ROY KENNEDY says: Don’t blame the minister for “the comfortable pew”—blame the congregation

April 3 1965


ROY KENNEDY says: Don’t blame the minister for “the comfortable pew”—blame the congregation

April 3 1965



ROY KENNEDY says: Don’t blame the minister for “the comfortable pew”—blame the congregation

THE FASHIONABLE CRY this season is that Canada’s Protestant churches are out of date, out of touch, and failing to communicate with the people they’re supposed to be trying to reach.

Most of the critics who take this view blame the clergy for the situation.

1 think they’d be closer to the truth if they looked to the congregations. It is the average churchgoer, not ihe church hierarchy, who expects his pastor to behave like a character out of the nineteenth century. Because of these pressures, most Protestant churches are losing their influence — and some of their best ministers as well.

It wouldn’t be so bad if congregations only demanded simple conformity. But what too many churchgoers seem to expect is something far less realistic: that their minister act like a Sunday-school saint.

Ministers, according to this view, aren’t supposed to smoke. They’re supposed to abhor the very idea of an occasional social drink. They’re not supposed to have any opinions that wouldn’t have been acceptable to Queen Victoria. Not even the minister's wife is exempt from these restrictions; I feel very sympathetic to Rev. Frank Ball, who recently resigned as minister of St. Paul’s United Church in Cornwall, Ontario, after members of his congregation criticized

his wife for running for office on the New Democratic Party ticket.

At the outset, I want to make it clear that I believe in the church as the major instrument through which Ciod seeks to accomplish His will and purpose. I believe in church membership and church attendance, for it is the only institution whose primary concern is the spiritual life of men.

But after five years as an ordained United Church minister, 1 decided I could better live up to those beliefs as a layman. 1 decided that the church’s effectiveness and outreach were being stifled by a profound misunderstanding by too many churchgoers of the true nature of the church and the role of its ministers. So I left the clergy, although I still take an active interest in church affairs as a layman.

Let me illustrate what I mean from personal experience. Until I became an ordained minister, I could see nothing immoral about smoking. But many of my congregation felt that, whi e it was all right for an accountant or a doctor to smoke, it wasn’t quite what they expected of their pastor. Nobody ever told me it was immoral. But many members of the congregation said they thought it set a bad example for the young people.

The same pressures apply whenever a minister, especially if he lives in a small town, takes a social drink. Every sip can be an invitation to backbiting and gossip. It’s no wonder that many ministers, if they are anxious to avoid offending their congregations. confine their smoking to their own studies. I can’t believe that this sort of unnecessary furtiveness is in the best interests of the church.

It’s certainly not in the best interests of the ministers. Too many of them undergo a terrific amount of stress trying to live up to the unrealistic image their congregations impose. And too many of them suffer nervous breakdowns, heart disease, or plain unhappiness as a result. I know of one Anglican minister who today suffers from angina, which his doctor attributes to the tension caused by social pressures from the minister’s congregation.

There are plenty of others like him. The mental health of ministers is becoming recognized as an increasingly o severe problem. So is their “job seri curity.” In an area of southwestern z Ontario between Burlington and * Windsor, fourteen ministers left their

churches to seek new congregations in one thirty-month period. All fourteen had stuck at their posts for two years or less. And I personally know several who. if they haven’t already left the ministry in favor of teaching or the business world, are thinking seriously of it.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that the average minister is powerless to change his “image” because of the harsh facts of ecclesiastical economics. His opportunities for moral leadership and independence arc stifled by the fact that the congregation pays his salary and usually owns the house he lives in. Quite naturally, they tend to regard him as their own employee.

The general council of the United Church sets a minimum salary scale that is quite low — certainly too little to support a medium-sized family — which the congregation must meet. Any increase above this level is an act of voluntary generosity on the part of the congregation. In the face of this dependency, how can any minister behave like an independent leader of his flock?

The answer, of course, is that ministers should be paid and housed by the church's general headquarters, not by individual congregations. This would help reduce their need to conform to the congregations’ social pressures.

Even more important, however, is for congregations to arrive at a true understanding of the minister’s role in the church and the community. They must learn to understand that their minister is not working for them so much as for God.

Like many other young men going into the ministry, I found that the very fact of putting your collar on

backwards tends to put you into a class by yourself. The congregation expects you to be a theological chaptered accountant — dull, conservative, ultra-pietistic, and, above all, uncontroversial.

Also, of course, you mustn’t drink or smoke.

I don’t mean to imply that I left the ministry because I wasn't allowed to smoke or drink. These strictures are only symptoms of a larger disease — the tendency of congregations to regard their minister as a hired professional Christian, someone they pay to forego the vices they’re unwilling to forego themselves. For the minister, it means a loss of privacy and a loss of individuality which affects not only him but his w'ife and family too. They’re all expected to participate in church functions automatically, and they’re on call twenty-four hours a day for everything from visiting shutins to attending church suppers.

This is a pretty narrow conception of what the ministry is all about. It judges ministers on what they don’t do, rather than on what they are. And it’s a trend that is all too prevalent in the United Church.

That church is today facing an immense challenge. Too many Canadians attend church rarely, if ever. Many of those who do attend do so for reasons of convention rather than conviction.

This is why ministers must be allowed to pursue their first calling — to teach, preach and carry on their priestly functions — as independent, outspoken servants of God. When the church is in such great need of good ministers, it’s scarcely sensible to drive them out because they fail to live up to their congregations’ misconceptions.

But this is what’s happening today.