"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." I Timothy 3:15
The Problem of the Empty Pulpit
James A. Maxwell
The Watchman Examiner, 1924
It is a serious thing for any church to face an empty pulpit. Wisely to choose a
spiritual leader is a task for prayerful, careful people. If the recommendation
of a successor to the retiring pastor is committed to a committee that group should
be composed of the most sane, most spiritual, most level-headed members of the church.
Theirs is a responsibility that requires calm deliberation and clear judgment. Haste,
rashness, sentimentality or self-confidence can work havoc here.
Connection must be made with the work of the previous pastor. Sometimes this connection
has in it correction, because few men have all the powers needed for a full, symmetrical
development of a church. One's successor should supplement his work. One man is strong
in organizing, edifying, solidifying a church, but while he has been pastor a harvest
of unsaved has gathered in the Bible school and congregation. He is not strong evangelistically.
Evangelism should be a prime consideration in the choice of a successor. A man is
needed to supplement, not to supplant him. Strength is to be fitted into weakness.
The extraordinary is to follow the ordinary. Qualities and inequalities must be
It does not follow because a retiring pastor is greatly loved that the church must
have a man just like him to follow. The whole need of the church must be considered.
Nor does it follow that the desirable man is the man available, at least on first
sight. Desirability comes before availability. Churches must not be tempted by the
fact that a man is easily available. Ability to carry on the work and supplement
the retiring pastor is a thing for first consideration.
To discover the right man the church needs to take wisdom. It does not take much
wisdom to discover a man who wilt accept the call, but to know the man who meets
the needs, that calls for inquiry, care and judgment. That also takes time. Haste
in choosing a spiritual leader may be disastrous. It takes time to find out where
the man is who is doing the kind of work that the pastorless church needs to have
The securing of a stated supply, an interim pastor, one who has no designs upon the
pulpit, has much to commend it in our present situation. It gives time for the making
of inquiry concerning the men from whom the church can make wise selection. It is
a superior plan.
But running men through the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, and then choosing the one
who has made the best impression for a day - that is inferior, shamefully inferior,
and in many instances disastrously inferior. It is a very poor man who cannot preach
two good sermons and be desirable for a day. This plan has not one thing to commend
it, but has many things to condemn it. Many divided and wrecked churches bear witness
To choose from a bundle of letters one whose recommendations seem to be the strongest
has perils also attending it. This may mean that a man has marshalled his friends
to write the church in his behalf. It may mean the effort of friends to locate one
who wants to move. A church is bigger than a man. The interest of the smallest church
comes before the interest of the largest man.
A church's need of a man comes before a man's need of a church. The locating of men,
who wish a change, very often results in serious misfits. Would that all of us could
work into our convictions that our strongest recommendation is the work we are doing
where we are, work that we ourselves do not need to prove.
It must, however, be admitted that men are doing excellent work in obscure places,
without receiving much notice. There is justification for some men to seek the recommendation
of others. But after this has been admitted the recommendation business is overdone.
Churches are bewildered by the flood of letters that pour in upon them when they
are pastorless. Some are even puffed up from the sense of their church's importance,
which the many letters seem to prove. They lose their opinion that ministers are
scarce. All this is confusing and misleading.
Responsibility rests upon those whose position of acquaintance with and knowledge
of churches and pastors enables them to direct churches to the men they need. In
our policy this is essential. But helping pastorless churches to choose suitable
men is more than the locating of pastors who wish to move on.
Though we are in a restless period, yet every one of us should prove his ministry
right where he is. We must make ourselves desirable just where we are. We chase the
rainbow when we look to other places in which more easily to prove our worth. Difficulties
are as many and as stubborn there as here. There are few peculiar fields. Human nature
is full of sameness.