Thursday, April 16, 2009

Faith Works 4-18-09
Jeff Gill

A Profession May Be a Vocation, Or Even a Hobby

Profession is a word with religious roots. You profess your belief, and a professor is one who helps you understand and explain what it is you believe.

Professions have come to be known as vocations – another religiously rooted term, from Latin “vocare,” or “to call,” meaning your calling in life – which have a set of certain standards and are self-policing in their practices.

Medicine, legal work, teaching, journalism, and of course ministry have all been referred to as professions in the now technical sense of the term, as well as career military service.

Since World War II, professionalization has been coming up as an expectation for all kinds of job fields, from secretarial work (I mean, administrative professionals) to service employees (ahem, service professions). As with many such terms, when you expand it so far as to cover everyone, after a while the butter is so thin on the toast you can’t hardly tell that it’s there anymore.

And at the other end, many of the classical “professions” have been experiencing a certain nibbling away of their exclusive rights and assumptions. With professional standards comes expectations of professional pay and benefits and certain perks, like sabbaticals and paid continuing education. Which costs money, even as other elements of economic models are . . .

So one example is the growth of “nurse practitioners” serving in the role once exclusive to doctors. Granted, nursing is a profession and has been since Florence Nightingale, but to be the first and sometimes only medical person to see and treat a patient – that’s a major change in what most of us think of as the job of a medical professional. But that’s what we’re seeing.

Legal services are popping up on the internet (with myriad ads on TV) and lots of legal filings don’t require a lawyer anymore, but just a quick chat with a paralegal. Public schools are losing budgets and market share to charter and private schools, where the teachers do not necessarily come out of the standard “professional development” model to reach their position, no matter how professional their behavior or supervision.

Blogging and other internet forms of media are never going to entirely replace the need for skilled, experienced journalists to seek out stories and get behind the spin, but “citizen journalism” is all over the place now, and not likely to go away; the series “24” is highlighting the growth of paramilitary organizations that may or may not have a professional ethic of national service at their heart.

And then there’s the ministry. The profession that is at the root of the very word itself is de-professionalizing in some ways, even as church structures are emphasizing the “profession” of clergy more every year, with mandatory licensing and training and contract guidelines.

A professional clergymember is assumed to have a bachelor’s degree and a seminary-based master’s degree, and some are quite rigorous (mine was 90 credit hours, and included a thesis with oral defense at the end), and are under strict accreditation review themselves by the Association of Theological Schools.

Meanwhile, more and more congregations are finding that unless you have over 120-plus in worship a Sunday as your baseline membership, it is basically impossible to have a budget that pays for the salary and benefits that would support a full time, seminary trained pastor (with often the student loan debt that comes with all that academic background).

So what you start to see, more and more, are bivocational (preacher with a day job), tentmaker (ditto, see Paul in Acts), licensed ministers, many of whom have no seminary per se behind them, and not that likely ahead of them (see entry: day job). Does this phenomenon change the profession of ministry? Of course it does. Is it a “problem”? It depends on who you’re talking to.

This is a major change in the church world many of us grew up in, and it’s happening faster than many realize. It began with assistant and associate positions going from “fully ordained” and seminary trained to licensed or commissioned status, and now more and more congregations are served exclusively by lay or licensed clergy.

Church by church, the numbers are creeping up past a third in many denominations. Larger churches are still only looking at fully professionalized pastors, but the size of congregations considering this step is steadily getting larger.

What do you think about this shift? E-mail or Twitter me your comments, or add them to the column at This is a conversation that is going on right now all around us, and isn’t likely to stop anytime soon!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s ordained but works on training and equipping licensed ministers for a number of Protestant denominations. Tell him your reflections on this at or on Twitter at “Knapsack.”

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