Yes, Pastors, You are Professionals

Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt. 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph. 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1). – John Piper in Brothers We Are Not Professionals

Although I am not one of John Piper’s “brothers,” I can appreciate his plea for a prophetic, passionate ministry that trusts in God and pursues God’s will and way.

Yet I believe we can still be professional in the classic sense of the word, that pastors and other Christian leaders need to be professional especially in the context of #metoo, #churchtoo, and other abuses of power.

In Sustaining Ministry, author Sondra Wheeler notes that the word “professional” is rooted in the verb “to profess,” that is:

to declare publicly one’s central convictions and commitments. . . . the practice of the professions has historically been understood as an inherently moral undertaking. It is not merely a means of livelihood but a dedicated way of life. (pages 5-6)

The defining characteristic of a professional is not whether or not one receives a salary. Instead, Wheeler goes on to outline five characteristics that set apart a profession from other forms of work.

1. Competence

Historically, the three classic professions are ministry, medicine, and law, and each require specialized knowledge and skills. For pastors, this means biblical and theological knowledge and pastoral skills that take time to learn and require ongoing training.

2. Moral Commitment

As professionals, pastors must be committed to the good.

It is not enough to have the required abilities; the professional also must be the right kind of person and care about the right things. This commitment is expected to shape one’s whole being. A professional is not just a kind of work; it is a kind of life. (page 7)

3. Self-Monitoring

Because of their specialized knowledge and skills, professionals monitor one another and hold each other accountable. Just as doctors have medical boards and lawyers have bar associations, pastors have denominations and other structures of preparation, ongoing training, and accountability.

4. Altruism

The commitment to the well-being of congregants, patients, or clients includes placing their interests above the self-interest of the professional. The form of life of a professional is expected to cost the practitioner something, to entail some degree of sacrifice on behalf of the good of those served. (pages 7-8)

5. Fiduciary responsibility

The Latin word, “fides” means “trust,” so a “fiduciary” is a person who holds a position of trust.

Fiduciary power is not power over another person but power for him or her, exercised at the beneficiary’s behest, and on his or her behalf. . . . fiduciary responsibility [is] the commitment to use entrusted power appropriately. (page 8)

The rest of the book goes on to flesh out this understanding of the pastor as professional:

  • setting out a moral framework for the use power (chapter 1);
  • recognizing the value of ethical codes while also laying a deeper foundation for ethical behaviour (chapter 2);
  • keeping clear boundaries and understanding the nature of the pastoral relationship with congregants (chapter 3);
  • warning signs that a pastor is heading for trouble and what to do about it (chapter 4);
  • prayer and other practices for serving faithfully (chapter 5).

So yes, pastors and other people in ministry, do be prophetic and passionate in ministry, and do be professional in the best sense of the word: well versed in pastoral knowledge and skill, committed to what is good and holding one another accountable, living sacrificially and exercising your power in ministry on behalf of others rather than for yourself.

Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving Faithfully by Sondra Wheeler (Baker Academic, 2017) is an insightful and helpful book for anyone in ministry. As always, my opinions are my own, and I thank the publisher for providing me with a complimentary copy for review.

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Resident Author with a liturgical worship community. Editor of Purpose: everyday inspiration. Author of Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

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