house and home, for his food and raiment, as we are responsible to our own family.
This needs be said: "The first call on the members of the Church financially is the maintenance of the minister." As a member of the Home Churches Fund Committee I have heard so much of the Churches who say we cannot pay more towards the support of our minister because of the dry-rot in our roof, or the breakdown of our heating system, or a £400 bill for repairs. Of course the whole financial set-up is involved. The care of the buildings entrusted to us by our fathers is one that has to be lovingly dealt with. But as a matter of fact we do not care for them enough. We let them get into disrepair, then have a big bill and make that a reason for special efforts, draining our strength, when we should prudently, over a period of years, have been gradually building up a repairs fund against the time of need. And in this prudent budgeting for the whole life and maintenance of the Church, the care of the minister, whom under the guiding of the spirit, we have asked to come and serve us, deserting all else, must have the highest priority. I would say that even then poorest of our Church members should not feel satisfied in these days at devoting less than a shilling a week to that part of the life of the community; and thereafter asking what is due for the work of Christ in the Church. At the least, the labourer is worthy of his hire, and this is a relationship far closer than that of a hired labourer. And it is a relationship far higher than that of charity. There are those who, conscious that a minister is poorly paid compared with themselves, like to give him presents from time to time. But let us make quite sure that he is paid in such a way that he is on equal terms with ourselves. We all know pretty well the sort of standard which is an average one in our own Church.
But the minister has needs other than physical to which we have to minister. How much do we expect of him? He has a limited amount of time, strength and energy as we all have. Mentally and spiritually his output is limited, and may be cut down if we impose strains upon him. But it may be increased by the power of the Spirit and of the spiritual atmosphere with which we surround him. If he is left to plough a lone furrow, he will tire and lose heart. But if he is one of a team, the yoke will be easy, and the furrow straight.
So we have a spiritual ministry to render to him; and this is the most important part of our responsibility to him. How do we exercise it? This is for us lay-folk the question to which we should give most attention, and on which our discussion might well focus. I can only make one or two suggestions.
I remember at the preaching-in of a new young Scottish minister, the preacher gave to the Congregation the charge "Love your young minister." Young or old or middle-aged every minister needs love. And love in the deepest sense. And that is really the sum of the whole matter.
Perhaps the first element in such love is thoughtfulness, putting yourself in his place. Imagine his life. With all the distractions of home and children, all the consciousness of his wife's labours, all the failings of his own nature as husband and father, and of his wife's nature, he has to carry on and seem undisturbed.
With the care and love which his wife lavishes on him, and what a miracle this is, he is painfully conscious of his position and what people expect of him. (If perchance he is a bachelor his plight is worse, with all those temptations that assail a man who lives by himself.)
Picture him getting up, with morning devotions, fireplaces, breakfast, washing up, making beds, carrying coals all competing for him, and his study waiting for him and the newspapers and letters with tales of woe coming between him and settling down to his preparation for Sunday.
Think of the problem of keeping fresh so that life is for ever providing him with more situations which he has to enlighten from the Word of God. Think of the telephone going, the callers for advice, the sick people to visit, the aged and those who expect to be visited. And then think of him planning for the life of the Church, looking forward to ask where the new members are coming from, bearing each separate young person in mind, and the children's Church, and the casual and slipping members. All these and how much else is on his mind and heart. And what do we do about it? What can we do about it? Can we make his care our own? For they are the cares of the whole family of the Church.
Our ministry to him must be not that of expecting to get, but desire to give. It must be an out-going friendship towards him. He must know that we care, that in our measure we will bear the burdens. There will be many that he has to carry about in the secret of his heart. There are others which he should know that he may look to us to share or bear. There must be some among us to whom he can unburden himself, even to bringing that of which he is ashamed with the knowledge that Christ is present as he talks. And all this means that we shall realise the depth of our relationship in proportion as we ourselves are brought nearer to Christ himself. As that happens, any critical spirit will fade out. As that happens, he will not have to search among unwilling helpers for the man for the job. As that happens, suggestions and plans for a forward move will come from us, we shall cease to be passengers to carry, but men who ply an oar.
Of course there are some of us who are too forward with suggestions, and whose judgement is not always of the wisest. Perhaps these of us are more trying than the inert and ineffective. The pugnacious deacon, the difficult deacon are thorns in the flesh of the minister. The grumbler and the stick-in-the-mud are always with us. But how else are these to become co-operative and helpful, save for the breath of that same spirit in their hearts which in another diffident and shy member will bring a readiness to come out of his shell?
How shall we sum up the relationship which we would hope for between minster and the people? Of course it depends upon your vision for the Church. If you have a static picture of the Church, in which the same things go on always, in which the successive generations come and listen to successive ministers, maintain the same organisations, preserve the customs of the last generation through changing ages, then we shall be the despair of any live minister, and sooner or later we shall break him.
If we think of the minister as laying down the law, guiding all that we do, bearing the full responsibility for all the life of the Church, then we shall be tame followers, with no ideas of our own.
But if we envisage the Church as the continuing body of Christ, existing to carry on his work of saving the world, then we shall be an eager team, glad of leadership from one who has given all to the work, offering all that we have and are in co-operation, eager to learn, eager to share. Our leader will not lack encouragement, he will be kept on his toes, he will be worked harder than ever, but not occupied in dragging a dead-weight. He will be a trainer of a team, teaching us how to run, showing us where we are clumsy and revealing to us the things that make us less than we may be. Above all he will be keeping us on the way of discipleship of Him who is the great leader and Lord.