What’s the difference between being a “professing Christian” and a “professional Christian?” This is a daily struggle for me as my faith is lived in the context of being a professional person working for the church, in the church, and is paid by the church. I’m feeling very uncomfortable as a “church professional” these days. I’m in my last season of charge conferences as a judicatory authority in the role of District Superintendent, and I swing back and forth between the grief of seeing these 8 years of relationships end and relishing the thought of being back as a local church pastor.
I really miss the rhythms of the Christian calendar as a pastor. As a DS, I pretty much have just two seasons: Charge Conference and Appointment-making seasons. Even though I have tried to remain connected to the Christian calendar by spending lots of time in local churches and with pastors, I am still burdened by the “tyranny of the urgent” in my superintending role! Every day, and I mean every day there is junk that I see as a DS that I never saw as a pastor, and everyone thinks that their problem should be at the top of my priority list. DS’ are in the trenches as the first-line of defense against anarchy and church squabbles. I love being a missional strategist as a DS, but many days I am swamped by an endless litany of minor things.
These days make me think that I would rather be a professing Christian than a professional one! I suspect that every pastor, clergy person, judicatory employee, and maybe local church member has had or is currently experiencing a similar thought. I have met local church members who have gradually morphed from being persons of faith to being tired “church leaders,” and in the process they have become jaded by it all. Their cynicism toward church life and the hypocrisy of fellow members and/or ministers makes them frustrated enough to want to quit the church and run back to Jesus. Well, Hallelujah – that’s the answer isn’t it? Maybe, maybe not – we’re called to be in community with other Christians however hard the prospect might be, but we’d better run back to Jesus, too, as job # 1!
So how in the world can I get ready to be a pastor again? How can any of us stay connected to Jesus and put up with church life? How can you church leaders out there shy away from the power trip of being “pastor wanna-be’s,” church gatekeepers, power brokers, even “pillars of the church,” and be satisfied with being simply known as a faithful Christian? I am naïve enough to think that if I can nurture being a “professing Christian” once again it might make a difference in my being a “professional Christian.” It’s my hope that the same would be true for all of us.
It’s an obvious answer, and perhaps much too simple in our complex world, but could the difference simply be in professing Jesus more? What if I viewed my personhood and existence as a child of God as more important than my duties as a professional “Church” person? What difference would it make if I professed my faith more than worked for the church? I can hear the familiar refrain from countless funerals of “good” Christians over the years: “She/He loved the church and worked for the church – blah, blah, blah.” What kind of message is that? Yeah, yeah, yeah – it means they found value and strength in the community of other Believers, which is true, but sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it meant they abandoned their families to open church doors, turn on furnaces, turn off lights, serve on countless committees and they lost not only their first love for Jesus but their love for people, too. They replaced a personal living relationship with Jesus with a non-smiling drudgery-laden burdensome guilt trip of working for Jesus.
The problem is that Jesus prefers to have people connected to him who then are inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear fruit for him. Jesus didn’t have people “working” for him. His wasn’t an employer-employee relationship with the disciples. Sure, Jesus had followers whom he sent out, but their missions were by-products of a direct and personal relationship with Him. If I don’t keep the personal connection with Jesus primary then I’m no better than the people Jesus talked about in Matthew 7:21-23 who said they did all kinds of great things yet the Father said, “I never knew you.” Doing, doing, and doing yet no personal relationship is the damnation of many.
Do I do what I do for Jesus because of closeness to Christ or has it become a rote routine profession? You want to know one of my problems as a “church professional?” Instead of professing Jesus in a fresh intimate way, I’ve found myself some days blatantly distant from Christ. I end up overcompensating by pretending as if Jesus and I were great buddies and it doesn’t matter what I do or the attitude that I have or the actions that I take; i.e., “Jesus and I have THAT kind of relationship.” Too much familiarity with Jesus by clergy and church leaders has led to the looseness of tongue and behavior that sometimes cripples the church. If you don’t know what I mean, go play golf with a bunch of preachers, or stay up all night cooking bar-b-que with a group of church members. You will witness first-hand the fulfillment of Aesop’s saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” New Christians or young clergy don’t need to be exposed to the laxness of “professional” Christians. Professional Christians are one step away from being non-Christian or almost Christian as John Wesley described them.
Like the Pharisees who were the religious professionals of Jesus’ day, the institutional church today is loaded with people in both pulpit and pew who have lost their first love of God with all their hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. The result is a “Church-ianity” of tired half-Christians who in someone’s words, “Have been inoculated with so many small doses of Christianity, they haven’t caught the real thing.” Therefore, if you feel more “professional” than “professing” as a Christian today and the evidence is stacking up against you, my suggestion is to reconnect with Jesus. That’s what I need to do! I need to get more personal than professional with the living Christ. Jesus calls us to a personal relationship, a discipleship that is built on a relationship more than religious professionalism. So whatever my discipleship is today, I want to make sure that it is intensely personal with Jesus. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me.” That’s getting personal more than professional!