Being a Professional Christian

The church I belong to has recently taken in a new group of Church Apprentices for the 2019-2020 academic year. Ahead of a training session on maintaining a healthy spiritual life while in full-time ministry, I had a conversation with a colleague on the topic, which I wrote down in this form. She thought it might benefit others, so here it is. 

The first question that any of us in full-time gospel ministry ought to be attending to is this: what does the Lord want from me? Before asking what is asked by our supervisors or mentors (however godly they may be) or considering what is expected of us from our congregations (however pressing their needs may seem to be), the Christian minister is concerned with pleasing the Lord Jesus. Whatever tasks we fulfil, whatever competencies we develop — all of it is meaningless if we do not please him.

So what does the Lord require of his servants?

Perhaps the best text for grounding us as we consider this question is John 21, in which Jesus reinstates and commissions Peter. We see here Jesus’ priority for his leaders in the first question he asks. Before he envisions Peter with the task before him, before he assesses his aptitude for the mission, he asks him a question that embarrasses Peter, and perhaps us too, with its bluntness: Do you love me? This is the Lord’s first priority — he is looking for servants who love him.

If this is the first question that Jesus asks Peter, it ought to be the first question that we allow Jesus to ask us as well, and one that we revisit on a regular basis. If we are not growing in our love for Jesus, then whatever progress we appear to make in ministry will be less than worthless — it will prove to be merely an improved ability to lie to ourselves.

In this respect, what we’re proposing is no different to what the Lord requires of every Christian, or for that matter, atheist, Muslim, or Hindu. All of us are made and called to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The demand for those in ministry are no different than for any other human, and the sins that lead us away from that calling are no different either. There are, however, some ways in which those sinful tendencies may present themselves that are particular to ministry. The weeds of sin grow a little differently in this soil than in others. Here I want to explore the tension between our private and public spirituality, or devotional life, or whatever you want to call it, and the particular challenges that being in full time ministry brings up.

The fundamental question posed to us is this: how do we maintain our love for Jesus in ministry? How do we maintain a vibrant and deep personal devotional life while also hoping to lead others into that same depth of relationship? I suggest that there are two poles that we may gravitate to when considering how we relate our private spirituality (our own walk with the Lord) with our public spirituality (our ministry to others).

What are we trying to avoid?

To start with, it will probably be beneficial to explain what it is we’re trying to avoid. In a word, professionalism. By this I don’t mean professional standards — we shouldn’t be sloppy, and we shouldn’t act in a way that would bring the gospel into any disrepute — but a professional attitude. What we must guard against is the attitude that quickly turns ministry from being people-focussed to task-focussed, and turns the gospel from God’s gracious means of drawing us to him into a product that we sell to fix a few problems in people’s lives while avoiding God altogether.

We’re trying to avoid growing cold in our love for Jesus as the dynamic of our relationship towards him changes somewhat. The service we used to offer freely in church is now demanded of us at places and times that aren’t of our choosing. What was pleasure now becomes business, and it turns our that even the work of the kingdom has not escaped all the effects of the Fall.

So how can we keep ourselves from getting cold? And how do we negotiate our new identity as a ‘professional Christian’? Here are two ways that I’ve tried to conceive of it that I don’t think work, and then a third way between the two that I’ve found to be liberating and life-giving.

Approach #1 — Complete Distinction: The Private and Public are Totally Separate

The first way we might try to protect our private devotional life from being professionalised by our roles in ministry is to keep it totally separate from our public ministry. There is surely a right instinct in this: the desire to prevent ourselves from turning discipleship into a job is surely godly. This approach takes seriously the need to be with Jesus personally, and not to just read Scripture for the sake of other people. So far, so good.

There are, I think, reasons to avoid this way of thinking. The primary reason is that it can cause something of an identity crisis within ourselves. We stop seeing ourselves as a complete, integrated person, and start seeing ourselves with different roles and hats for different people and different times. In our zeal to avoid professionalising our private devotion, we end up professionalising our public ministry. Our work for the Lord becomes a separate thing to our walk with the Lord, and becomes compartmentalised into the 9-5 (NB if you find any church where you’re working 9-5 then pass on their details so I can see if they’re hiring).

Furthermore, it seems to be a distinction that isn’t made by Jesus or the apostles. Jesus’ question of whether Peter loves him is immediately followed by his call to feed Christ’s sheep. One leads naturally into the other, with no competition between the two. When Paul is instructing Timothy and Titus what to look for in Presbyters and Bishops* he focusses on character than comes from time spent with the Lord, being shaped by his Spirit. If we push the separation too far, then we end up losing sight of a large reason why Christ is changing us: in order that we may serve others in the church. All that happens in private is for the sake of the public.  The public and private life are altogether entangled, and what God has joined together, let man not put asunder.

What may this extreme look like in practice? Symptoms may be as follows: 1) a lack of prayer when preparing passages to teach, since we approach the text more as an exercise in comprehension and exegetical competence than devotion; 2) being overly concerned with people in our care making what we deem to be sufficient progress in godliness, since our ‘job’ is to be making them grow; 3) listening to sermons for other people, since we are on the clock and need to consider how to apply to the person sitting next to us; 4) viewing the Sunday service as primarily work, and so making the church something that we exist outside of, not as part of.

Approach #2 — Complete Identity: The Private and the Public are Totally the Same

The other end of the spectrum also has something to commend it. People tending towards this end have a distaste for professionalising the ministry and a resistance to separating our lives into different micro-identities— all should be part of one organic whole. Any division is seen as inauthentic. Again, there’s something to praise in this instinct.

The risk, as always in the Christian life, is that our best intentions are often co-opted by sin and twisted against Christ. Someone on this end of the spectrum is likely to run the risk of mistaking their ministry for personal spirituality, a greater danger if they appear successful. Private habits of prayer become unnecessary, there is enough praying to be done in Bible studies and one-to-ones, there is no need to go into our private rooms and talk to our Father who hears in secret as well.

The problem is, as above, that the example of Jesus and the apostles doesn’t quite let us collapse these things totally together. Even Jesus leaves the work of public ministry to pray to his Father by himself. John is in the Spirit on Patmos (I’m unsure precisely what this means, but it seems to be a period of some sort of private devotion) when he receives his vision for the benefit of the whole church, and Peter is alone praying when he receives his vision regarding the inclusion of the Gentiles. The point is this — God speaks to those who seek him in private for the benefit and building up of the whole church in public.

If the risk of drawing a sharp distinction was professionalising the public, the risk of collapsing the two is professionalising the private. The irony is that many of the results can look very much the same. We listen to sermons for other people, not so much because we’re on the clock, but because we’re piggybacking off the spiritual growth of others, and so we become very concerned with ‘results’ again. We run the risk (and I say this from my own experience) of viewing ourselves as some sort of conduit for God’s work — he speaks through us to others, but we manage to hold him at such a distance that he never troubles us.

Symptoms may include 1) struggling to spend time with the Lord on a day off, since it feels too much like work; 2) depending on public meetings for prayer; 3) as above, listening to sermons to apply them to others.

A Middle Path: The Private and the Public are Mutually Enriching

Far better, I suggest, is a vision of complementarity between the two. We distinguish between the public and the private on for the sake of joining them together again in something better. As we do this, we can find that the boundary between private and public is pretty porous, and that one enriches the other. We prepare Bible studies with warm-hearted devotion, desiring that every text leads us to Christ, and leads us to love him more. Our study for the sake of serving others makes us more like Christ, and our private prayer makes us better public servants. This is what evangelicalism at its best has always remembered — God deals with us as individuals together. Our spiritual life is both private and public, and both sides grow up and flourish best together. It’s a win-win.

As we pay attention to both, we will find ourselves better able to serve others in a sustainable way. The question of whether Peter loves Jesus and his command to feed his sheep are not disconnected. It is only from of a a place deep love for Jesus and habits of personally feeding on him that we are able to feed others and lead them to love him more as well. I say this anecdotally, but I think it will hold true — we are often more profoundly impacted by the way those who minister to us apply the word of Christ to themselves than we are by the way they apply it to us. We serve those in our care better by giving a model of how Scripture shapes us than by giving them a model where we always pass the buck to the poor guy in the pew next to us.

Holding the two together helps us overcome our anxiety over our performance in ministry as well. The deep and wonderful truth at the bottom of this is that God does not want slick professionals doing the work of the kingdom— he wants you. He will teach you things in private for the sake of you serving others better in public, and he’ll teach you things in public so that your prayer in secret may be more rich and affectionate. And so you do not need to put on any kind of ministry mask to serve others, nor should you imitate others. The Lord doesn’t want you to work out the best easy, functional, shortcut ways of serving, he wants to work in you to be a true servant. He doesn’t want you to divide your personality or identity in two, but to work through your personality as it is redeemed and sanctified in Christ.

If you want the pretentious term that I give this in my own head – I call it an ‘integrated vocational identity’. Sometimes I call it being a ‘professional Christian.’** What I understand by those phrases is this: God is at work in me and through me at the same time. There’s no part of me of my relationship with him that I get to keep guarded from my brothers and sisters, and no part of me that I need to cover up or lie about for the sake of serving my brothers and sisters. Every part of my life and ministry is lived before God and others. 

Ways of Finding the Middle Path

That’s basically what I’m aiming at. As I said above, so far, I’ve found it liberating compared to ways of trying to relate being in full-time ministry to being a Christian. I’m still learning and still have a long way to go. Here are some thoughts on practices that I’ve found helpful.

Rest. If we consider God to be our boss, then we will try to avoid him on our days off. If we consider God to be our Father, from whom all blessings flow and in whom true rest is found, then we will look to him on our days off. In fact, perhaps the better word than day off is Sabbath. The employers of this world give you a day off so that you can just work harder next week. The God of Israel gives you a sabbath so that you would rest in him, and look forward to the day of resting from your labours in his presence forever. Whatever your sabbatarian views, the point is this: God is your Father who loves and will refresh you, not your boss who will wear you out. If you spend more time with him on your day off, you’ll be more refreshed than if you avoid him. I guarantee it.

Pray. It sounds too obvious to need saying, but say it we must, because we are so prone to neglect it. The type #1 may need to remember to keep all their ministry soaked in prayer, the type #2 may need to remember to pray for themselves and spend unhurried time with their Father who sees in secret. 

Let grace kill guilt. It is easy to feel guilty if we feel we’re going wrong in either direction. Perhaps we feel we ought to be applying every bit of spiritual input we’re getting equally, and lingering over every passage. It just isn’t possible. It’s OK if your quiet times just involve going back over things you’ve heard on Sunday morning — that might even be better for you than trying to digest more. Facebook and Instagram train us to take in a lot of information without chewing any of it over, but we should unlearn these habits when we come to Scripture. If that means that you spend a year where your quiet times overlap entirely with the 11:30 sermon series or Focus, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. 

Let Christ meet you everywhere. Whatever you’re doing, prepping, or praying for, let Christ meet you in every aspect of your work and life. In all the tasks of being a CA, there is some way in which we can imitate the example that Christ has given us, and grow more into his likeness. Expect that you will be most profoundly shaped by what you’re preparing to teach — if you aren’t being changed more by passages you prepare to teach, then your prep is almost certainly too shallow and my bet is your teaching will be totally anaemic to prove it. 


* Fine, elders and overseers for my non-Anglican readership

**I think what I also mean by ‘professional Christian’ (which I’ve come to adopt as a term, despite only ever hearing it used pejoratively — how’s that for redeeming the  culture?) is that I don’t see myself as doing anything that many other Christians wouldn’t do if they didn’t have to eat and pay rent as well.

Further Reading

Under the Unpredictable Plant — Eugene Peterson. Anything by Peterson on ministry is worth reading, but this probably has the most to say to this particular question. I also highly recommend Working the Angles as a must-read for all in pastoral ministry.

In the Name of Jesus — Henri Nouwen. Many of the thoughts on John 21 come out of Nouwen’s treatment of it alongside Jesus’ temptations in Matthew 4. He gives excellent advice on ways of finding a healthy middle path as well.

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