Responding to God: Why Professional Ministry? Really now.

My high school pastor did a lot of short-term mission trips. He talked about one particular trip to Brazil in which God was very clearly working in the lives of the students on the trip. Some ridiculous proportion of the students on the trip wound up in full-time ministry or some other deeper involvement in ministry, and this was taken as people responding to God’s work in their lives. Yesterday I was talking to a friend I made within the last week, and he was talking about a family friend of his from Nigeria who studied experimental chemistry. This chemist followed God’s leading in studying chemistry, and later on even felt called to go to seminary. More broadly, college friends sometimes struggled with whether God might call them to become pastors or missionaries, and they took their answers to the hypothetical call to be a measurement of their spiritual vitality. Why do people feel that knowing God more deeply implies that they must go into professional ministry and take themselves out of the world?

For myself, I do believe that God put a specific call of my life to go into ministry. Otherwise, I would probably try to work for the government or the military or something important sounding. In my life, I want to do something that matters. Diplomats, soldiers, bureaucrats: as unfairly lampooned and genuinely ridiculous as they can all be, what they do matters in this world. Other things matter in this life: art beyond the reproduction of pictures of Jesus doing adorable things, music beyond Contemporary Christian music, science beyond proving the validity of young earth creationism, writing beyond blogging for apologetics and making Christian methadone for Harry Potter junkies. (By the way, I love Harry Potter. Narnia’s great, but I refuse to take Narnia instead of Harry Potter.) Professional ministry, ministry where a specific person, a real-world hey you, that’s right, YOU has to not do a normal job in order to serve the Body of Christ — this exists. However, why should it suck up all the talent of Christians?

Christian ministries, Christian publishers, Christian music labels and others of their ilk perform vital functions. The silver bullet argument against this very blog post: if you want patristic theologians’ writings to be available, somebody has to bind, print, and sell the books. Why, though, do people seem to think that working in ministry or in a Christian company is spiritually (or even materially) better than working in some field supposedly not Christian? In some respects, the pavement in the street is more Christian than I am: it never rebels against God and its very existence daily proclaims the glory of a Creator who can make even creators. The ones who laid the pavement probably work for some department in your city. Is teaching at a Christian school better than teaching in a public school? Is being a missionary better than being a diplomat or expatriate worker in business or industry? On the one hand, because Christ is one with the God who created the universe, the universe is fundamentally in a sense “Christian”, as far as that it glorifies God by its very existence and that humans find themselves more in line even with the non-sentient world when they align themselves with God. On the other hand, the world (of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” fame) extends even into the Church, and St. Augustine depicts a City of Man and a City of God whose respective citizens do not absolutely know what passport they carry until the Day of Judgment. No, neither working in ministry nor for a Christian company inherently fertilizes your spiritual vitality, and that it might even sterilize.

To take the opposite end of the issue at hand, Christian monks in medieval Europe were often at work clearing land, farming, brewing beer, educating children and adults, and taking care of the poor. Although they took vows to separate themselves from the world, they could point to tracts of developed farmland and sophisticated societal developments that their work over centuries produced and sustained. Naturally they worked at the same time that lay people sweated to put food on their own tables, but they could point to something that they did in this world to make this world better. They did not just sanctify the labors of the common people, they contributed labors of their own. They went off into professional ministry, but they materially advanced European civilization at the same time. For all the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, it also fostered the intellectual discipline that gave us modern science. The Protestant Reformation (in some cases carried by a monk) encouraged literacy in European vernacular languages, popularizing a tool that had previously been the domain of the educated and the powerful.

I praise the servants of God who do not smother their earthly good in the sawdust of seminary or doctrinal decrepitude that holds back scientific experimentation and open inquiry in scientific domains. I praise the servants of God who do not merely sanitize and perpetuate genres of art and literature but improve the expression of God’s beauty and the beauty of his creation. There are times when I wish that God could have left me alone and not called me into ministry. I can find a life direction without too much help, and I like doing things that matter. God had his own reasons both for advancing his work in this world and for effecting my own salvation when he called me for ministry. When I went to a Christian university, I went through a classics program that left me with a love for goodness, truth, and beauty and a taste for all three at once. Perhaps the rigors of what God has called me to do will force me to integrate those things with efforts to expand the Church — and the expansion of the Church should be good, true, and beautiful. At the same time.

As invigorating as it can be to have a call from God, God’s call to ministry is a weighty and nearly unnatural obligation that runs against the way “normal life” is supposed to work. When Jesus said that you must be last when you want to be first, that means that you really have to be last. Sometimes God commands people to be last. If God has not called you to the ministry, why not break away from the theological-industrial complex? Why not dedicate yourself to a career that is intrinsically interesting to you rather than to a prepackaged professional ministry lifestyle just because you think it is interesting to God? Perhaps more people considering professional ministry should bind themselves never to enter professional ministry so that they force themselves to unite material betterment of this world with the spiritual betterment that we as Christians already know that it needs. Let us encourage talented Christians, instead of leaving technical fields for the ministry, to continue onward and upward in living life as God calls it to be lived rather than wasting their talents to maintain a megachurch.

Image via Flickr.

  • Sylvia

    The last paragraph– in a word: wow.

    Brilliant perspectives.

  • Oxenham

    You’re exactly right Mr. Bennett.

    Keep writing sentences like this, “Why not dedicate yourself to a career that is intrinsically interesting to you rather than to a prepackaged professional ministry lifestyle just because you think it is interesting to God?”

  • Dillie-O

    Well said. I’m reminded of a “benediction” we were given at the end of class:

    “May we be plumbers who read Plato, and in doing so change the world.”

  • Michael Kares

    Great article! We often forget that *all Christians are ministers no matter what,* so anything we might choose to do should be counted as ministry.

  • Nathan Bennett

    I think I remember hearing that one. Good reminder.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Thank you, Mr. Oxenham.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Indeed, every Christian is a fully accredited minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is more, if you have to make ministry the paid position that puts food on the table for you, you might be making the world slightly less interesting for everyone else by withdrawing your gifts.

  • Nathan Bennett