This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

"What?! You Don't Have A D.D. ?!":

A Hymn of Praise to the Unsung Clergy

George R. Plagenz

He drives a 1976 Volkswagen bus and if they still sold two-pant suits, that's what he would buy. He doesn't excel at preaching so don't look for his sermons in "Best Sermons of the Year." And don't look for any D.D. after his name either.

Nor are you likely to find him at the head table giving the invocation at the Chamber of Commerce annual dinner at the University Club. (They usually ask the Rev. Paul Prentice Price, D.D., senior pastor at historic Old First Church.)

But without him and the other unsung clergy who dot the religious landscape in America the church could not have become the helping, healing force it has been in people's lives.

Laboring it may be in obscurity in some crossroads church in a sleepy hamlet or lost in "life's throng and press" in a busy city parish, these enlisted soldiers of the cross receive little if any recognition, nor do they seek it, satisfied as they are in "the service of the King." Though discouragement and a sense of emptiness may sometimes come, it does not linger long. Soon, "with head erect, they are back at their posts."

They are like the inventor in Gulliver's Travels, who had discovered a way of extracting sunlight from cucumbers, so that on a rainy or gloomy day one needed but to uncork a bottle and the house was full of light.

I had a professor in seminary who used to tell us this story and added, "Sometimes I think that pretty well describes one of our chief functions--extracting sunlight from cucumbers."

Certainly a minister must bring "tidings of comfort and joy" to people beset by all manner of changing circumstances. It is in these human contacts that he makes his greatest and most enduring contribution. In the words of the late Chester B. Emerson, for many years Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland, "When he sits at supper with his people in their homes, when he stands with them in their struggles, when he kneels beside their beds of sickness, when he folds the hands of their dead and scatters the flowers above the ashes of their beloved, when he dedicates their children to the Lord in baptism, when he unites their youth and maidens in holy wedlock, when he is a sympathetic and understanding friend in all the sequences of living--at these times his ministry may go unnoticed by the world but not by those whose lives he has touched."

The heart and soul and strength of Christianity is not found in the big-city cathedrals or in fashionable churches with names like St. Martin's-by-the-Sea with their magnificent paid choirs and expensive floral arrangements on the altar.

The heart and soul and strength of Christianity is found closer to the grass-roots level where two or three are gathered together in His name and the flowers in the plain glass vase in the chancel this morning came from Elsie Lugibill's tulip garden.

The surroundings of such a church may be unimposing both inside and out but the foundation is as solid as the rock of ages, Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.

Ironically, nothing on earth has done more to spread Christ's fame abroad than the unheralded, unsung corner church and its unheralded, unsung clergy.

Ruth Lyman, one of the last of the Proper Bostonians and a member of my parish in Boston, once told me of the time her maid knocked on the parlor door to ask whether she might come in and sit with her for awhile. The maid said her bunions always felt better when she was with Mrs. Lyman.

Many of the unsung clergy in our churches have this same calming, restoring effect on their parishioners. One woman has written me about her pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Scott, Louisiana.

"Father Fred Swanson always makes me feel at peace," she wrote. "Even when I can see in his face that he is struggling with some problem, I feel a peace in my heart when he is around."

The assistant at the parish, whom she referred to simply as Father Tommy, has the same quieting influence on this woman. "Just the presence of these two men of God makes me feel the peace and the presence of God close by," she said.

That may be the finest compliment anyone can pay a minister--better than saying he or she is an inspiring preacher, a trusted counselor or an able administrator.

The reason this is so is that peace is God's greatest gift to us. That is why we hear it in nearly every benediction the pastor pronounces over the congregation: "Now may the peace of God which passeth all understanding, that peace which the world can neither give nor take away, be with you."

Or, "May the Lord bless you and keep you. . . may the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace."

The secret of Jesus' appeal was not so much in the things he said but in his presence and in the peace it conferred on people just to have him around. "My peace I leave with you," he said to his followers before he died. That would be his blessing to them.

Some members of the clergy--and they are often the most unsung--have this quality of reminding people of what Jesus must be like. To be in their company is like being in the company of Jesus.

There is the story of a missionary who went to China. As he told the local people about Jesus, they said, "Oh, we know Jesus. He lived here once. We buried him on a hill not far away."

What had happened, it turned out, was that a few years earlier another missionary had come to this same Chinese village and had also told the local populace about Jesus. But this is the interesting thing: He had so embodied in his own life what he had said to them about Jesus that they just naturally assumed he was this very Jesus.

To be mistaken for Jesus--or to remind people of Jesus--is the highest honor to which a member of the clergy may aspire. Those who come closest are often the most unheard of and unsung.

A recovering alcoholic once said about the person who had meant the most to him in his recovery: "He never counseled or criticized me. He just stood by me, a silent, affectionate reminder of better things. He'll never know how much he helped me."

The unsung clergy in many cases are like that. They are seldom pastors of big, successful churches (as the world judges success). But to their people they are reminders of Jesus and the better things in life. They will never know how many people they have helped--or how much.

* * * * * *

This little vignette probably captures as well as anything can the secret of the great contribution made by the unsung clergy in our midst.

At a church service one Sunday morning, a speech professor read the 23rd Psalm. He held the congregation spellbound with his perfect diction and dramatic rendition of David's beloved psalm of the shepherd. His performance was a work of art.

Some time later, on another Sunday morning, the church's elderly pastor read the same psalm. He stumbled several times in his delivery and his voice cracked. But when he came to the end of his reading there wasn't a dry eye in the church.

Someone mentioned the contrast to the professor. Why was it, they asked, that when he read the psalm the congregation sat in silent admiration, but when the pastor got up several months later and read the same psalm the people were moved to tears?

"The reason is," the professor replied, "I know the psalm but he knows the shepherd."

Introducing others to their friend the shepherd may be the most important thing a minister does--more important than winning the annual prize for preaching or being written up in the denominational magazine for having the largest Sunday school in his district.

Rev. Robert B. St. Clair, a United Methodist minister, does these introductions of the Master as well as anybody.

St. Clair retired from the active ministry about ten years ago. A widower now, he lives in a cottage on the Methodist Camp Grounds in Lancaster, Ohio, where he helps to arrange the Sunday morning and evening services in the summer. He had a serious heart operation several years ago which caused him to curtail his own preaching.

He had no intention of preaching on the Sunday I visited the camp grounds but at the last minute the scheduled speaker had to cancel his appearance. It was not without some trepidation that St. Clair stepped into the empty pulpit.

"If I should go silent in the middle of my sermon, pray for me," he said. I think we all prayed for him at that moment.

His text was the first chapter of the book of James. That makes a good text for a hot summer Sunday since the congregation does not have to follow a complicated line of thought. Each verse has its own independent piece of advice. Miss one admonition, you can pick up on the next.

St. Clair had a lot to say about verse 19--"Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." He said:

--"The good Lord has given us two ears and one tongue. Therefore we should listen twice as much as we speak."

--"If you give everyone a piece of your mind, you won't have any peace of mind for yourself."

--"We've all been to 'organ recitals' where the sick insist on telling us about the state of their liver, their kidneys and their heart. Still, we ought to listen to the sick."

--"Be careful of your tongue. It's in a wet place and it's easy to slip."

Unsung clergy like St. Clair touch hearts and win souls with their gentle humor and also with their sincerity and devotion--and their love for the shepherd.

* * * * *

The book "Billy Sunday Speaks" says that during his 40-year ministry Sunday preached to more than 100 million people. Some simple long division will show what that averages out to for a week.

With numbers like that, Billy would never be included among the "unsung clergy." But he had many of the characteristics of the uncelebrated pastor. There was, for instance, the matter of his language.

Sunday had a way with words. Not the same words William Safire or William Buckley have a way with. Sunday had a way with plain words. Plain words were Billy's "Sunday best."

"I am a rube of the rubes," the evangelist told one of his audiences. "I am a hayseed of the hayseeds and the malodors of the barnyard are on me yet. I have greased my hair with goosegrease and blackened my boots with stove blacking.

"I have wiped my old proboscis with a gunnysack towel. I have drunk coffee out of my saucer and I have eaten with my knife. I have said 'done it' when I should have said 'did it' and 'I have saw' when I should have said 'seen.' But I expect to go to heaven just the same."

Sunday was plainly eloquent.

Listen as he exhorts his listeners about the evils of booze: "I'll kick it as long as I've got a foot, I'll fight it as long as I've got a fist, I'll butt it as long as I've got a head, I'll bite it as long as I've got a tooth.

"And when I'm old and fistless, and footless, and toothless, I'll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition."

But Billy Sunday wasn't always serious. Like many another unsophisticated parson, Billy had a down-home sense of humor.

He was conducting a revival in Canton, Ohio, in the 1920s. Each night was dedicated to some trade or occupation. One night was Postmen's Night, another was Policemen's Night, another Milkmen's Night, etc.

At the time of the week-long revival, the city of Canton was embroiled in a dispute with the milk producers. The dairies were accused of watering the milk.

So on Milkmen's Night at the big tabernacle, Sunday turned to song-leader Homer Rodeheaver at the beginning of the service and said, "Since this is Milkmen's Night, Homer, let's all sing, 'Shall We Gather at the River?'"

Billy Sunday, born in 1862, played professional baseball for Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before he was converted ("born again" we would say today) at age 24. He and some of his teammates were sitting on a curbstone in Chicago listening to a revivalist preacher. When the speech was finished. Billy turned to his teammates and said, "Boys, I bid the old life goodbye."

He was off on a career that would make him one of the all-time biggest drawing cards in religion. But as remarkable as Sunday's drawing powers were, if we added up all those who are being helped day by day in big cities and small towns and on farms by unsung clergy all over this land, we would have numbers as impressive as Billy Sunday's.

Of course, numbers and fame and reputation aren't the most important things in a person's life. Billy would be the first to admit that. "Your reputation is what people say about you," said Sunday. "Your character is what God and your wife know about you."

* * * * *

What makes a good minister? Have we been mistaken on this all along? Have we recognized the wrong qualities in bestowing D.D.'s and other honors on our clergy?

Walter Wangerin, writing in the Lutheran magazine, says there are "two things needful" in a pastor. What are they? Can you name them?

Administrative skills? No. "Business know-how is not fundamental to pastoral ministry," says Wangerin. "You don't have to be a CEO to be a pastor."

A preacher of persuasive skills? "How the church needs articulate preachers"--but that isn't one of the needful things. Nor is being a compassionate counselor, someone who visits the sick or is a good educator. "Not even righteousness makes the difference."

"Those who aspire to ministry must absolutely have this first," says Wangerin. "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like it. You shall love the people of your parish as though they were your very self."

Is this what characterizes the "unsung clergy" we have been commemorating in this article? In many cases it does. It may not earn them a D.D. or the world's acclaim but they have satisfaction in the knowledge that they have been good pastors in a world that desperately needs good pastors.

Are there "transports of delight" for them in an ordinary career? They might answer that in the words of Fiddler Jones, an unknown, unsung violinist in one of Edgar Lee Masters' poems in "Spoon River Anthology":

I never started to plow
That someone did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or a picnic.
I ended up with forty acres,
A broken fiddle, a broken laugh,
A thousand memories . . . and not a single regret.

Speel Festschrift Table of Contents

Return to Monmouth College Department of Classics Homepage