Reflections on Professions and Vocations in a Results-Obsessed Time

Lucy's Booth

There has been a lot of conversation among educators, in the face of Common Core Curriculum becoming the latest educational fad, about how their profession is being de-valued. More and more, success and failure for education is quantified in raw test scores. Educators I know are quite adamant about the fact that all sorts of mitigating factors, such as economics, family situations, physical conditions, and different styles and affinities for learning enter into it. The problem, they are quick to remind us, is that education is primarily relational, and cannot be easily laid out on a spreadsheet nor replaced by a technology or management tool.

To me, this is simply a symptom of a larger problem—not with education, but with professions in general. Judges have been saddled for decades with increasing numbers of “mandatory minimum sentences,” which remove most of the discretion from their jobs; this, of course, helps politicians to look tough on crime without actually spending money (as long as nobody connects the dots between mandatory minimums and the increase in prison populations), but does nothing for the humanity, judgment, and grace which turn “law” into “justice.” Physicians have had to deal with intense, risk-averse scrutiny that requires huge numbers of tests and huge amounts of insurance before they can even begin to think about anyone’s health—people have forgotten that medicine was an art before it was a science. Journalists find themselves forced to replace information with titillation . . . and all of this is but the tip of the iceberg.

It is all well and good to rant about all of this, of course, but what makes this appropriate for a blog-full of Reformed theology-types? Of course, the first and most obvious—if not most cynical—answer is that, if the teachers and judges and physicians are on the tip of the iceberg, we are part of the huge submerged bulk. Our oxen are being gored right along with everyone else’s. We are trusted less and less, quantified more and more; that, of course, has been going on for nearly a century and a half. Ministers are called to not only proclaim the Word as the Spirit leads us, but to fill the seats in a world where people are empowered to decide, on a week-to-week basis, whether or not they are being fed (which often translates as whether or not they are happy), and to go elsewhere for food they would like better. We find ourselves trapped between members who seem to think we exist for their benefit and a denominational hierarchy that sometimes seems to think the same thing. And, as with so many of the other professions, it is the easily quantifiable numbers that are valued. At the 2014 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, new church start pastors—whose work was increasing the stats of the denomination—were given shiny trophies for just embarking on the work of congregation building, while a missionary who had given a lifetime to the people of Taiwan, but who added nothing to those stats, was thanked with an unframed piece of paper. This symbolism wasn’t lost on many people in the room.

So, the ministers have skin in this, too. But we should look at this here because we Reformed folks believe that all of life is addressed by the Gospel, and everything we do in life, for better or worse, is part of how we praise God. On top of all that, the very concept of professions, of vocations, comes from us; these were words coined to describe people choosing to serve God as a way of life, people who live what we profess. This wasn’t originally about getting paid for work, but about giving lives to work.

The thing is that this work, the work of the professions, requires specialized training in specific departments of learning or science—so says the first definition of the word. We live in an age where, because so much has been de-mystified in life, people distrust specialized training, and certainly training where the immediate results or rewards cannot be easily quantified. What use are things like Greek and Hebrew and Church History, anyway? Sometimes, I must confess, it is difficult to answer that, but all of it contributes to a way of thinking and understanding that helps us better pastor our modern, English-speaking flocks. Whereas, just a generation ago, we used to be told that, if we wanted to move the church, we had to learn the church’s order, more and more people believe that anything that must be learned should be eliminated instead. There is distrust in the world for things which require learning and for those who put what society considers to be too much time and energy into it.

And, of course, there are professionals whose behavior has given society cause to treat us all this way. There are incompetent teachers, bad judges, malpracticing physicians in the world. We don’t need to be told that far too many ministers have abused and destroyed the esteem in which we were once held. And yet those poor professionals, those who have not lived up to their roles, are but a small percentage of any of our professions. It is a poignant example of how a few rotten apples can spoil the entire barrel.

Yet we cannot let this be the end result. Remember what Paul wrote about the body of Christ, about how “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them (1 Corinthians 12:18, NRSV).” The kidneys do not decide they can see just as well as the eyes, nor does the big toe decide to second-guess the ears at hearing. Any body where this happened would die quite quickly. I do not pretend to know nearly as much about my healthcare as my physician, nor does she try to do theology instead of me. No matter how well-informed I might be as a patient, as a computer user, as a law-abiding citizen, as a car owner, I cannot begin to know enough to completely second-guess the professional whom I hire to work on these things.

The answer, it would seem, is that, while all of us need accountability, all of us also need trust. We need trust to be joined in community, we need trust to live and grow as a body.

Getting back to that trust, and making our present society see the value of it . . . well, I don’t have that answer . . . yet. Until we have that answer, we will have to all do our best to be true to our word—true to God’s Word.

In a word . . . trustworthy.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Professions and Vocations in a Results-Obsessed Time

  1. “We find ourselves trapped between members who seem to think we exist for their benefit and a denominational hierarchy that sometimes seems to think the same thing.”

    Truer words…

    Thanks, James!

  2. “At the 2014 General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, new church start pastors—whose work was increasing the stats of the denomination—were given shiny trophies for just embarking on the work of congregation building, while a missionary who had given a lifetime to the people of Taiwan, but who added nothing to those stats, was thanked with an unframed piece of paper. This symbolism wasn’t lost on many people in the room.”

    Thank you for bringing that to light again. It also made me wonder if the “prize” for being a life-long missionary would have been a shiny trophy had the missionary in question been a man. Just an observation.

    • For once, Susan, I don’t think we can accuse our leadership of even inadvertent sexism. The issue was one of activities we value, and we place more value on making “us” bigger than we do spreading the Gospel to “them.”

  3. This distrust of education and the empowerment of church members to leave if they’re not “fed” feeds heavily into what my dad says often: “Ministry has changed since I was in seminary.” Yep, it sure has. Some days that doesn’t bother me. Other days I wonder what is God up to? And on my worst days I wonder, what’s the point?

    Have you discovered anything in your years of ministry that helps congregations (and maybe even denominations) shift their gaze from numbers back to the ministry of the Gospel?

    • I don’t know that I have in a permanent, sustained way, Jill. Mostly, I try to get congregations to engage in the kind of ministry laid out in the gospels and in Acts: here are the people God has put in front of us, here is their need, and here are our gifts. No strategies beyond sharing the love of God in the moment.

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