Needed: African Pastors

As we survey the African church scene we are struck by a weakness in consistent pastoral care of the flock. It is of note that Prof. Robert D. Parsons of Hartford Seminary, who recently has made a survey of West African Churches, has come to the same conclusion. He feels that securing a number of ministers who are free to engage in pastoral work should be one of the priorities of the African Church’s program.

Thankfully there are exceptions to the rule, and new attempts arc being made. In general it may be truthfully stated, however, that the pastoral genius has not caught on. What could be the explanation for this?

People Without Pastors

In the first place, it must be remembered that nearly all of the present pastors in service have never themselves experienced any real pastoral care. They never received a pastoral call while they were sick. They never had a pastor speak to them when they were in danger of back~sliding. Many of them grew up in the days when the European missionary was the only pastor, and this European was a sort of hybrid administrator-pastor-evangelist, a jack of all trades. He was usually a man of many responsibilities. Often he was gone just when he was most needed for pastoral consultation. Again he might be completely oblivious of some crisis in the life of one of the Christians. since he was not really a part of the local community. As soon as the work expanded the European grew farther and farther away from the flock. Soon he no longer knew the names of all the Christians. And apart from that. he always remained a European who found it difficult to bridge the racial and cultural gaps. The European district missionary was usually a poor example when it came to the pastoral art. practice and zeal. (I must confess my own shortcomings in this regard.)

In the second place. the African pastor of today has no point of reference. Nearly all of the African pastors display the same weaknesses and are beset by the factors which stifle true pastoral expression. To whom can the young pastor be pointed as a good example of the pastoral heart?

In the third place. there is a lack of any African teachers who are experienced as pastors. who have really grasped the meaning themselves. who have really put themselves out in order to meet the pastoral needs of their people, and who have had formal training in pastoral counseling. The African heart must adapt the pastoral genius to the African scene. In most places the European is still doing the teach ing of Practical Theology in the seminaries.


Shortage of Workers

Fourthly, the church in Africa is burdened by the fact that most ministers of the gospel (in many cases the same holds true for evangelists) have large unwieldy parishes including ten to thirty preaching centers. There are still many areas where the people must come long distances periodically to partake of communion or to receive baptism. Many pastors hardly know many of the Christians of their district, let alone to be personally involved in their joys and sorrows. The result is that most pastors do only the most necessary things and the pastoral side of their work is usually judged to he less important.

Fifthly, the pastor as the one responsible leader of an area is often viewed as a sort of District Administrator. He directs the affairs of the area, and that may include many more things than we consider the affairs of the minister of the gospel. He is often very involved in the affairs of the Christian school( s) of his district. He may be a member of several committees and boards since he is one of the ablest men of the area. Hence he may be called many times to travel out of his area, or he becomes so busy with duties of various kinds that he feels that he has no time for day to day pastoral calls. He may have a job to get his sermon for the week prepared. This absorption of the pastor in administrative functions is characteristic of the church in Eastern and Western Nigeria where the church has had a longer history and should have bad the opportunity to develop an emphasis on the pastoral art. (This danger and weakness is not absent from the American scene.)

Sixthly. in Northern Nigeria. especially in areas where there has been a rapid missionary expansion of the church, there have not been sufficient pastors to go around. In fact. the most rapidly growing churches such as the Church of Christ in Tiv-Iand arc daily aggravating their problem by a steady increase in membership. One church leader from the Tiv area felt that this pressure was causing consistories to delay in accepting new members. because they hardly feel up to the pastoral task of training and shepherding the hundreds who seek baptism and the privilege of the Lord’s table. In nearly every area the supply of pastors is far behind the pressing need when viewed from the point of membership or the areas of responsibility assigned to the pastors. One pastor informed me that he could only be in his home church once a month because the other Sundays he had to be in other centers of his district. Or we might consider the sad case in one West African country where thousands were lost to the church because the church was not psychologically and practically prepared to accept a mass movement.

One of the interesting aspects of the problem is that many of the pastors are not themselves convinced that there is a need for more pastors. They like the idea of being responsible for a district containing several congregations or local worship centers. Many of them feel that they are sufficiently meeting the pastoral needs of their scattered peoples. Sometimes they sense that the stress on the need for more pastors is a reflection on the work which they are doing. Pastors who are responsible for two or more congregations have been known to ask the consistory which seeks to call a pastor of their own, “Are you not satisfied with me? You do not need to call another pastor.”

Insufficient Funds

This shortage of pastors has been complicated by a shortage of funds. The pastor who is responsible for two congregations receives salary support from both of them. If the second church should call a pastor of its own, then there would be no more money forthcoming for the salary of the first pastor. Hence many of the older pastors are worried about any attempt to increase the number of pastors too rapidly. In general it is also true that the African Church is plagued by a poor standard of giving. In part, the European missionaries are responsible for this in that they held down the standard of their own giving in Africa in order (as they saw it) to preserve the indigenous nature of the African Church. Many small churches cannot afford to pay a pastor’s salary, so they are placed under the care of a neighboring pastor, or they are entrusted to the questionable part-time care of a white missionary (neither of which is an effective substitute for real pastoral care). The African Church at her present rate of giving cannot support the number of pastors which she really needs, if she is to keep from losing many souls from her ranks and to build up the believers in the faith.

This economic squeeze of the Church is aggravated by the fact that many of the individual Christians do not feel a real sense of need for pastoral care or for a truly teaching ministry. As we have seen above, they never had it and know not what they miss. They do not know the joy of effective preaching and the blessing of knowledgeable teaching. As a result they are content with the hit and miss efforts of the elders, evangelist, or the bolder members of the church. Many times however this is a matter of the blind leading the blind. Many of the members know that if they seek a pastor they will have to build him a house, and may have to raise a higher salary than is commonly paid to the evangelist. One evangelist is known to have discouraged his consistory from calling a pastor, for he realized that this would mean that he would lose his job. It was impossible for the consistory to pay both the new pastor and the evangelist. In another case I know of, the service of the evangelist was retained when a pastor was obtained. They both worked in the same village, for the elders did not have the courage to dismiss the evangelist. But the evangelist refused to work anywhere except in the village in which he had worked for years. So often there is no pressure from the congregational level to train more pastors or to support them in training or to call a pastor even when some men are available for call.

To further complicate an already complicated situation, there is great difficulty in many places to get able and educated young men to offer themselves for the gospel ministry, since in many cases the salaries offered are hardly up to a laborer’s standards. Many of the pastors presently serving who enjoyed only a modest education are dissatisfied with the salaries which they are receiving. Thus the graduate of a secondary school will think twice before he commits himself to a life in which he will not even be able to give his children a decent education if he must depend on the salary which he will receive. And if he should have the courage to begin his training, his apprehensions grow as he sees the difficulty which the church has in raising the relatively modest sums necessary to put him through his training. If there is such difficulty involved in obtaining money for his training, what will be his lot when once he enters the ministry. One minister wrote me that he had received $2.80 during the course of an entire month!

It is no wonder that many young men, viewing the church situation of the present, are enticed to accept one of the many good opportunities for careers in this rapidly developing country. These will bring a better return in the way of salary and fringe benefits. The challenge of the gospel ministry is still there, but one must stand tall to see it above the weeds which infest the ground! One must be a hardy soul, with a strong strain of idealism, before he is ready to reach out and grasp the handles of the plow of the African ministry.

Is there no hope? Yes, beginnings have been made, and new beginnings are being pioneered. New students are being recruited. The economic factor is now openly recognized. Some men in service are beginning to catch the pastoral vision. The laity is becoming more expressive and demanding. The training program is being improved, and God’s Spirit continues to lead men to repentance. But we as a supporting church must appreciate this fantastically complicated problem which confronts the African Church. We must encourage the Church in her efforts by a responsible and enlightened aid, both in personnel and with economic assistance. Above all as true brothers in Christ we should support her with understanding and loving prayer.

“All one body we, One in hope and doctrine, One in charity.”

Not only in the established Christian churches but also in the younger churches on the mission fields our times demonstrate a growing need for a strong and sustained pastoral ministry. In this way the word of living God will become increasingly a transforming power in the lives of men and women.

The Rev. Robert Recker, Christian Reformed missionary in Nigeria, invites us to reflect on this great need as he sees it. His long years of faithful and fruitful service enable him to write convincingly of what he regards as one of the greatest challenges to the Christian churches today.