What does it mean to be a ‘professional’? Should those engaged in, or exploring a call to ministry seek such a label? Does it matter?
These are all big and important questions to wrestle with.
Historically, the notion of ‘profession’ was attached to three spheres of work: medicine, law, and, you’ve guessed it, ministry, or more specifically, the priesthood. Over time, as societies, work and economies have shifted, notions of ‘profession’ have (often helpfully) diversified. You can look at most job adverts nowadays and the requirements and language will indicate, or at least infer, the need to be ‘professional’.
Of course, notions of ‘professionalism’ are contested. Traditionally, at least, being ‘professional’ sits between regulation and autonomy – in one sense, those occupations which claim some form of professional status, tend to be regulated by bodies that are often governmentally approved or, in some instances, directed. Ostensibly, this is in order that they enjoy public trust to practice ‘autonomously’. For some of us, who are interested in working in different types of ‘people ministry’, forms of control like this might feel more than a little challenging – especially as this type of work has traditionally been thought of as being under the banner of ‘civil society’ – a buffer zone between people and the state.
And there is another issue. If everything and everyone is called in their work to ‘be professional’, has the term become a catch-all devoid of any real meaning? For some thinkers in this field, ‘project professionalisation’ has become a means by which capitalist states, and other organisations (subtly) control their workforces through bureaucratic regulation, marketisation and possibly even pay cuts. This is especially the case in respect of the ‘people professions’ in which many people are motivated by a deep sense of vocation. In this view, ‘professionalisation’ might be seen as the very opposite – ‘deprofessionalisation’ – wherein work is devalued, and where there is control, but without real autonomy. So, perhaps those of us engaged in ministry should reject notions of ‘profession’ and see through them for what they are – clinical, controlling and ‘of the world’.
Maybe, but I would suggest another option – the need to ‘name’, reject, ‘be playful with’ but ultimately redeem the best aspects of what it means to be professional. This may help us reorientate our thinking towards new possibilities – to consider again who it is we seek to serve and what it is in terms of kingdom, society and justice that we join God in building. Colossians 3v23 comes to mind: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters’. This, I think, calls us to ‘do all things well’ and to continually engage in honest, shared dialogue and reflection regarding what this means in developing ministerial praxis.
It’s this connection that brings me to something that was suggested recently during exploration of these themes with CYM students – that we might explore what it means for us to be ‘God’s professionals’ – a space where we are empowered and given autonomy by the Holy Spirit to be who God has called us to be in the context of communities and people’s lives. To be Christ to people and to do so ethically in ways that enjoy freedom and accountability.
Yet we need to also recognise that the complexities of practice mean that we don’t minister in isolated bubbles – we are often called to work and minister in situations that are complicated and involve multiple stakeholders including other professionals. This reminds me of the story of one of my PhD interviewees who had been a Christian youth worker for many years before studying for a degree. ‘Steve’ said that completing his degree helped him gain credibility in representing the church in his work alongside a range of professionals including police officers, social workers and NHS and Youth Offending Team staff. For me, that’s significant in being one of ‘God’s professionals’ – in being the best we can be in serving others and God’s kingdom.
Why not have a chat with us if you’re exploring that call?
Senior Lecturer and Practice Co-ordinator – CYM
Above: Graham Bright, Senior Lecturer at CYM, shares his thoughts on what it means to be a ‘professional’ in the realm of CYF ministry.
The Institute for Children, Youth and Mission (CYM) is poised to equip a new generation of children and youth workers in the wake of the pandemic.