Heart Talks

By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer

Chapter 6


By J. T. Logan


     There is perhaps no calling among the children of men that requires more wisdom for its successful prosecution than that of the minister of the gospel. He has to deal with men of many different temperaments, under varied circumstances, and amid the complex relations of life. It is his business to show people the sinfulness of their hearts, and to do this he must faithfully denounce their darling sins. He must uproot their prejudices. He must awaken their consciences. He must gain their favor. His supreme purpose in his ministrations must be to win them to Christ and to build them up in holiness. To be successful in this it is essential that he use much tact or wisdom.

     The unwise minister fails at this point. He does not seem to know how to present truth and reach men. It is not because he is not pious that he fails in his work, but simply because he is unwise. It requires more than piety to make a successful preacher. If goodness were the sole requirements, then some of our grandmothers would make better preachers than we -- for they are better. Some of the most devoted, consecrated, self-denying men we have known have failed to be good soul winners, for no other reason than that they lacked tact in presenting truth and in dealing with souls. There are some men, both pious and talented, who can always be depended upon to do the right thing at the wrong time or in an improper manner; and by so doing they defeat the very object in view.

     1. The unwise minister lacks discrimination in the choice of subjects to be presented. He cannot be trusted to preach on the great occasions because no one has the least idea what line of truth he will present, except that it will be inappropriate and untimely. One of these unwise ministers once preached a long, dry, doctrinal sermon on the subject of entire sanctification, Sunday night at a camp meeting to an audience composed of hundreds of the hardest sinners in that country, and then wondered why it fell flat. A great opportunity was forever lost because an unwise preacher was appointed by an unwise leader to preach on the occasion.

     2. The unwise minister lacks tact in presenting the truth. His hobby is the negatives concerning religion. He never fails to present the "issues," regardless of the character of the congregation or the time or place. He feels that he must deliver his soul, and he gives a harangue against the lodge, tobacco, the theater, dance hall, fashionable attire, etc. (all subjects that the true preacher must speak upon, on proper occasions), to the great relief of his conscience and to the mortification of the spiritual people present who know that he is out of divine order. This man is an expert in the use of the sword and the club in cutting off ears and knocking off heads of those who do not agree with the notions he has in his head. And he feels that he is awfully persecuted if he is found fault with because of his untimely trumpet blowing. Two boys while at school heard of a hornets' nest at a point two miles out of their way home from the schoolhouse. But they traveled the distance, clubbed the nest, got their eyes bunged up by the disturbed hornets, and went home in sorry plight. In response to their mother's question as to the cause of their swollen faces, one of them replied that the hornets had "persecuted" them. The application is apparent.

     This unwise minister goes on the principle of the motto, "Give it to 'em while you can catch 'em," with the result that he does not get a chance to catch them very often. He who would endeavor to get the good will of his hearers before denouncing their sins is not a compromiser, but a tactful man. It is easy to arouse prejudice, put people on the defensive, and lose the opportunity to do them good. It is easier to stir up things and make the devil mad than it is to cast out demons and build up holy character. The work of the church should be constructive rather than destructive. It should seek to build up rather than to tear down -- and it requires a wise man to do this work. Some tearing down must necessarily be done, it is true, but the rearing of the spiritual superstructure is the essential work of the gospel minister. We have noticed that in tearing down a building to make room for a greater one, the most common workmen that the labor market can afford, men who command only small wages, are employed, and the roughest tools are used; but when the new edifice is being erected in its place skilled workmen of all kinds, who command higher wages, are employed, and the tools they use are of superior character. Some ministers are a decided success in tearing down, but are a perfect failure in the building up process.

     Nor is it because of lack of education that some of these men fail. Some of the most impractical and unsuccessful preachers we have known have been college graduates. They never had a genuine revival, and were always too early or too late in their efforts to promote one. With all their natural and acquired ability, they did not know how to deal with sinners. Cowper shows that knowledge and wisdom are not synonymous:

     "Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,

     Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells

     In heads replete with thoughts of other men;

     Wisdom, In minds attentive to their own.

     Knowledge, a rude, unprofitable mass,

     The mere materials with which wisdom builds,

     Till smoothed and squared, and fitted to its p lace,

     Does but encumber whom it seems to enrich.

     Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much;

     Wisdom is humble that he knows no more."

     3. The unwise minister lacks tact in approaching people. It is, of course, the duty of the preacher to rebuke those who take the name of God in vain, but it is very unwise to rebuke them before others, if it is at all possible to speak to them privately. To rebuke them publicly will most generally arouse their anger and put them on the defensive, so that little good can be done them.

     Sometimes this unwise, tactless minister, who is always a poor judge of human nature, will abruptly ask the sinner in a public place, perhaps when he is crowded with business affairs, and in the presence of others, if he is a Christian, and if the gentleman does not give him a satisfactory answer, or resists the interference, he will further complicate the case by telling him that he is on his way to the sulfurous regions. Had he patiently waited his opportunity, and spoken to him privately and quietly, he would have made a good impression upon him and might have won him to Christ. But by his abrupt, tactless manner of approach he lost his chance. It is always wise to engage the unsaved one that we desire to win in conversation about a subject he is specially interested in, especially if he is a hardened sinner, before approaching the matter of his soul's salvation. If he is a farmer, for instance, talk about his crops, his yearling calf, his pretty colt, etc., and his eye will soon sparkle and an inroad will have been made for more serious subjects.

     There was once an unsaved farmer living in the State of New York, who was greatly prejudiced against the preachers of a certain denomination, and he threatened to order the next one that came off his premises. A wise, godly, tactful minister heard of his threat, and, burdened for his soul, went to his home and found him at his barn. This farmer kept everything remarkably clean and tidy around his buildings, and the man of God entered into conversation with him, spoke approvingly about the neat and orderly appearance of the barn and contents, made inquiry about his crops, told him of his experience in working on a farm, and did not say a single word to him about his soul then. The farmer became deeply interested, invited the preacher to dinner, and afterward invited him to come again. But before he left the minister prayed with the family and spoke kindly to the man about his soul's welfare. A short time after, that farmer was gloriously converted, and in a little while a tent was pitched in his front yard and a quarterly meeting was held. This farmer and his wife furnished food for one hundred and twenty-five over the Sabbath of the meeting and also lodged seventy-five of them. He became a sincere, devoted, earnest Christian, and later died triumphantly. An unwise, tactless preacher would never have won this man for Christ.

     Often the tactlessness of the unwise minister is manifested in his manner of reproving those who do wrong. The Bible says, "Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him." Especially is it the duty of the Christian minister to offer reproof where it is needed. Much harm has been done by some preachers' reproving others in the wrong way, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. While some neglect to reprove wrong-doers, for fear of offending them, others are so severe in their language, so rough in their manner, so unkind in their spirit, and so untimely in their efforts, that, instead of making such an impression upon the offender that he will be inclined to mend his ways and draw nearer to the Lord, he is wounded and disposed to resent the attack that has been made upon him. It is very unwise for a parent to reprove or punish his child before company, and it shows a serious lack of good judgment for a preacher to reprove his church family from the pulpit in the presence of others; and when such a course of public reproof takes the form of habitual scolding it weakens his influence with those he desires to help. The pastor should tell the members of his flock what he sees wrong in them privately, if possible, and always in a kindly manner, and with a tender spirit. It is much easier for a minister to castigate his people from the pulpit than it is to gently reprove them face to face in the privacy of their homes. Awful havoc has been wrought to the fold of Christ by this unscriptural method of dealing with those that offend.

     Of course, it is the bounden duty of the minister to preach against every form of sin, but in this paragraph we have reference solely to those persons who need personal reproof for something they have done or said. John Wesley, while thorough and radical in his ministrations, was very tender and tactful. It is related of him that once, in company with one of his young preachers,. he was dining at the home of an influential family. The daughter, a very beautiful young lady, had a gold ring on her finger. The young man, knowing Mr. Wesley's opposition to the wearing of jewelry, and thinking to gain his favor and at the same time rebuke the young woman for her pride, caught her hand and held it up in plain sight Of all the company at the table, and said, "Mr. Wesley, what do you think of this?" Instantly Mr. Wesley replied, "That is a beautiful hand." This is given as an illustration of the tactfulness of Mr. Wesley and the lack of wisdom on the part of the young preacher.

     Happy is that minister of the gospel who is so endowed with grace in his heart and with common sense in his head, that in all of his ministrations he can measure up to the standard of efficiency set up by the Master when He said, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves."

     4. The unwise minister lacks tact in his pastoral visitation -- He makes a call at some time during the morning hours, a time that none should visit except to see the sick or on special occasions. The good sister who comes to the door gives evidence by the condition of her and dress that she has just come from the wash tub. She may courteously invite him inside, but in her inmost being she wishes him somewhere else. If he had any good judgment or tact he would hasten to make himself conspicuous by his absence and would not tarry on the order of his going, either. But the fact that he called at such an unseasonable hour justifies us in the thought that instead of leaving at once he will go inside and talk an hour. She may have grace enough to endure the ordeal, but there is no doubt she wishes that he had more common sense than to enter the home at this time. But he will talk on and on and not take any hint that he had better sing the short meter doxology and go elsewhere to try the patience of some other woman who may be busily engaged in preparing dinner for her family.

     5. The unwise minister usually pays but little attention to time, order or method. He is satisfied to begin his service any time and cares not whether a meeting starts at the hour advertised or not, and thinks nothing of breaking faith with the public in this respect. He is perfectly content even if the Sunday school superintendent allows the school to encroach half an hour upon the time set for the preaching service, and he, in turn, will let his long-winded sermon run into the hour appointed for class meeting. It matters not to him if the people are late getting home for dinner and unsaved members of the family are inconvenienced and displeased, and he is too blind or too dumb to sense the reason some of them do not come back any more.

     This unwise preacher perhaps gets very zealous and tries to have an altar service about the time the dinner bell is expected to ring. And what he may call the indifference of the pilgrims who cannot stay to the altar service is nothing less than the result of his lack of wisdom in not preaching shorter and starting that service sooner. Just this kind of unwise management at many of the camp meetings spoils the services and defeats the purpose of the meeting.

     It is this same kind of unwise leadership that for courtesy's sake sometimes appoints preachers who are worldly conformed, compromising, Spiritless, and who know nothing about ministering the deep things of God, to occupy the pulpit at camp meetings, instead of using the very best talent for the occasion. Such a course always has a depressing effect upon the service, and seriously interferes with the highest interests of the camp meeting.

     The unwise preacher scarcely ever advertises his services, although the columns of the paper are open to him free of cost, and he takes it for granted that the people will be so anxious to hear such a talented man as he that they will go to the trouble to find out where he will preach and when he will be there -- but vacant pews tell the story both of his folly and his failure. The wise man uses every lawful means to carry on his work, while the unwise one either uses none, or uses them in an impractical manner.

     6. The unwise preacher sometimes does great harm to the cause of Christ by not being discreet in his behavior toward those of the opposite sex. Because of his sacred calling he is expected to be possessed of high ideals and to be governed by holy principles; therefore he is generally more implicitly trusted than other persons are. Because there are more women than men actively engaged in church enterprise, the minister is inevitably brought into close relationship to them, and, on this account, he ought to be very prudent and not allow himself to be drawn into such terms of intimacy with them as would mar his influence, cripple his usefulness, or reflect upon the reputation of any of them. The work of the Lord has been seriously damaged many times by the married preacher driving to and from meetings at night with some woman other than a member of his family. It indicates a lamentable and inexcusable lack of wisdom for preachers to lay their hands on women while they are kneeling at the altar as seekers of religion. We have seen some ministers make themselves offensively familiar by conduct of this character. And to single out the pretty women seekers and give them special attention at the altar, and after meeting is dismissed taking them aside and giving them private advice (though in a public room) is a practice that is altogether objectionable, a method that stamps the preacher as being very unwise, to say the least. And for an unmarried minister to be guilty of flirting with any of the young women of his church, or in any way trifling with their affections, as many have done to the injury of God's cause, is not only exceedingly unwise, but such conduct is emphatically unbecoming any one professing the sacred name of Christ, if not downright wicked in its character. The admonition of the discipline to preachers is wise indeed, and timely always, "Converse sparingly and conduct yourself prudently with women." Timothy admonishes the preachers to treat "the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity." A Methodist bishop, addressing a class of young preachers about to be ordained, said to them among other things, "In pastoral visiting always leave the home as pure as when you entered it." Such advice, if properly heeded, would prevent many a scandal and save the church of God from reproach.

     7. The unwise preacher has done incalculable harm to the church by contracting debts and not paying them. It is easy to get into debt, but oftentimes difficult to get out of it. And for a minister to leave a circuit with debts unpaid is bound to reflect discredit upon him, seriously embarrass his successor, and damage the work of the Lord.

     It is easy for the minister to lose his grip on the people and his influence upon the community by being careless about keeping his promises and paying his debts. It is always unfortunate when a minister is forced to ask for credit. It weakens his influence more or less, and puts him under obligation to his creditor. There may be cases where it is unavoidable, as in sickness or death in the family, but in most cases it can be avoided. It is better to live on bread and water and potatoes, with the bread scarce and the potatoes few, than to go in debt for provisions.

     If the preacher does his full duty and commits his case into the hands of the Lord by prayer, the way will be opened and God will provide by touching some hearts to send the necessary things to keep him and his from actual suffering. There are thousands of cases recorded in the history of the church -- and other thousands that have never been recorded -- of providential succor of God's servants in the hour of need. The time of man's extremity is the hour of God's opportunity. Instead of seeking credit or borrowing money or hunting a job, when the pinching time comes, the better way is to be faithful to duty and then pray until deliverance comes. By this course faith will be strengthened, trouble will be avoided, and the Lord will be honored.

     There are those in the ministry who seem to have no conscience whatever about keeping their promises. They borrow money, promising faithfully to pay it back at a certain date, and when that time arrives they neither meet their obligations nor give any reason for not doing so. This failure to give a reason for not paying the indebtedness always lowers the individual in the mind of the creditor. If something happens to prevent the preacher from meeting the obligation, the least he ought to do would be to explain why he cannot meet it. Throughout Methodism, from its earliest history until the present, the General Rules of the societies have forbidden "borrowing without a probability of paying, taking up goods without a probability of paying for them." This is a wise rule, indeed, one the wise preacher will never violate, but one the unwise one often does.

     8. The unwise minister has brought great reproach upon the cause of the Lord by engaging in speculations of various kinds. Without the least design of being dishonest or doing anything questionable, or thought of becoming involved themselves or involving others financially, and with the sincere purpose of helping themselves out of monetary Straits, some preachers have gone into schemes that promised to return speedy and great profits for the time, money and effort expended, such as patent gate rights, telephone stock, irrigation projects, mining stocks, land booms, etc. Because of their standing as ministers of the gospel, and the flattering representations they made, they succeeded in getting their friends to invest their money, all the way from one hundred dollars to thousands of them -- in some cases every penny they had saved for years, and some even placed mortgages upon their homes to raise the money required -- with the result that all these schemes failed and the money was lost. In some instances aged people who invested lost their homes and were compelled to endure extreme hardship and be dependent upon others for their living the remainder of their days.

     Some conferences have been blighted and some preachers have forever lost their influence for good because of the failure of the schemes with which they were connected, and because of their inability to pay back and make good the losses which have been sustained through their unwise course. The work of the ministry requires the whole time and attention of the man called to labor for souls, and the very least possible he engages in secular employment of any kind the better it will be for him and for others. But if circumstances ever arise that make it absolutely necessary for him to earn money aside from what he gets from his circuit, he should never engage in any of the get-rich-quick schemes that are always on hand to relieve people of their surplus cash and get preachers into trouble, or take any steps which might involve others in pecuniary loss.

     Every minister of the gospel should aim to be a genuine success in his work. And not only aim at it, but he should strive to make good in his particular calling. And to do this he should study how to adapt himself to the various circumstances that arise and to the relations in which he is placed, and turn everything to good account for his Master. While tact may be in most cases a natural gift, and not the fruit of either education or goodness, it certainly can he acquired by the diligent man who is determined to succeed in his sacred calling.

     We suggest that there is help and hope for the tactless man, if he is disposed to help himself. The first thing for him to consider is that there must be a reason why he does not make more success of his ministry. The physician that does not have success soon loses his patients. The lawyer who cannot win his cases will soon be minus his clients. The teacher that is tactless will lose his position. The preacher has a right to expect success, and when it is not attained he should seek the cause. And in seeking it he should make a thorough examination of his methods and see whether they have not been the cause of his failure to win souls.

     It will not do to blame the people and contend that it is the truth that offends and makes success impossible. The truth will undoubtedly offend some, however wisely it may be presented, but if it is preached in love accompanied by the Holy Spirit, it will produce conviction, and some at least will yield to its gracious influence and get saved.

     Concerning tact, some one has written: "Men may have the gifts both of talent and of wit, but unless they have also prudence and judgment to dictate when, where, and the how those gifts are to be exerted, the possessors of them will conquer only where nothing is to be gained, and be defeated where everything is to be lost; they will be outdone by men of less brilliant but more convertible qualifications, and whose strength on one point is not counterbalanced by any disproportion in another."

     The Wise Man has said, "He that winneth souls is wise," and another has written, "And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever."