Feb  2017 14
De-professionalized Clergy

For all of you in formerly mainline Protestant congregations, if you care about congregational leadership, I commend this article to you. The author does a very good job of describing a trend toward the de-professionalization of the clergy.

(Note: this article is about the trend toward part-time ministry and expanded lay roles, rather than about bi-vocational clergy who earn their living from more than one sources, and who may in fact work 16 hour days at two full-time jobs. The growth of bi-vocational clergy is another current phenomenon.)

Currently, nearly 40 percent of Protestant formerly mainline congregations are without full-time clergy (as judged by compensation, rather than by hours worked). And, given the following reality (expressed in a paragraph from the article), that percentage is going to climb markedly in the next decade:

“The Industrial Revolution really produced the professional guild that we call clergy, and that’s actually the thing that’s breaking apart,” says Cameron Trimble, chief executive officer of the Center for Progressive Renewal, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that does consulting for mainline churches. “The industry of paid clergy, and all the institutions that produce these paid clergy, are collapsing under their own weight because the financial model is so broadly broken.”

In the business world, this situation would be called “creative destruction.” In the church world, whether or not this destruction is creative is yet to be determined.

Seminaries such as the one I serve, and scores of others within the 270-ish accredited seminaries in the U.S. and Canada, are among the institutions that “produce those paid clergy.”

2016 Graduating ClassThe future of congregations weighs heavily on the prospects for the future of graduate seminaries. There is a supply-demand correlation. Demand for graduate seminary-educated clergy is down because, as the article says, “the financial model is so badly broken.” So, I acknowledge the strong self-interest I, as a seminary president, have in the topic of de-professionalization.

I am also a member of the clergy. I have been since I was ordained in The United Methodist Church in 1979. When I attend to the nature of the clergy calling, and all the knowledge and wisdom and loving care exhibited by exemplary practitioners, I am concerned as I contemplate fewer clergy, and fewer persons who are enabled by a decent compensation package to practice ministry full-time.

The concern is: what will happen to the profession of the clergy? There is not one meaning of that profession over time and across the places of history, but some of what is good is in danger of being lost, uncreatively. The clergy, as a profession, is being de-professionalized.

Besides what the trend towards de-professionalization means for graduate seminaries, or for pension plans (pension plan leaders would rather have workers paying into a plan over a lifetime, based on full-time salaries, rather than someone paying in for 10 years from a part-time salary), I have two concerns: loss of depth and loss of scope.

Depth, especially depth of learning. This concern is not absent from graduate seminary education already, where the trend is moving toward a 72 semester hour program rather than 10 or more hours higher.

In comparison to a longer program, there is less time today given to history and learning historical contexts than is best for thought, practice, knowing what we don’t want to repeat, and knowing the past well enough to re-purpose treasures. Contemporary readings of classical figures often substitute for reading the classical figure per se; accepting someone else’s affirmation or rejection is not nearly as powerful as making up one’s own mind.

But at least a graduate seminary’s curriculum introduces students to a great many (not all) of the disciplines necessary for good ministry. Given the range of knowledges, skills, and dispositions to be gained and formed in a clergyperson, and that knowledge, skill, and disposition often don’t result in wisdom without years of reflective practice, what will happen to standards of practice and to wisdom when de-professionalized clergy are doing clergy tasks less often with less knowledge?

Scope. I will expose my Methodist tradition here: the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was barred from pulpit after pulpit for his direct, enthusiastic preaching. Rather than being bound by ministry in a single geographical parish, he declared, “The world is my parish!” That is an expansive claim, and begs the question about how narrowly or broadly the scope of ministry is interpreted.

  • Is ministry exhausted by serving a particular group of people in a particular place? Preaching, composing and leading worship, and basic care can be the sum total of ministry in a given place.
  • Does ministry necessarily include participation in the civic fabric of a community?
  • Should congregations from the same religion and religious communities across religions engage each other, for the sake of understanding, for learning to neighbor each other, and to work together for more justice and more peace?
  • Should congregations connect across national boundaries in some way that incarnates the claim that Christianity is an ecumenical and transhistorical reality, a faith in the love of God that transcends times, peoples, nations, and places, meant to create a people beholden to Everyone’s God rather than a tribal or national deity?

The human tendency is to live local, with those “like us.” Any other way of living will require intention and attention. What will the de-professionalization of the clergy mean for the scope of ministry?

To imagine the difference that depth and scope make, picture a library, completely dark except for the books you have read. Each of those books glows. For any individual, even a very well-read individual, many feet of shelf space are dark.

The glow of books read by an individual with a graduate education, giving ministry their primary attention, would be many lumens brighter than for a person who simply did not have the time to read.

Yes, there are problems with the professional model of the clergy. Some clergy use their educational credentials to silence or bully others. But establishing standards of good practice, adhering to a code of ethics, mastering a body of knowledge, and serving the good of others are all worthy marks of a professional ministry. I don’t like what I imagine de-professionalization might mean for clergy standards of good practice, ethics, depth, and scope.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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