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Preparations for the Christian Ministry – Employment in the Cure for Souls by Charles Bridges

By April 9, 2011April 12th, 2016Preaching

“EXERCISE thyself unto godliness”–was one of the wise rules of the Apostle to his beloved son, for the course of his Ministry; a rule, which bears with most important application to the noviciate. Its connection with the rule of study in the succeeding context is worthy of remark. “Giving attendance to reading,” without active energy, would form a most incomplete and inefficient ministry. The want of exercise is as hurtful to the spiritual as to the bodily system; nor will “reading” communicate any benefit, except its results are operative in Christian activity. Equally important is the combination with prayer. In fact, study, prayer, and exercise, may be said to form the minister. Study stores the mind, prayer infuses a divine influence, exercise carries out the resources into effective agency.

The Apostle insisted upon a period of probation, even for the lowest department of the ministry; adverting to natural gifts and spiritual qualifications, as well as personal consistency. Now, though no man taketh this honour unto himself, until he be solemnly called to it by the Church; yet there is much subordinate occupation in the cure of souls, that may legitimately employ the natural capacities of the young probationer, increase his store of experience, and impart considerable benefit to the Church, and reciprocal advantage to himself From the superintendence of a Sunday-school many have drawn most valuable lessons of practical utility in the future exercise, and during the whole course, of their Ministry. The instruction of the poor (whether in the way of casual intercourse, or with more or less of system) may be conducted with humility, perseverance, and love, without infringement on the holy function; and perhaps with more preparation for future usefulness, than could have been gathered from many months of contemplative study. An insight into the real condition of the future subjects of the parochial Ministration, and the acquaintance with their modes of expression, their peculiar difficulties and temptations, the causes of their ignorance, the wisest and most successful avenues of approach to them–this is knowledge, in which it would be well to be initiated, before the solemn obligation is undertaken; and the defect of which gives a general and therefore unimpressive character to the early ministrations of many excellent pastors. The best sermons composed in the study, must, under such circumstances, necessarily fail in adaptation to the wants and circumstances of their people; as exhibiting a want of sympathy in their distresses–a want of consideration of their ignorance–a want of accuracy in drawing the lines of character, and consequently in directing our “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness” to the precise cases of just application. The visitation of the sick also, in the exercise of Christian sympathy, is of the highest importance to the probationer for the Ministry. Lessons are learned here, that could never be learned in the study. There the importance of the Gospel may be described or contemplated–here it is realized. There recollections may be digested with seriousness and accuracy of the vanity of the world, the nearness and prospects of eternity, the danger of delay, the blessedness of preparation, the deceitfulness of the heart, the power of Satan, the grace and love of the Saviour ;–here the scenes are before the eye. Oh! how much “better is it to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting!” How important is the observant study of the sick chamber! How responsible is a frequent attendance upon it! How fruitful are the instructions connected with it! How varied and direct their bearing upon every department of public and private Ministration! Many have been trained for important usefulness in the Church by frequent, and, in many instances, painful attendance, upon this school of instruction.

The Ministry is not (like some branches of natural science,) a work of contemplation, but of active, anxious, devoted, employment. The spirit, business, and delight of doing good must therefore form an essential part of Preparation for the work. It would be well indeed, if the disciple of the Ministry was never obliged to say–“perdidi diem.” It would probably be wise to act as much as possible upon system grounded upon a deep sense of personal neglect, strengthened by incessant prayer, and maintained by a course of persevering effort. Let him begin with his own family. Let him place their individual cases before him for distinct consideration and prayer; then pass on to neighbors, friends, societies, with which he may be more or less connected, and with all of whom his connection is most responsible. The diligent cultivation of the most contracted sphere will furnish abundant employ for his exertions. There are neighbors to be instructed–the sick to be visited–the young to be won over to the ways of God. Opportunities daily press before him, which are as “the price in the hands of a fool that hath no heart” to improve them: but which to him are treasures of inestimable price, and talents of most solemn account. The circle of influence, and the field of opportunity, will probably extend in proportion to the pains bestowed upon them; while, even within the smallest limits, there will be sufficient exercise of faith, prayer, and labor to serve the great purpose of Ministerial preparation; and “he that is faithful in that which is least, will be faithful also in much.”

The present subject suggests the remark, that a very rapid transition from the studies of the University to the services of the Sanctuary, does not appear desirable. At least, where these studies have been vigorously pursued, surely some interval of active (not monastic) retirement is needed to divert the mind from its former course into a more observant and consecrated habit of action. The schools of Plato and Newton discipline the mind into most useful Ministerial habits, and furnish many lessons of instruction; but their general influence is far too remote for immediate practical purposes. They supply no direct materials, whether of observation or of experience, for the rudiments of the Ministry. A preparatory course of probation upon a spiritual system, would be a most valuable appendage to our National Establishment. In defect of this advantage, an interval of inspection or initiation into the routine of the work under the superintendence of a judicious Pastor, might prove a commencing era of Ministerial fruitfulness. The opportunities of learning would form the best preparation for teaching. Converse with experienced and exercised Christians would offer many advantages. The habit of religious conversation would contribute, even more than private study, to the enlargement of the mind; and much would be acquired in this field of observation and incipient engagements, which no other medium could adequately supply.

Experience enables the writer to speak upon this subject with decision. From this initiatory system (during a short residence in a country village under the affectionate instruction of a venerable relative,) he conceives himself to have gained his first interest in this hallowed and blessed work, and sufficient insight into its diversified character and solemn obligations, to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to the end of his course.

Upon the whole, it is most important to mark the combination of these three Sections of Ministerial preparation–Study, Prayer, and Exercise. The omission of one of these, whichever it may be, weakens the practical influence of the rest. Study furnishes the materials–Prayer sanctifies them–Exercise makes a suitable distributive application of them to the several cases brought before us. Nor let them be supposed to be necessary for the probationer only. The Christian Minister will realize their value and their fruitful advantage throughout every department of his work.

But let every prospective view of the Ministry realize it as an absorbing work–as a high and holy vocation; involving results, which eternity alone can disclose, and therefore demanding the entire consecration of health, time, energy, and life itself to the accomplishment of its vast designs. If the soul be really engrossed with the mighty project of “saving souls from death,” and instrumentally fixing them in the Redeemer’s crown–how will every other object fade as a mere transient emotion–how will this great work of Preparation deepen in the sense of the responsibility! The one self-annihilating desire will be, that, whether our course be long or short–in joy or sorrow–in honour or dishonor–”we may so labor, that we may be accepted” of our Gracious Master.