A Professional Ministry
A number of years ago John Piper famously wrote, “We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry… The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake” (Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, 2002). The subtitle of the book explains his thesis: “A Plea to Pastors for a Radical Ministry.” A desire to be comfortable and to have a nice career is incompatible with the radical call to follow Christ. While this advice is good as far as it goes, it misses the point that ALL Christians have a radical call to follow Christ and seek His glory instead of our own comfort (1 Corinthians 10:31; Matthew 16:24-25). It also fails to address the fact that, at some level, professionalism in the ministry is a positive good!
Most evangelicals do not go into the ministry to be comfortable. The statistics for survival in the ministry suggest that it is far from a comfortable experience. Fully 50% of ministers do not last 5 years in the ministry and only 10% of pastors actually retire as ministers. Piper’s call to prayer, Bible reading, evangelism, and social engagement is well-founded. But, in my mind, it is not either those things OR professionalism. It should be those things AND a certain level of professionalism in the ministry. At some level ministers do need to act like and be treated as professionals. When they are not, it damages their effectiveness in ministry. What do I mean?
A profession is by definition a calling that requires specialized educational training that has standards of excellence and a code of conduct that sets it apart. Historically there were only three professions: divinity (the ministry), law, and medicine. The modern era of specialization has led to the development of many more professions. The ministry was considered a profession because it was a specialized job requiring intensive study. It was assumed that a minister had mastered a certain body of knowledge and had specialized skills required to do the job. A licensing process tested for the knowledge, skills and temperament needed for success in the ministry.
My friends, the ministry is not merely a profession, but it is certainly not less than a profession! One of the hallmarks of a profession is the requirement of continuing education to ensure that proper levels of excellence are maintained. A doctor friend of mine has to get 150 credit hours of continuing education during every three year period in order to continue practicing medicine. He can get these hours in a variety of ways. He can attend classes, take online seminars, read and respond to journal articles, participate in workshops, and a number of other things. He takes his responsibility to be always learning very seriously. As a man entrusted with the care of peoples’ lives that is exactly how it should be.
If this is proper for a medical doctor, how much more should it be for a pastor? Some pastors and congregations do a good job of this, but far too many do not. I wonder if one of the reasons that so many pastors flame out of the ministry is because they are not prepared for what it means to behave in a professional manner. The level of unprofessionalism that can be found in the ministry is often appalling. Undisciplined use of time, meetings that keep working elders out to ridiculous hours, shoddy work ethic, little interest in continuing education, poor preparation, carelessness – all these things can be found routinely in the ministry and are one reason why the ministry itself is not viewed as a viable option by many talented, young men today.
In addition to this, many congregations do not see the value of requiring continued study and growth in their ministers. They fail to provide opportunities for pastoral renewal through sabbatical programs and continuing education opportunities. These things have been shown to help pastors succeed over the long haul in the ministry. Yes, you need to pray and read the Bible but you also need to act (and be treated) like a professional at a very basic level.
I thank God that though I am guilty of many of the professional failings listed above, I have elders and a congregation who understand that the ministry is a profession. They sacrificed much to support me while I attended seminary. They made it possible for me to take significant time off to gain ministry experience in a foreign country. They provide resources to attend conferences, to purchase journals and other resources, and to take courses on a regular basis. They treat me like a professional even when I do not act like one, and for that, I am extremely thankful. May God use our prayers and give us the grace we need to seek His glory in all that we do. And may we act like being in the ministry really does mean something!