Thursday, April 20, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

The life and untimely death of ministers

Recently I was a speaker for our area Presbyterian clergy-spouse retreat. On coming to the speaker’s platform, I beheld a familiar scene: a room half-filled, with everyone seated on the very back rows! I told the group I felt very comfortable addressing them in such an arrangement, that it was the way my church looks every Sunday in Holly Springs! (Readers not familiar with the old churches in Holly Springs should understand that all the old ones were built large enough “to seat the whole town,” so nobody’s church is full on Sunday — or expected to be.)

I do not know why everyone likes to sit in the back. We did not when I was a child. But most people do, and I am smart enough not to try to change this custom.

I believe that God is astoundingly gracious — and that heaven will be “standing room only.” But one ploy I think the devil will use, is an advertisement proclaiming “seats for all comers” — on his back pews! When I get to heaven, I will look for my flock on the back row.

We Presbyterians are nothing if not habitual. “Decency and order” are our watchwords. People who are allergic to excitement eventually wander our way. Thus it should not surprise you that even in our Sunday school class, everybody sits in the same place week in and week out. (They also arrive in the same order each week!) Lois Swanee told me it is the same in her Sunday school class.

She said once a teacher said she would leave one unfilled chair for God. Then somebody arrived late and sat in God’s chair.

This reminds me of a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time, and someone who reads these pages will know the answer. The question is: what are the rules for mourning when a minister dies in a historically black congregation? The reason I ask is that when I was small, I innocently asked a black friend whose congregation had lost their pastor to sudden death if they had engaged a new minister. “Why, of course not!” came the indignant reply. “The pulpit chair is still veiled.”

I took it that guest ministers served week by week, but all understood that no one could be considered for the permanent position until the veiling was removed. I thought it a reverent custom, and would like to know more about how it works.

Our minister in Cleveland, Miss., died when I was 16 years old. It did not happen during a service, but it was sudden — a massive heart attack — and I shall never forget how shocked and grief-stricken we all were.

It happened at the church late one afternoon, and one of our flock was giving him a tongue-lashing. At least, that’s the story that went around. Being a minister in the 1960s was not easy. Can you imagine that there was a time when Christians actually tried to keep people out of church?

The Presbyterians in Helena, Ark., some years ago had engaged a new minister — after a two-year search, and he fell dead giving the benediction at his service of installation! The congregation had a hard time getting up the resolve to look again, but they finally did. (This was the only church I ever heard of that had its building repossessed, but it happened during the depths of the Great Depression. They met in members’ homes for several years until finally they could raise the money to make payments on the loan.)

Ole Miss makes season ticket holders pay a surcharge to get their customary seats year by year. What if the churches made this a “rule” (in a friendly way, of course) as a fund-raiser? I wonder how many would move to the “cheap seats” down front?

I have discussed this matter thoroughly with the “watchers” down at Bennie’s Barber shop, and they say that people do not sit on the front row because they do not want others to think they’ve on the “anxious bench.” However, all the watchers have promised to come to church if I can get Graham Miller to sit in the anxious pew.


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