Commencement Address - 1879
May 8, 1879
The bestowal and reception of these diplomas have terminated your relations as undergraduate students to our Seminary. But with this ceremony will neither cease the desire you will feel for its prosperity nor that of its professors for your welfare and success. We shall ever remember you with anxious and prayerful hearts, and we believe that you will ever seek, so far as you can, to foster the interests of this Seminary.
You leave us to-day to enter upon ever more important duties of the ministry than have heretofore been permitted you. This is also true of most of those who have received to-day the diploma of English graduate, and indeed of nearly one-third of those who have this day been graduated in our separate schools. These, no less than you, expect at once to become pastors of churches, over the which by the call of their members and by the guidance of the Holy Spirit you will have the oversight. Well may you hesitate at the responsibility of the position you are about to assume, and well may we follow you with earnest exhortations to discharge faithfully your duties, and heartfelt prayer to God for that guidance and aid which alone shall insure success. This is attainable, with God's blessing, wherever He may call you to the discharge of the pastoral relation. But it must come as the results of persistent and prayerful efforts upon your part to do all in your power for its attainment.
In wishing you success in your future work as pastors, ours is not necessarily a desire that you may be popular pulpit orators. The idea that makes the oratory of the pulpit the test of ministerial efficiency is one of the popular fallacies of the day. Rightly used, as it is indeed by many, the gift of persuasive eloquence is greatly to be desired. It has its place among the most effective means conferred by God upon the preachers of His Word. But in most cases, those who have carefully studied its effects have found that its tendencies are really destructive rather than edifying, leading to sinful admiration of and attachment to the person of the preacher instead of to his Master, and an exaltation of his opinions about those of the Word of God. If, therefore, any of you shall find yourselves possessed of this desirable yet dangerous gift, we beseech you to see to it that it is used in strict subordination to the great objects of your ministry, and that you carefully guard yourselves and your people against the many evils which have sometimes accompanied it.
Neither do we desire that your ministry shall chiefly consist in bringing multitudes into the churches of Christ.
How often do we see references made in the obituary notices of ministers to the hundreds or even thousands whom they have baptized as converts to Christ. This is of itself a matter of rejoicing. Every soul is precious and every Christian heart must be made glad when even a single one is restored to God. But it is feared that too many of our past and present ministers have regarded this result as the great end of their ministerial work, when, indeed it is but its beginning. Our denominational statistics give us serious warning upon this point. Our Year Book shows that while during the past year throughout the United States 102,738 have been added by baptism, 30,266 have been excluded from fellowship. Were the churches more particular in the reception and more faithful in the exclusion of members, those figures would be greatly changed. But, as it is, the fact stares us in the face that three out of every ten of those received are thus excluded. To what then is this due? No one cause will account for it alone. But I venture to say that it arises mainly because so many of the ministers either really, or practically regard their work as completed with the profession of faith in Christ and baptism upon that profession.
Whence is it otherwise that we have so large a membership and so few effective churches? Whence too that so many of our so-called strong churches are utterly inefficient. Why is it that in many not one seventh to one-fourth make any contribution at all for work abroad, or even for the expense of their church work at home? Why is it that so often the roll of the membership has to be reviewed and names cut off because no one, not even the deacons, yes, not even the pastor knows what has become of them?
Many other indications of this evil might be pointed out, but I only refer to those to show you why in wishing you a successful pastorate we do not mean one which shall be chiefly marked by the numbers which you baptize.
Nor do we have the desire that you shall be called to large city pastorates. The success of a minister is often measured in this way. The important places which have been filled by him are often mentioned as indication of his great ability and fitness for any others. Yet manifestly we ought to look not so much at these places as at the manner in which their occupant has discharged their duties. Thus you will find that some men have held important positions by constantly changing from one to another, never staying in one place longer than two or three years. Having by that time exhausted the whole round of pulpit preparations possessed before they came, and having been unable from the pressure of other work to make new ones, a change has to be made. It is plain that the history of such persons, so far from having shown ability for such places has manifested utter inability, from the evil effects of which they have only escaped by removal before their inefficiency became too plainly apparent.
The difficulty in filling such pastorates does not however arise so much from the extraordinary demand for fresh and thorough pulpit preparation as from the need of executive ability by which the church shall be trained to growth in holiness and working power for Christ. Such training is indeed needed everywhere. It is the lack of it which causes all our denominational work to languish and our churches to be feeble instead of strong and mighty in their faith and works. But in smaller churches the young pastor who has gained the true idea of what is needed can put it in practice with comparative efficiency. The work will not be so large, not so various. The ability demanded will not be so great. The pastor will have time to train himself for it. The experiments which he must sometimes make will be on a smaller scale, and the mistakes more easily rectified. They will be directly under his eyes and he will not only be able to see more quickly, but also more clearly when there is danger of failure. And when time shall have proved to him and others that he has either naturally or by acquisition the power necessary for the more important field, it will then be soon enough for him to enter upon it. In wishing you successful pastorates we earnestly recommend that you begin your work with some church in the country or in some small town and gradually fit yourselves for charges which will make greater demands upon you if you should ever be called to assume them.
From the few points I have thus made, it will be apparent what must be the work of a successful pastor.
1. He must win souls to Christ. This is the foundation work. He must either gather a church of believers or he must take one already established by another. Yet in any community, even in any congregation, however largely composed of church members, there must always be a large number dependent upon his ministrations for the acceptance of Christ through the offer of the gospel.
2. These thus brought into the church need to be instructed in the doctrines and duties of God's Word. That minister is culpable whose members continue to be always babes in Christ feeding simply on the milk of the Word and not capable of digesting its strong meat.
3. It is one in which the church is led in paths of increasing holiness. Faith and hope are but first principles. Repentance should be constantly bringing forth a deeper sanctification. Christianity is not simply a profession. It is not a mere system of opinions. It is a life, and life means growth until the perfect stature of manhood is attained. It is union with a personal Saviour, and that union should become more perfect, bringing Saviour and saved more closely together, and assimilating the child of God daily more and more unto his older brother. Some one has said that this increase in holiness in the flock is the only true test of a successful pastorate. While this may not be true, it is one of the most important tests; and that pastor who sees his people daily attain more holiness of life, may well thank God and take courage even amid many discouragements.
4. A successful pastor is also one under whom the whole church is at work. There is no room for idlers even in the largest church--certainly no need for them in the smallest. It is the pastor's duty to see that every one does some work, that he does the work for which he is best fitted, and that he does it faithfully and efficiently. If any one be not thus engaged, the pastor should studiously discover what work that member should do, and induce him to perform it.
5. A successful pastor will also see that the benevolence of each church member is exercised to the fullest extent possible. He will naturally know the pecuniary ability of each one and the extent of his contributions, especially those connected with his religious life. If those be not in accordance with that ability, it is his duty to instruct and urge, to warn and exhort, and to point out on the one hand the sin of covetousness and on the other the great blessedness to be experienced in giving.
6. A successful pastor will also develop the power of prayer among his members. He will teach them and lead them to adopt the best methods in this respect. The duty of secret and family prayer will be enjoined. Each will be encouraged and exhorted to unite in the prayer meetings of the church and personally to engage publicly in prayer upon all suitable occasions. Only through such attainments will the church be spiritually developed; only through such prayers of his people will he himself be able most successfully to discharge all his duties among them.
From these glimpses at the nature of a successful pastorate, does the work appear to you to be one beyond human power? I grant that it is, and that only through divine grace can you perform it. I need not tell you that that grace must be sought, not remind you that a faithful God has promised it to the full extent that it is needed. Pray for it with all the earnestness of one who feels his utter need of God's help; but remember that God blesses not the prayers of the idle, but will grant his favors only to those who laboriously strive to perform the work to which He has called them.
Go forth, then, this day with the earnest desire and purpose by the help of God to become successful pastors of the churches to which you may minister. "Let no man despise your youth, but be ye examples of the believers in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in purity." "Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine." "Preach the Word; be instant in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine." "Feed the flock of God, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being ensamples to the flock." "Give yourselves continually to prayer, and the ministry of the Word." "Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." And "may grace, mercy and peace from God our Gather and Jesus Christ our Lord" be with you at all times and in all your work. Amen.