Can Ministers Be Professional?

For a guy that wears t-shirts and leopard print pants (which I do), what does it look like to be professional? 

Ever been in an awkward moment with someone? I can think of a lot instances in my life where my foot found its way to my mouth all too quickly. During those occasions, my thoughts move extra fast and before I can discern what I should say I say the weirdest or worst thing possible. I can remember working in a manufacturing job in my early twenties and this happening with my supervisor. It happened around Easter as I was telling a group of work buddies that my parents still made sure I received a “basket” from the Easter bunny filled with candy.

My supervisor: “Man, I wouldn’t tell that! A grown man getting an Easter basket…” He started to give me some guff about my parents treating me like a kid. Before I could fully process what he said I heard myself say…

Me: “You know, if I had any respect for you that might have hurt my feelings.”

Crickets accompanied by awkward glances and stifled laughs as people tried not make eye contact with both him and me. I was never a big fan of this guy, or him of me I imagine, but as you might gather this didn’t help our relationship moving forward. Reflecting back on this some fifteen years ago, I realize as much as I enjoyed saying what I said I know I didn’t act appropriately. I dare say I didn’t act to what many would describe as “professional”, but of course neither did he. I started thinking about this exchange recently when another such moment occurred. This time I wasn’t nearly as crass, but the conversation did lead me to question what “professionalism” looks like in my own ministry context.

But before I share the story, let me pose the question(s); can someone be a professional minister?  

According to all things Calvinistic and Reformed, John Piper, the answer is no. In his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals Piper lays out the argument that minstry is not to be viewed as a guild or to be held to a “standard of excellence.” Piper states the idea of someone being a professional prayer or a professional concerning spiritual gift is absurd. He pushes for the true essence of ministry to focus on the presence of the Holy Spirit and all the supernatural-ness (yes, I just made that word up) that follows the work of the Spirit.

And as crazy as it sounds, in some ways I have to agree with Piper (Full disclaimer here: my theology and Piper’s rarely line up). I natural associate the term professional with athletes. This analogy helps me to understand Piper’s point that you don’t have such distinctions as amateur or professional ministry leaders in your church. Those labels simply don’t work in this context. Yet, I feel I can push back on this concept. I do believe some expectations that are typically understood to be sought in the corporate world can benefit everyone and certainly ministers. These expectations do not include “climbing the corporate ladder” or materialism that most often defines corporations and big businesses.

With all that being said, here are a few ways ministers can be more “professional.”

Timeliness

This should be a given, but I’ll list it first and foremost. I am the type of person who needs to get to the movies early. I calculate the time I know it’s going to take me to get to the theatre, grab overpriced popcorn, and sit down in time to enjoy the handful of previews. That’s just how I roll. Something’s you can’t plan for, such as a car accident/fender bender holding up traffic unexpectedly or, my favorite, the person who is asking there 4 year old what they want at the concession stand and holding up the line (Get that kid some Goobers and get out of the way!). Working in ministry can be tricky when dealing with time. Your planned afternoon meeting with someone can be interrupted by a phone call letting you know another member had to be taken to the hospital. All of a sudden your plans change and you have to do your best to notify and reschedule. Those circumstances need to be explained and hopefully understood as for why you were late or couldn’t make your appointment. Simply blowing off people for an asinine reason doesn’t cut it (I know that 9 minute cat video on YouTube was funny, but you can watch it later). Bottom line, if you say you’re going to be somewhere at a designated time…be there at that time! This type of commitment pays off big time in the “trust departments” of others.

Courtesy

When you take the time to call someone and let them know you might be late, that’s just common courtesy. When you take the extra 5 minutes to respond to an email, that lets the other person know they matter. Another way to view courtesy is to be openly polite. Being able to listen and allow someone to finish their sentence before you interject. Another example might be openly acknowledging someone as they walk into a room where they know no one and introducing them to others. For me growing up in the South I say “Yes Ma’am and Sir” all the time when I address others I may not know. Courtesy is a hard practice from the looks of social media. Being polite can be misconstrued with being weak or unable to say what’s on your mind. Often people say that prefer someone to “tell it like it is” and not to “sugarcoat” anything. This usually works up to a point until that same person doesn’t like what they’re hearing. All of a sudden courtesy becomes a hot commodity. Ministers must practice courtesy with their congregations, with those outside their churches, and certainly with each other.

Authenticity

This word gets used A LOT now a days. Working in student ministry for the last several years I am often reminded of the “BS meter” teenagers possess. From my experience, teens prefer to hear something that sounds authentic and real. When I share a lesson with them on certain subject or theme I often tell personal stories to drive home the point. Most of the stories I tell have little to do where I was successful in the matter. Mostly they are confessions of my short comings. Where I felt I didn’t do my best or made a mistake. With my students I try to own my baggage as best I can. Ministers are often viewed as the folks in church who have it all together. I will speak for myself in this matter, but I struggle just as much with doubts, fears, and the brokenness of this world as the average church attendee. What authenticity allows me to do is to be free with my strife and place it on the table. I can remember not long ago a particular bad night I had at my current church. I can’t remember the details leading up to it, but I was just in a “funk” to say the least. I wasn’t very present with my students and it showed in my attitude and in how I led our discussion that night. The next time we met I made the point of apologizing to them and explained as best I could what I had been going through that day before I met with them. When I slip I need to own it.

You might be asking yourself by now, where is all this coming from?

Lauren and I have been In Winston-Salem now for a year. Prior to the move I reached out to some suggested fellow ministers as I hoped to establish some points of contact and support for us as we transitioned here. Some individuals responded back and I am happy to say that I’ve had some great relationships form. However, I kept hearing about one particular individual and how much I needed to connect with them. After several failed email attempts to introduce myself with no response from this individual I must admit I became a little “over this person.” I know others who sing the praises of this person and have stories of how awesome and helpful this person has been to them. I wish I had their same stories, because from the outside looking in I can see what they say is true and yet I can’t relate.

All this to say it made it awkward when I ran into this person recently.

Unlike with my supervisor, the more mature Justin didn’t say anything out of the way. I was courteous in our conversation and sincere when I said it was a pleasure to have met them. And even though I didn’t say “Yeah, I’m the dude you never responded to”, I still feel I was authentic in the moment.

Why bite my tongue you ask? Because I know somewhere to somebody…I’m that person. I never responded back, I blew them off, and I made someone feel as if they didn’t matter. I should extend some grace there because some grace has definitely been extended to me.

This encounter reminded me that I need to be more professional, and by professional I mean this:

"In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12 (NASB)

Amen.