Pastors and Professionals

by Bert Newton PS Bert

A while back, my church contemplated hiring another pastor which got me thinking again about the whole idea of pastors and ordination, which in turn led me to think also about professionalism and careerism and my own tortured and confused journey in relation to these paradigms that have come to shape so much of the sociological world that I inhabit.

I followed and completed the path to ordination twelve years ago. I had ambivalent feelings about ordination at the time, but both my faith community and my mentors believed that it was a good thing to do; plus, it was one more accomplishment that I could check off as completed on that great ledger of accomplishments and non-accomplishments that, in those days, seemed to threaten me with banishment to the ranks of the “insignificant” if I did not attend to it enough. (Individual psycho-therapy has, in recent years, greatly reduced the power of that ledger.) Don’t get me wrong, I felt a definite call to ministry, as I think every Christian does, but I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with hierarchies and the professionalization of, not just ministry, but all of life’s work.

Throughout my life, I have tried to resist professionalism and careerism, but my resistance has been inconsistent. I resisted completing college but quickly capitulated and graduated with honors. I then went to seminary intending only to learn and not to get a degree, but I eventually capitulated there too, graduating with an even higher GPA than in college (although, curiously, no honors). In comparison, ordination was much less competitive; it was more relational and authentic, so my resistance had no chance whatsoever.

Although I served as a volunteer on the pastoral staff at our church for nine years, I never actually professionalized, not as a paid pastor nor in my “day job” (I have a great job where I get to help mentally ill people who have ended up on the streets or in jail, but my position is so poorly paid, so low in the hierarchy, and provides so little opportunity for “advancement” that the labor board does not consider me a “professional”). Despite my former capitulations, something inside of me has not allowed me to complete the journey of professionalization.

It has always seemed to me that professionalism and careerism work against community and human relationships. Careerism is supremely individualistic; it calls the individual to focus on success in a very particular field of work so that all other work, including the work of building and maintaining community and healthy relationships, survives only in the margins of our daily lives.

When I say “building and maintaining community and healthy relationships,” I’m not referring only to family and friends, or even to what some of us have come to call “intentional community.” I’m thinking also of grassroots community organizing, building the kind of relationships with and among our neighbors that can result in the power necessary to oppose and end oppression so that we can create a society of peace and equality. Career people and professionals usually have no time for this crucial work, even if, by virtue of their above-average education, they exhibit a higher awareness of “the issues.”

It’s not just the time and energy thing that is the problem, however, (nonprofessionals often have a time and energy issue here as well because the same forces that have created careerism/professionalism have shaped American life in general). Professionalism by its very nature invests its participants in the maintenance of an unequal status quo. A professional class requires a non-professional class. Someone has got to clean the toilets at the office and pick the food in the field. Though it’s not really necessary, many professionals even hire non-professionals to clean their homes, attend to their yards and raise their children, often paying these nonprofessionals at a fraction of the pay rate that they themselves receive in the professional world – raising children, apparently, ranks as a less valuable skill than the sort of work that is done in office buildings. Professionalism, by its very nature, is classist.

Unless I’ve made some grave error in my thinking – and if I have, I am eager for someone to point it out to me – all of this seems, to me, quite plain to see, and the failure to see it constitutes the sort of blindness that Jesus and the prophets talked about in the Bible.

Nevertheless, we proceed in our churches according to this same classist hierarchy in our hiring practices: The pastors get one class of compensation, the secretary gets a lower one, and the janitor gets an even lower one still. No one questions this arrangement of things, nor do we question our own participation in the classist hierarchy of the work world outside of the church.

I realize that bringing up this whole problem creates, not only an uncomfortable situation, but that it also raises a lot of complex questions, questions not only of analysis, but questions about how we can even begin to untangle ourselves from this mess; we’ve been tangled up in it so long that untangling will be either very painful or very tricky, and very likely it will be both painful and tricky.

I just hope that we can begin to talk about it and to wrestle with it. Doing so will, I think, put us on a trajectory toward a more honest and just expression of the church so that we can struggle more fully and vigorously for justice and equality in society.

Bert Newton is the author of Subversive Wisdom; Sociopolitical Dimensions of John’s Gospel


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