Frequent Change of Ministers

James Knowles, 1836

It need not be said to any careful observer of the signs of the times, that a frequent change of ministers has become a great evil. The pastoral relation is, often, as transient in its duration, as the summer flowers. Ministers have become, to a great extent, migratory. We have the evils of the Methodist circuit system, without its benefits its instability, without its order its incessant changes, without its regularity. Three fourths, perhaps, of the Baptist pulpits in the United States have been vacated, and some of them more than once, within five years. Death, sickness, and other sufficient reasons, have occasioned some of these changes; but not a few of them, it may be feared, have been the result of less creditable causes.

The evils arising from these frequent changes in the pastoral office are numerous:

The effect on the minister is injurious. The prospect of a temporary connection makes him less careful in deciding the question of settlement. He feels, that it is not of much importance to determine, whether or not he is suited to a particular place, or whether there is reason to expect, that he will be useful and happy. He knows, that if he shall not be contented, he can easily remove. He, accordingly, accepts an invitation, with far less caution and humble dependence on God, than he would cherish, if he felt that he was forming a permanent connection.

The people, on the other hand, know, that the relation may be dissolved in a short period, if they shall be dissatisfied, and they invite a minister with less circumspection than they would otherwise practice. Thus is the evil increased, by its own operation.

After the minister is settled, the same feeling influences his conduct. The sense of insecurity is a temptation to adopt a course of fawn compliances with the caprices of the people, and to conceal offensive truths, in order to secure favor. He may be afraid to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with all long-suffering and doctrine," lest he should irritate some powerful individuals. He cannot maintain the independence and dignity, which belong to the pastoral office, while he is haunted by the dread of a speedy expulsion from his post.

There is, on the other hand, a temptation to defy the opinions and disregard the feelings of the people. A minister may feel so much confidence in his own talents, and in his power to obtain, at any time, a better situation that he may take no special pains to fulfill his duties, to win the affections of his people, and to promote their welfare. He may be tempted to erect himself into a lord over God's heritage from the assurance that they need his talents, and that they will, for the sake of enjoying the benefits of his popularity, submit to his dictation. He may "reprove, rebuke, and exhort," but without the spirit of patient and affectionate instruction.

Another evil is, that it is not in the nature of the human mind for a minister to labor with so much diligence, in a position which he feels that he may soon abandon as he would in a spot, where he felt himself permanently established. No gardener can til the ground of another, with so much care, so unwearied an effort for its improvement as he who cultivates his own estate, and hopes, that every tree which he plants, and every flower which he nurtures, will reward him with fertility and fragrance in future years.

Men need the stimulus and encouragement of a visible and immediate connection between their present labors, and their future welfare. God himself has furnished this impulse, to animate and sweeten human toil. It is recognized in the Scriptures. The Christian is exhorted not to be "weary in well doing," by the assurance, that "in due season he shall reap, if he faint not." (Galatians 6:9.) The Savior himself did not disdain to acknowledge the force of this universal instinct. He, "for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down on the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2.)

It belongs, then, to the nature which God has given us, that every man needs, for the energetic performance of his duties that his own welfare should be directly promoted by his efforts. In proportion as this motive is weakened, is there a liability to failure.

This principle applies to ministers; and as the instability which now attends the pastoral relation, diminishes the motives to diligence the result must be injurious. It is true, that every minister who is worthy of the name, is actuated by some higher motives than those which refer to his own interests; and many ministers are toiling faithfully, while they are making great personal sacrifices. But ministers are men, and they need the power of all the motives which God has provided, as stimulants to action. It is when all good motives cooperate, and impel in one direction that the utmost force of human energy is to be expected.

A pastor, then, who feels that he is not permanently settled cannot labor, as industriously as he otherwise would, in training the youth; or in winning the confidence and affections of all classes of his people; or in removing obstructions; or in laying deep and broad foundations; or in building up a church in solid and massive strength. He cannot do it his whole heart, his concentrated thoughts, are not there he does not feel at home. He may aim to do his duty; he may strive to be faithful but he cannot do violence to his own nature. He lacks one of the most powerful springs of action.

It must be remembered, moreover, that a minister, who does not view his situation as a permanent one, will have his mind more or less disturbed by thoughts of a removal. He will be looking around for a favorable position. His ambition may be stirred, whenever an advantageous post is vacant. He may be flattered with hopes or mortified by disappointment. His mind is thus diverted from his work, and his duties are performed with divided strength.

If invited to another post, there comes the severe conflict of a debate, in his own conscience, respecting his duty. If he goes he severs ties which he will always remember with some regret. In his new situation he is not as happy as he would be, if he had no unpleasant recollections of the one which he has left. He finds difficulties which he did not anticipate. He, perhaps, reproaches himself for having removed and, as he does not, in his new position, feel more secure than he did before the same process is liable to be repeated.

Each removal makes another more probable. His mind becomes unsettled in its habits. Regular study, and progress in knowledge, are impossible. His preaching becomes less interesting, and his removals increase until, perhaps, his reputation is diminished, and he finds it difficult to procure an eligible situation. Such is the history of many respectable ministers. It is the natural tendency of the system.


But the evil of a change of ministers affects of the churches in various ways.

It need not be shown that whatever diminishes the zeal and activity of the ministers must injure the churches. The people lose the benefits, which might otherwise flow from the diligence of their pastors.

But the churches are specially injured, by the lack of that affectionate confidence in their pastors, which long acquaintance alone can give. They cannot hear the word of God with so much attention and profit. The influence of every teacher depends greatly on the feelings which his hearers cherish towards him. If they distrust his character, or dislike his ministry the truths which he may utter must lose much of their power. If they have no knowledge of him, they may listen with a curiosity, and a disposition to criticize which are not favorable to a humble reception of the truth.

But if the preacher is one whom they have been accustomed from childhood, perhaps, to reverence and love; in whose piety, wisdom and affection, they have the fullest confidence then they will receive his teachings, not only as the word of God but as the counsels of a tried friend, of a wise and faithful guide in the path to Heaven. To him they open their hearts, as to one who has long known their needs, their trials and their joys and who, therefore, can adapt his instructions to their necessities.

How great is the advantage to a church, of enjoying the services of a pastor, who was the instrument of bringing many of them to the knowledge of the truth; to whom he is the object of a peculiar and tender love, and who, being thoroughly acquainted with their religious experience and character, is able to advise, comfort, warn and exhort them, with the intimate knowledge, and the endearing affection of a parent!

Most families form an attachment to the physician, who has long been acquainted with their diseases and their constitutions, whose skill and faithfulness they have experienced in the trying hour of sickness, and towards whom they cherish the strongest feelings of gratitude. How promptly do they send for him at the first moment of danger! How alarmed and dissatisfied do they feel, if, from any cause, his aid cannot be obtained, and they must resort to a stranger!

How much stronger ought to be the affection of a Christian towards a pastor, who, by the blessing of God, has been the instrument of restoring him to spiritual health, who thoroughly knows his moral constitution, and in whose skill and affection he has entire confidence!

If no wise man is willing to change his long-tried family physician for a stranger then how much more reluctantly ought a church to part with a faithful and experienced pastor!

Many of our readers, we doubt not, can testify, that, in times of sorrow, when sickness has invaded their dwellings, or when death has struck down some beloved friend they have felt how sweet and soothing was the presence of a pastor whom they loved; and they can estimate, how great an addition to their grief it would have been, if, instead of that pastor, there had been some other minister, with the heart of a stranger, who could not fully sympathize with their sorrow, and could not, with a personal interest, mingle his tears with theirs.

How anxious, also, ought parents to be, that their children may enjoy the continued instructions of a pastor whom they may be accustomed from infancy to venerate and love; who may consider them as the lambs of his flock, and may guard and nourish them with special tenderness; who, year after year, as they grow up to maturity, may watch for their welfare, and endeavor to train each and all of them for usefulness on earth, and for eternal life in Heaven.

The influence of a long settled minister over the youth of his congregation, is vastly greater than any other pastor can be. They retain the feelings of reverence with which they first looked up to him in the pulpit; they remember how, with a father's familiar love, he entered their habitations, and conversed with them respecting their souls, in simple language, and with parental tenderness.

There is a sacredness about such a minister, which these young hearts will feel through life and happy for them, if they can enjoy his teachings. The word of God will come to them, invested with all the additional power which springs from the venerable character of him who utters it.

How important, moreover, to the peace of a church, that it have a minister who has been long acquainted with all its concerns; whom all its members venerate; and in whose wisdom and experience they all have confidence!

How much less liable is such a church to internal dissensions! The minister is a bond of union. As all love him so all are reluctant to grieve him. He can "reprove and rebuke" the delinquents, without offending them; and he can "exhort," with the persuasive authority which his character confers on him. Many a church has been saved from distraction, by the healing influence of a wise and experienced pastor; and many a church, we may fear, has been ruined by the lack of such a minister.

We might, if our space would permit, mention other evils which a church suffers, from a frequent change of pastors.

We might enlarge on the obvious fact, that a respect for the pastoral office itself must be diminished in the minds of those who see it vacated and filled, with almost as little ceremony as attends the employment and discharge of a common laborer.

We might point out the injurious tendencies of that love of novelty, which is the consequence, and often the cause, of a frequent change of preachers, and which must be unfavorable to hearing with profit.

We might dwell upon the tendency of such a fickle taste to welcome error, if it is recommended by attractive preaching. Paul describes those who have "itching ears," as "turning away their ears from the truth, and being turned unto fables." A church, which has a rapid change of ministers, is not likely to be well instructed; and its ignorance of the truth, and its love of novelty, prepare it to become the victim of some specious error, which may corrupt and ruin it.

We might, in fine, describe the divisions which often occur in a church, in consequence of a change of ministers. One party are attached to the late pastor they blame those who were instrumental in dismissing him, and, from the natural effect of these feelings, they dislike and oppose his successor. It sometimes happens, that a church has numerous candidates, each of whom has adherents, until, at last, the members become so much divided, that they cannot agree in their choice, and the church remains for years without a pastor!

It would be profitable to investigate minutely the causes of the practice. We can offer a few hints only.

It has already been intimated, that death, ill health, and other unavoidable causes, occasion many changes. There can be no doubt, also, that in some cases, a change may be desirable for the minister and for the church. But besides these, there are numerous removals which would not occur, if both ministers and people were always wise, and under the control of a right spirit.

Many changes, without doubt, are attributable to the ministers. They may so neglect to cultivate their minds that they cannot sustain for a long time, the demand which constant preaching makes on the intellect. Their sermons eventually become uninteresting, and the people are dissatisfied.

They may become indolent, and fail to "be instant in season, out of season," in the performance of their duty.

They may forget their appropriate office, and instead of "preaching the word," and laboring to save men from eternal damnation they may spend their time and strength in various labors, which, whatever may be their intrinsic importance, form no part of the vocation of a pastor.

They may neglect to "reprove, rebuke, and exhort," until serious difficulties arise in the church. Or they may reprove and rebuke with indiscreet severity, without that "long-suffering," which Paul enjoins and thus they create enemies.

They may be easily discouraged by an apparent lack of success; or they may become ambitious to fill a more important station; instead of laboring with a constant recollection, that they are responsible to the Lord Jesus, "who shall judge the living and the dead, at his appearing and his kingdom."

They may so criminally neglect their health, as to render themselves unfit for their labors.

But the fault does not lie chiefly with the ministers. The churches mainly contribute to produce and increase the evil.

They often call young men from their studies, to become pastors, before they have acquired sufficient knowledge to enable them to sustain the office. These unhappy young men cannot remain long in one position but are doomed to a rapid succession of changes until death.

The churches frequently give invitations to ministers to settle with them, before a sufficient acquaintance with each other has been formed; and a brief experience convinces them, that the choice was an injudicious one.

Many churches exact from their ministers a variety and amount of labor, which no human strength can long sustain! On this point we would gladly enlarge.

Some churches, or some influential members, are offended by the faithful preaching of their pastor. They "will not endure sound doctrine." His reproofs and rebukes wound their pride; they then excite discontent, and expel him from his post.

Some churches have "itching ears;" they desire a more exciting and showy style of preaching than that of their pastor. They undervalue his meek piety, his solid sense, his extensive experience, his prudence, his excellence as a pastor; and they sacrifice him for a man, who may use finer phrases, and more graceful gestures but who is, perhaps, utterly unfit to become the shepherd of the flock.

Sometimes the stinginess of a church deprives a minister of an adequate support, and he is obliged either to contract debts, or to neglect his work and engage in some secular employment, or to relinquish his post for the care of some other church, which better understands its duty, or is more willing to perform it.

But, it will be inquired, by every friend of Zion, is there no remedy?

The evils, and their causes, which have been mentioned, naturally suggest their own remedies. We can now offer but one caution:

Let the pastoral relation be considered, by the minister and the people, as a permanent connection unless the providence of God shall interpose. The great Head of the church has a sovereign right to dispose of his ministers as he pleases. He may remove them by death, or he may call them to a different sphere of action. A simple rule is, to consult His pleasure, and to adopt, as a principle, that as clear a manifestation of the will of God is necessary to justify a minister or people in dissolving the pastoral connection, as was requisite to authorize them to form it.

Let, then, no church or pastor proceed to break the tie, until they have satisfactory evidence that it is the will of God. There ought to be much humble and importunate prayer, and much careful watching of the providence of God.

It would be an additional security, if no pastoral connection were ever terminated, without the advice of judicious brethren. The minister and the people may be too much influenced by their interests and feelings, to be calm and impartial interpreters of the will of God. A number of ministers and brethren from neighboring churches might be expected to judge more accurately. Such a measure would be a check to hasty decisions; it would assist in ascertaining the will of God, and it would, undoubtedly, tend to prevent some injudicious removals.

If this principle were adopted in practice, and if pastors and churches considered the pastoral connection to be so sacred that nothing but death, or some other direct interposition of God, could sunder it then most of the evils which we have mentioned would be remedied. There would be more circumspection, and more earnest prayer, in the important business of settling a minister; there would be a mutual endeavor to make the connection happy and successful; the minister would be impelled by the strongest motives to devote all his energies to the welfare of his people; and the church would feel it to be their duty and their happiness to promote his comfort, to guard his reputation, to increase his usefulness; and to derive from his labors, for themselves and for their children, the manifold blessings which spring from the toils and the increasing influence of a faithful and experienced pastor.

The churches would, as a general result, be better instructed, more peaceful, more pure, and more prosperous. The ministers would be better educated, more steadily industrious, and more useful. The pastoral office would be more respected, and more influential. A reproach would be removed, which is often aimed at ministers that they are ambitious, idle, or covetous; and against churches that they are factious, fickle, fond of novelty, ungenerous and unjust.