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Religious Professionals

I was driving my son to guitar lessons the other day, trying to keep up while he talked a mile a minute. I was only half listening (shameful, I know), but in one of his stories I caught the word “priest.” This isn’t a word he uses often, and my curiosity was piqued. I’m always curious about how my son understands the weird and wonderful contours of the church/religion-land that his dad happens to inhabit. I think my world is a bit of an oddity to him. He knows that I read books and talk to (and at) people, that I busily bang away on my laptop, writing sermons, writing articles, writing, writing, writing. But I sometimes think he wishes I had a more respectable job. Like building things or selling things or fixing things or growing things… things you can see and touch in the real world. Or teaching zombie apocalypse preparedness courses. You know, something useful.

“So what’s a priest?” I ask him. He looks at me blankly for a minute as if to say, “Aren’t you supposed to know these kinds of things? Doesn’t one of your books explain this to you?! Of all the things you don’t know, shouldn’t this be one of the ones that you do?” But instead, he says “I dunno. Isn’t it kind of like you? Like the boss of the church?” I pause and weigh the merits of broaching the subject of ecclesiological differences across denominational divides, parsing the nuances of sacramental understandings of the priesthood vs. the priesthood of all believers, etc. In the end, I (wisely) decide against course of action, choosing instead to say something deep and profound that will no doubt live long in my son’s memory.  “Uh, yeah.  Kind of.”

The boss of the church.

It will probably not surprise readers of this blog to discover that this is not among the preferred ways in which I understand the nature of my role (those familiar with Mennonite ecclesial structures will be even less surprised—in Mennonite churches, pastors are the bosses of precisely nothing 🙂 ). But even leaving theology aside, I am and have always been extremely reluctant to consider myself the “boss of the church” or the “religious professional.” I squirm when people call me “Pastor Ryan.” I have thus far resisted ordination. I cringe when people make comments about how I am holier than others or how “We’d better stop talking about that, there’s a pastor in the room,” even when I know (hope?) they are joking. The thought of being a “religious professional” makes me very uneasy, even though I know that I am one and that this is the grid through which others see me.

There are a number of reasons for my discomfort. On a purely selfish level, I don’t want to be seen as the “religious professional” because this is not a very highly esteemed category in our culture. People are often either highly suspicious of religious professionals due to the bad behaviour of power-hungry, scandal-prone men who inevitably make headlines for their bad behaviour (and then make even more headlines—and often a great deal of money—for very public displays of repentance and rebirth… Rinse and repeat), or they view them as antiquated, irrelevant oddities from a religious time and place we have, thankfully, moved beyond as a culture.

Given this postmodern, post-Christian cultural reality where religious professionals are often viewed with suspicion and/or bewilderment, and given that we live and work in the general context of shrinking attention spans, fleeting loyalty, an “entertain-me” mentality and barely concealed apathy, it can be a challenge to understand just how the role ought properly to be understood and practiced. Are religious professionals institutional administrators? Salespeople? Entrepreneurs? Therapists? Motivational speakers? All of the above? And how do we tell if we’re being good religious professionals? If the customers are happy? If the building is full? If there are all kinds of shiny programs to point to? Who’s to say? I was having coffee with a pastor just this morning and we discussed the challenges of working in a job where results are so difficult to quantify. It’s not like you reach the end of your day at the religion factory and proudly point to the six religious widgets you managed to assemble that day that are now proudly sitting on the shelf. No, not at all.

But all this is pretty well-known stuff. For me, the most uncomfortable part of being a religious professional by far confronts me when I read the New Testament. The New Testament makes for very difficult reading as a “religious professional.” When I was growing up, I always assumed that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were something like the villains in the story of Jesus. But they weren’t. They were the ones who had devoted their lives to God, studying the Scriptures, interpreting them for others. They were the ones with graduate degrees and doctorates in theology. And yet there is no group that Jesus clashes with more consistently or denounces more angrily than religious professionals. Brood of vipers, sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, hypocrites!! Woe, woe, woe to you, who claim to speak for God and yet do nothing but pile the burdens of your stifling religion on to the backs of others! Woe to you who presume that God can be managed and packaged and sold… Woe to you who use religion to keep yourselves busy on the outskirts of the divine, yet end up blocking people from the God of life.

It is a scary thing, to read the New Testament as a religious professional.

As I was thinking about what my son thinks of the work his dad does, and about the work that I do do (or the work that I think I should do), and about this terrifying business of being a religious professional, my thoughts returned to Easter. We are still in the shadow of the cross and the empty tomb, after all. Perhaps the first (and best… and last) thing that the Christian religious professional ought to do is simply point, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, to the cross where Jesus forgives the religious professionals (and others) who don’t know what they are doing, and to the empty tomb where life comes crashing through all of our death-dealing ways, religious or otherwise.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Out of the mouths of babes. When I moved from academia into public service, my then-4-year-old daughter, in explaining Mommy’s new job to a friend, said, “My mom IS the government.”

    April 23, 2014
    • Love it… Being the government sounds way more impressive than being a religious professional!

      April 23, 2014
  2. I dislike the use of “pastor” as a title, too. However, it’s because “Pastor Dave” is a character from “That 70’s Show” who is really annoying.

    My church has a plural eldership. Why am I called “Pastor” while the deacons and other elders have names? It’s just inconsistent.

    April 26, 2014
    • Agreed, David—both on the inconsistency in our application of the language AND on Pastor Dave from “That 70’s Show.” 🙂

      April 26, 2014
  3. Thanks for writing this! I am completely sympathetic. So you are not ordained. I support you in that. Myron Augsburger, years ago, said, if you think you are called to the pastorate, run from it as long and as hard as you can. He was speaking at RJC when I was a kid at some youth event there.

    April 29, 2014
    • Thanks, Abe. Much appreciated.

      (Interesting advice from Augsburger…)

      April 29, 2014
      • Kevin K #

        I haven’t fully come to any conclusions myself about ordination (just beginning to think down that road). I certainly don’t have deep problems with pastors not being ordained. But, is there seriously that big an issue with a professional designation from a recognized governing body? Imagine an accountant boldly proclaiming that they don’t have a CPA, or a Doctor noting he has all the training but he’s not officially certified… or a senior engineer proudly describing the fact that he doesn’t have the initials P. Eng beside his name on his business card. Yes.. Reverend is a rather misleading title… yes committing to any profession for the rest of your life is misleading as well (careers, like life, can be quite uncertain)… and yes, pastoring is entirely different in a number of ways from many other professions, and yes the best pastors are often the least “professional,” but I don’t think being ordained changes much besides a title on a business card, a little broader public recognition, and perhaps us pastors being forced to admidt that we are stuck in a very strange profession indeed… At least ordination officially recognizes that our being stuck is a good thing for us, and a good thing for the church.

        April 30, 2014
      • Thanks for this, Kevin. Interestingly, this post has led to a number of good conversations with people about the merits of ordination and how/why I should consider it. Yours is among the better (and more entertaining!) rationales I’ve encountered: ordination as a recognition of the “stuckness” and the “strangeness” of pastoral ministry… I like that 🙂 .

        I guess I still resist the idea of ordination because I don’t see much biblical support for a “professional designation” (as defined/practiced by the broader culture) of the pastorate. I don’t see ordination as equivalent to the licensing of doctors, accountants, or engineers. The definitions of the word that I have come across all convey some element of the bestowal of authority or special status. When I ask people in church circles or denominational circles about what being ordained would add to my work that is not included in my licensing as a pastor, they usually either resort to pragmatics (it makes things easier when dealing with the government for tax purposes, etc) or it confers/acknowledges status in the community. I don’t think either of these are good enough reasons to be ordained.

        (Also, I have a deep, and quite probably irrational loathing for the word “reverend” 🙂 )

        (To be fair, some people say that ordination is more about a church community wanting to affirm someone for the role to which they have been called than it is about the things I mentioned above. I get this. But I think there are other ways this can be done than ordination.)

        My thoughts almost always return to Matthew 23:1-12 when these matters are under discussion. I read this passage as saying that we ought not to worry about the titles we use for people—indeed, that these titles, and our desire for them can often be positively harmful in our life and service. I think that the way in which we understand and use honorifics ought to be different in the church than in the broader culture.

        Having said all this, my views on this matter are still in formation. I may change my mind some day, who knows? I appreciate having other wise people in my life (real and virtual) to bounce these ideas off of.

        April 30, 2014
  4. Kevin K #

    Oh Man. You went biblical and anabaptist on my assertion. Good for you. That passage… wow. Yeah, just quote that and you’re good to go.

    Though… for the sake of argument. If we are publically describing our piety by professing “Hey everyone, I’m not ordained!” Isn’t that the same thing? (I’m not saying you’re doing that, I just know I’ve seen people who make not being ordained a point of religious pride… which kind of defeats the purpose).

    And, for the sake of taking things to their logical and quite ridiculous conclusion… how did the apostles get away with being called apostles? That’s sort of a title that goes a little beyond “brother…”

    Our professors at our bible schools should repent of the sin of letting us call them “Teacher” okay.. maybe I’m taking this a little too far… but it’s fun.

    Yes there is lots that we do as pastors that isn’t really biblical (at least Paul covered our butts in saying we should get paid… thank God for that). That doesn’t inherently make it wrong. The “why” of what we do as pastors should be inherently biblical… and most of the “how…” but some of the “how” and even an little bit of the “why” will always be culturally based. After all, we are called to pastor at a specific time and place to a specific people. A hundred years ago those people needed pastors to be called Reverend (and in some places still today). Maybe we don’t need their definintion of the word. I think we need a better definition. I think, since it’s a culturally bound practice, we have the freedom to redefine/redeem the practice… is there a definition that would fit for you/your church? And if the answer in your church/denomination/heart is “Yes” and “Here it is…” then I say go for it and don’t worry too much about the bagagge.

    Break out some community hermenuetic on the practice of ordination and see what happens… (sounds like that’s what is going on here already… good stuff)

    April 30, 2014
    • Absolutely, Kevin. Not being ordained can function identically to being ordained. So much depends on the whys and the hows, the motivations behind the things that we do… And you’re right, it can all get pretty ridiculous pretty quickly if we start taking it too literally. It is helpful to be able to identify people who teach as “teachers,” after all…

      I agree with what you say about cultural context, about how this shapes much of what we do. I just think that the fundamental point that Jesus is making about how we designate and honour people is worth pausing over. Probably for a lot longer than we usually do. But I suppose that could be said about many of the things that Jesus says 🙂 .

      April 30, 2014
      • Very well said, Kevin. Thank you, too.

        April 30, 2014

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