Being Professional in Ministry?

John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals is one of the books that pastors in the Western world would do well to read annually. In that work, Piper puts his finger on the gaping wound of a corporate mindset that has plagued the church in North America for far too long. At the outset Piper explains why we should reject the professionalizing of ministry:

“We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. 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).”

The problem of professionalism in ministry is endemic to those living under the influence of the American dream–in a business and marketing driven society where money rather than Christ is King. We must resist the temptation to believe that the church is a business in light of the insistence that there are organizational and financial aspects to the church. The church does not sell products. The minister is not a business man. The minister is a servant of Christ called to be His ambassador in a world that has turned its back on Him. The professionalizing of ministry in the church is the bane of the church’s existence in whatever shape or form it may take.

Nevertheless, I have often thought that a complementary volume–bearing the title, Brothers, We Could Be a Little More Professional–might be in order for some. After all, there is proper use of the word professional (i.e. “to exercise mature competency and skillfulness in one’s vocation”) that should characterize the lives, preaching and pastoral care of ministers. All ministers should seek to be as professional as possible in those things in which God has called them. Here are a few areas that I have in mind:

  1. Maturity in Life and Doctrine. The Apostle Paul charged Timothy with the following admonition: “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). A mature minister will want to treat every part of his life and ministry with the utmost spiritual care. He will keep a serious watch over himself and his doctrine (1 tim. 4:16). He will strive to think, speak and act coram Deo. The Apostle Paul charged Timothy to “give heed to reading, exhortation, doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:13). Surely this is a call to be as professional as possible in our lives and in our study of God’s word and sound doctrine so that we might “rightly divide the word of truth” (1 Tim. 2:15).
  2. Skillfulness in Leading and Preaching in Worship. There are many in the church who dismiss the need for the minister of the word to be polished in his speech and delivery. While we never want to trust in eloquence or rhetoric to accomplish what the Spirit of Christ alone accomplishes through the pure preaching of the word and Gospel (1 Cor. 2:1-2), we should strive to do away with anything in our speech that distracts the hearers from receiving what is being preached. The same is true of what is said during the other parts of the service. It is the responsibility of ministers of the Gospel to communicate the truths of God’s word in the call to worship, reading of the law, assurance of pardon, prayer of confession, pastoral prayer and Lord’s Supper as clearly and as persuasively as possible. Getting feedback from other ministers in the congregation on ways to improve in delivery and form can be a great blessing to a pastor who is seeking to grow in these areas. Additionally, all ministers should be reading homiletical volumes that give instruction on these things (e.g. see J.W. Alexander’s Thoughts on Preaching and R.L. Dabney’s Sacred Rhetoric).
  3. Wisdom in Pastoral Counseling. Much good can come from pastoral counsel. Much harm can also be done by pastors seeking to give counsel. We must seek to become wise and careful counselors with regard to the spiritual care of the people of God. There is a need for us to be professional as counselors. This does not mean that there is to be the counseling desk/counselor chair paradigm. It means that ministers should be searching the Scriptures, reading counseling books and learning from seasoned pastors and counsellors.
  4. Care in Ministry Structure and Development. Whether the responsibility for the structuring and development of a variety of ministries in a local church falls to the elders, deacons or other members of the church, the church should give proper attention to such ministries as greeting, visitation, hospitality, music, outreach, finance, set-up, etc. We can err on one of two sides of the equation when considering the development and oversight of these ministries. On the one hand, we can overemphasize the organization and development of these ministries. One the other hand, we can underemphasize the need for thoughtful procedures and organizational structures of such ministries. In many cases, churches that are most vocal about their dependence on an ordinary means of grace ministry (i.e. a ministry rightly focused on the word, prayer, sacraments, etc.) often fall into the latter error.David Prince, in his post “Don’t Theologize or Spiritualize Ministry Mediocrity,” addresses the need for ministers to exercise great care in their oversight and knowledge of the various ministries in their churches. He writes:

If a pastor cannot explain how the church’s commitment to the Word and the gospel impacts how the church handles parking, greets visitors, does announcements, and so on, then that reflects a reductionistic and diminished view of the primacy of the Word. The result when this kind of diminished view of the primacy of the Word pervades the church, in the name of being Word-centered, is that the church often develops a self-righteous, holy-huddle, self-justifying theology, that attempts to spiritualize its own lack of passion to pervasively live out the Word. It often sounds something like this: “It is sad that so many rely on tricks and secondary matters in ministry. We do not care about that stuff here because we believe in the power of the Word.” In other words, the congregational narrative is that they are small and not growing because they are so faithfully committed to the Word. That could possibly be true, but it could also be because they are lazy, and their ministry lacks comprehensive commitment to live out the Word, in every nook and cranny of congregational life.

  This is precisely what I mean when I speak of the need for pastors and churches to seek to be more professional.

There is a proper revulsion that we should have when we hear the word professional linked to the word ministry. However–as the saying goes–“we must not let the abuse of a thing negate its proper use.” There is a need for mature, thoughtful, wise, educated and skillful ministers in churches that are committed to the prayers, the pure preaching of the word of God, the right administration of the sacraments and church discipline. There is a dire need for ministers to seek to be professional in the things that build up the people of God, even as we reject that sort of professionalism that causes great spiritual harm to the church.

7 Responses

  1. I have noticed here in Zimbabwe there’s a push for professionalism. The kind that Piper warns against. Around here, we call it excellence – an evangelism tool used to attract professionals. The results has already proved disastrous; excellence excluded.

  2. JB

    Certainly there’s a difference between the kind of excellence you describe, and an overemphasis on “being professional.” There is a third danger of professionalism I see: the outsourcing of ministry to men we pay to do the work of the gospel for us. Congregations may have quite salvific views of their pastor: The new pastor is going to come and fix everything! We pay our pastor to do {insert ministry here]! To that I ask, What about Eph. 4:12?

  3. DJP

    I read Piper’s book and he has some very good things to say, especially in light of a great deal of push today to “build your platform.” However, I too, would like to emphasize that “Brothers, We Are Not Amateurs” (which of course Piper is not advocating). There is an art and a skill that needs to continually be developed in all facets of ministry as per Pastoral Epistles. So certainly a balance needed between perceptions — though terms are being used with different meanings. Thanks for the prodding.

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