John C. Knapp is founding director of the Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership at Samford University and author of the forthcoming book How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It). In this post (the third in a three-part series), he remembers the unconventional ministry of one pastor who went to great lengths to understand the spiritual needs of working Christians in his community.
Pastors who wish to better understand the weekday lives of their parishioners could learn a thing or two from the real-life example of a nineteenth-century minister named Charles Sheldon, best known for his classic novel titled In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?
Topeka, Kansas, was in a severe economic recession when Sheldon arrived in 1889 to pastor the Central Congregational Church. To make his ministry relevant to the everyday needs of his parishioners and community, he asked his church for permission to devote twelve weeks to what he called “practical sociological studies,” suspending most of his regular duties except for preaching on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings. A remarkable adventure ensued, taking him into every part of town to learn how others lived and worked.
He spent a week as a homeless person looking for employment and finding none. He rode with the streetcar crews and stayed with them at their boardinghouse. At the local college, he attended classes with students and helped them study. From there, Sheldon turned his energies to the African-American community, where for three weeks he “went into their houses, tried to find out the immediate causes of their destitution,” and helped some look for jobs. He visited their schools and got to know their leaders.
Sheldon went next to live for a week with the railroad workers — firemen, brakemen, switchmen, yardmen, and engineers — and worked alongside them for no pay while discussing their lives and jobs. Then it was on to the professional community, beginning with the city’s lawyers. He interviewed them, read their cases and briefs, and attended their court hearings. The following week was similar, but his subjects were doctors whom he accompanied on their rounds.
Next came a week with businessmen in real estate, accounting, dry goods, hardware, and other fields. Sheldon questioned them about their treatment of employees and wanted to know if they had profit-sharing plans. The research culminated with a week at the local newspaper, The Topeka Daily Capital, where he managed to write several articles and assist with composition, stereotyping, and the printing press. Sheldon gleaned much from the project, including “an immense amount of valuable material which I cannot but believe will stand me in good stead in the work of my ministry.” At a more personal level, he came away “less inclined to judge men harshly or hastily. I find myself from the discipline of those 12 weeks constantly putting myself in the other man’s place, and the effect of that is to quicken my sensitiveness to the man’s actual needs.” For his congregation he foresaw benefits resulting from “the increased knowledge, superficial no doubt, but better than none, of other people’s business.” He also imagined that his experience could help break down “the distrust that exists between the workingman and the church.”
Now this is not to suggest that most pastors take a three-month sabbatical to experience as many workplaces as possible. But even a few such visits may yield substantial benefits to clergy, not only because they may learn valuable things, but because they will convey a sincere interest in their parishioners’ whole lives. And who knows what good may spring from the experience?
Lest we underestimate the impact of Sheldon’s project, consider this. Upon learning that black children were woefully behind their white peers in academic achievement, partly because many of their mothers worked during the day to help support their families, Sheldon set out to establish the first African-American kindergarten west of the Mississippi to provide early childhood care and better education. Among its graduates was Elisha Scott, who went on to law school with Sheldon’s help and later gave the name Charles Sheldon Scott to his son, a future lawyer who in 1954 successfully argued the Brown vs. Board of Education case before the United States Supreme Court, effectively ending school segregation in America.
Click here to order John C. Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and What Can Be Done About It).