This essay from 50 years ago was written by Ward L. Patterson, who was then living in Mansfield, Ohio, but who also served as campus minister at Indiana University and was a professor of speech and communication at Cincinnati Christian University. He died in July 2005.
_ _ _
The Forgotten Vote
By Ward Patterson
April 18, 1971; p. 11
Our “pulpit was empty.” In the jargon of our church that meant that our professional orator in residence had left us for greener pastures and we were on the prowl for another.
It wasn’t long before a number of letters started turning up in the church mailbox. We were a bit suspicious of the fellows who wrote. We figured that if they wanted to leave the places where they were it was probably because they were “movers.” You know the kind. They run out of sermons and goodwill in two or three years and decide the good Lord wants them to move somewhere else. We had in mind a mover of a different kind for our pulpit.
So we did the accepted thing. We decided to go out and find some preacher of our choice. We’d find some fellow who was packing them in in some smaller church and we’d buy him away for ourselves.
Then we got this letter from some preacher fellow that wanted to come for two weeks and live with us and preach to us on three Sundays. We couldn’t believe it. Who ever heard of a preacher that had three good trial sermons?
We probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to him if it hadn’t been that at the time we were getting pretty tired of Deacon Jones’s monotone, reading through the book of Habakkuk in the morning services. The preacher didn’t seem to be much worried about how much he got for coming, and he was bound to be an improvement over Deacon Jones. So we said he could come if he wanted to.
He came with his wife and two kids in that camp trailer of his. He plugged into utilities at the parsonage.
His sermon that first Sunday was pretty good—so good in fact that I figured he had the job if he could come up with another about the same. It wasn’t maybe as good as we had back in the days when old Joe Norton packed them in, but he did talk pretty smart.
HE ASKED QUESTIONS—Like I say, he would have had it for sure if it hadn’t been for what he started doing that next week. First thing he went to Fred Phillips, our board secretary, and asked to have the minutes of all our board meetings over the past five years. He asked the Sunday school and church treasurers to find out how much money the church had given and how it had used it over that same five-year period.
I couldn’t figure this preacher out. I reckoned he had come for a two-week rest. That was the only reason I could think of for him coming for so long. But he was working all the time.
He got up early one morning and walked around our little town. He asked Joe Smiley over at the service station what people around town thought of our church. He talked to a lot of other folks too. He even asked around why we had lost our last preacher.
Well, to sum up that first week, there was no escaping it. That preacher was coming on real nosey.
Why, when we had our board meeting that first Thursday, he was there. Old Jess Wilkins, who sort of heads up the board, asked him if he was interested in coming to a fine church like we had and if so how much he reckoned he was worth.
He said he’d like to wait awhile before he answered that. Then he started to put us on the spot. He handed out this list of questions. We were supposed to answer them. It was downright embarrassing. I’m glad we didn’t have to sign our names. These were some of the questions:
1. Do you have daily devotions in your home?
2. Do you tithe?
3. Could you preach a sermon if necessary?
4. Are you capable of teaching a class?
5. Can you pray in public?
6. Have you ever been instrumental in anyone’s (outside your immediate family) becoming a Christian?
7. Have you invited anyone to church in the past two months?
8. Are you interested in the young people of this church?
9. Have you done anything with or for the young people in the past six months?
10. Would you attend a church teaching program designed to help you in the areas to which you have replied “no”?
HE DIAGNOSED—I was getting very uneasy about this preacher.
The next Sunday morning he sounded more like an accountant than a preacher. Or maybe he sounded more like a doctor diagnosing a sick patient. Worst of all we were the patient and he knew what he was talking about.
He told us what the community at large was saying about our snug little church. He noted that we gave about 2 percent of our income to missions and that we had never sent one young person into the ministry. Despite a 15 percent inflation in our area, we had not increased the preacher’s salary in the last five years.
He quoted from the minutes of our board meetings. He didn’t have to say much. It was obvious that we spent most of our time bickering about trivialities. We didn’t help our young people go to camp. We never attended the preaching conventions of our church. We didn’t read our Sunday school literature. It was pretty grim, l’ll tell you, even though he said it in that soft, kind way of his. Well, at least he had to admit that we kept our building pretty good.
The report of the health of the board, judged from his questionnaire, showed that only one of us was prepared to preach (that had to be Deacon Jones). A couple of us could teach in a pinch, so long as we could read out of the lesson quarterly. And as to anything evangelistic, he just didn’t understand our ways. We are busy men and hire preachers for that sort of thing.
I guess I was right in the first place. He didn’t have two good sermons! People, after all, should leave the church happy when it’s all over, shouldn’t they? My toes were so sore I could hardly make it out of the church.
HE PROJECTED—The next week he seemed as busy as before. But this time he was busy at the little desk in his trailer.
On the third Sunday he had these charts and flip boards. He showed us where he thought we were weak and what plans he had to make us strong if we called him to fill our pulpit.
He would have classes to work on us elders until we could teach and preach. He would expect us to come. He would ask missionaries to come to the church to talk about their work. He would expect us to keep them in our homes.
He’d want a young people’s program and would expect the support of the parents. For every weakness, as he saw it, he had a program planned and he always talked as if he expected us to go along—if we called him.
Then he left and we took our vote.
The ballots had been passed out and I was just marking mine—when I awoke. I rolled out of bed and met the early morning light of a new day. But somehow I couldn’t get that funny dream out of my mind. It haunts me still. I keep wondering if I was voting for him or against him.
Mr. Patterson, a traveler, writer, and lecturer, lives in Mansfield, Ohio.