By J. Andrew Keith (with Chris Keith)
Several years ago, popular Christian writer John Piper warned ministers about the dangers of professionalism1. On the first page of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, Piper sounds a clarion call: “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.”2 Some of his final words in the opening chapter are a prayer that reads: “Banish professionalism from our midst, Oh God. . . .”
A False Choice
Obviously, churches are not corporations and Christian leaders should not run them as if they were. However, we should not throw out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bathwater. It seems to me that Piper’s rhetoric presents readers with a choice—one must choose to be a professional or choose to be a “slave of Christ.” Indeed, if one believes that “Christian ministry” is intricately tied to Christian faith itself, this way of thinking comes very near to placing professionalism outside the faith entirely with such claims as, “Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry.”
But why should one choose between being professional and being a servant of Christ? This is a false choice precisely because ministers and other Christian leaders do not—and should not—choose between professionalism and service on behalf of Christ; indeed, these two emphases can be complementary.
Of course ministers should not strive to be “a professional” instead of “a minister” or “a slave of Christ.” No person who has accepted Christ as Lord—whether or not he is employed by a church—should have such aspirations. But being a professional (a noun) is different from striving to be professional (an adjective) at any job, particularly if you approach your job as a ministry and witness, and especially if your job is full-time ministry.
Offense to Christian Professionals
There are two other reasons Christian leaders should reject this false choice between professionalism and service. First, it is highly offensive to Christians who work full time in the corporate world and strive to perform their tasks at a high level of professionalism on account of their conviction that they should “preach the gospel at all times,” which includes how they conduct themselves in their work environment(s).3 When the apostle Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23), he meant just that—whatever we do, including whatever we do in our professional contexts. We should not only be professional in our work, but also approach it with fervor and excellence in the name of our Lord.
Reclaimed Leadership Principles
Second, many, if not all, of the genuine leadership principles that define professionalism are—at their core—principles first articulated in Scripture. Spend some time in seminar and business leadership contexts and you’ll soon see that many have taken the principles of the Christian faith and made a living espousing them under a secular “motivational” banner.
It is time Christians reclaimed those leadership principles. In other words, there are some ways Christian leaders, especially ministers, should be more—not less—professional. Along these lines, following are some brief suggestions of common corporate practices that should have a place in the church.
Standards of Excellence
Church leaders should strive for excellence in everything they do because everything they do is worship to the Lord (Colossians 3:23). This is true for Christians everywhere, though the church’s rightful definition of itself as something other than a business has often had the unfortunate byproduct of churches failing to hold her employees (i.e., ministers and staffs) to standards that are commonplace elsewhere. For example, many churches still do not have annual reviews to discuss and set specific goals with their ministerial and support staff members. Churches—no matter what size—should conduct such reviews.
Annual reviews can also help churches address imbalances in the competency/character ratios of their employees. Businesses often forgo evaluating character when hiring and firing and, instead, base such decisions solely on competency. Conversely, churches often do the opposite and ignore competency when hiring and firing. To be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to local congregations, however, the church should expect the people it employs to have both good character and high competency. Character, clearly, is more important than competency and should never be compromised. Competency can be learned, but character is a heart issue.
Nevertheless, elderships and other church leaders should also never ignore gross incompetence in the name of character. Such leaders are accountable for managing the financial and spiritual resources of a congregation, and placing such blessings in the hands of incompetent individuals is not good stewardship. There are plenty of competent future employees who are also men and women of character; hiring committees should insist on both, and those performing reviews should assess both.
In similar fashion, ministers and elders should have high standards of excellence for their programs. Businesses often identify and focus on their “core competencies” (essentially meaning their “strong suits”). Without sacrificing the primacy of preaching the gospel, churches should also focus on how best to serve their communities. Unfortunately, churches simply cannot do everything, so they should identify the greatest needs of their communities that they are capable of meeting. Focus energies and resources there without entirely abandoning other needs.
Finally, churches need to develop and maintain strategic thinking habits among their leadership. Gone are the days when churches could count on the unchurched wandering into our midst based on a vague conviction that they are “supposed to.” To reach the lost, church leaders need to think—at certain times and in certain places—like marketing gurus hawking a product. Indeed, church leaders have a more important “product” (something people actually need) than anything those marketers are touting.
Similar to a missionary on foreign soil, each congregation needs to identify its main demographic(s) and strategically reach out to them. This does not require blindly submitting to every cultural whim. But it does mean being serious and purposeful about communicating the uncompromising message of Jesus’ death and resurrection in ways that are heard, understood, and impressed upon the audience.
Not Professionals, but Professional
While we may not be professionals (the noun), we all certainly could be more professional (the adjective). Let us demand excellence from ministers and staff; let us strive for high standards in the programs and ministries we produce; let us aggressively steward financial and spiritual resources; and let us think strategically about the communities we serve.
Let us not banish professionalism from our midst, but rather harness its positives as we seek to live the Great Commission. Let us strive to be more professional because such aspirations are fully part of the call to serve by doing everything as if it is for the Lord.
1John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2002).
3“Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words” is a quotation often attributed dubiously to St. Francis of Assisi.
J. Andrew Keith is CEO and president of The Atlas Companies, Louisville, Kentucky, and an elder at Okolona Christian Church in Louisville. Chris Keith, his son, is assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.