Is ministry a career?

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I started with the best of intentions. We all did.

My seminary classmates and I absorbed a great deal of advice from – where else? – an older generation of pastors, and then we did our best to follow that advice, working long hours, honing our pastoral skills, sometimes even receiving additional and impressive-sounding degrees.

Today I look back and realize that we got a lot wrong.  So, what follows is a confession  – not the titillating sort you half-expect to hear these days from pastors and hypocritical religious leaders, but in a way more serious, more devastating.

When I was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament – going on four decades ago – I signed up for a career. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, and would have denied it, if you had pointed it out to me, but looking back that’s what it was. Was it “naked careerism”? I’m not altogether sure what that is, but it sounds really bad, doesn’t it? No, I’m certain it was not naked careerism. We thought we were doing God’s work, laboring in the vineyard, building the kingdom, and even winning the occasional soul for Christ.

But the truth is, we were building careers and trying to be professionals – not doctors or lawyers or accountants, but professional clergy.

On my first day I was enrolled in a medical plan and, even better, a pension plan and what was called “a supplemental retirement account.” I had a title and a parking place. I had an automobile allowance and four weeks of vacation. I thought of myself as a professional, even if I didn’t look like one.

What was missing on the first day was a wardrobe so, as quickly as I could, I added suits and dress shirts and ties and of course a better haircut. I even bought myself a pair of black, size 13 Florsheim wingtips, which I polished every week to a nice, bright shine. It now seems clear, looking at the old photographs, that the off-the-rack suits looked silly on my tall, skinny frame but, no matter, I was on my way to what I hoped would be a good, long career.

Lately, though, I have become aware of a radically new way of thinking about ordained ministry – okay, not new, but definitely a change from the previous generation.

I had lunch last week with a young pastor whose church in the U.S. has sent him and his wife to “plant” a church in Zürich, where I currently serve what we like to call an “established church.” I’m not altogether sure what that is either, but it’s definitely not a church plant. When my new friend emailed me to ask about the possibility of renting space from us, I responded and suggested that we meet for coffee.

A few days later I listened – convicted – as he explained to me what he is attempting to do.

He started the very first Sunday – jet-lagged and nervous – with worship in his small apartment, more of a Bible study, really, but there was singing and prayer and even an offering. As he explained it to me (the vastly more experienced pastor in this conversation), “There’s no better time to start than the first Sunday.” I nodded as though I knew this to be true, but really I was marveling at his courage – to move to a new city, a new country, and a new continent, and on the very first Sunday to hold worship, not knowing if or when an actual congregation might emerge from this small gathering.

The group, he tells me honestly, is still quite small, though it has outgrown his apartment, which is why he turned to me. Weren’t the numbers small at the beginning in Ephesus, he asks, and Philippi and Corinth and Thessalonica, for that matter?

I noticed that he neglected to mention a retirement plan or how much vacation he would receive. There is no parking place, apparently, not even an automobile allowance. He has no fancy degree, not even the basic seminary degree, and right now does not see the need for one. The Bible, he tells me, is the only textbook he needs.

My new friend is not alone, of course. Church planting seems to be very popular right now, and maybe, as much as anything, it’s a much-needed correction after a generation of pastors who have grown comfortable and career-oriented and entitled.

As Rick Warren tells the story in one of his books, he graduated from seminary one day and then took a map of the U.S., closed his eyes, and pointed his finger at … yes, Orange County, California. The cynic in me wonders why the finger didn’t point to western North Dakota, instead of the most affluent county in the U.S., but my cynicism misses the point.

The point is that he planted a church in the living room of his first apartment in Orange County, not knowing if or when anything would come of it. He trusted God in a way that I never did. And today his tiny “church plant” is of course known as Saddleback Church.

One reason I do not despair about the future of the church is that there are many others like my new friend who have listened to God’s call in their lives and then set out, like Abraham and Sarah, to a land that God promised to show them.

As long as there are pastors like my new friend, there will be a church, and thanks be to God for that.

(Photo: That’s from a recent hike. It’s a view from the mountain behind my village. If you look carefully, you can see Sammi at the lower right, photobombing as always.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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7 Responses to Is ministry a career?

  1. Keith Cobb January 21, 2016 at 6:40 am #

    Nice! We need both — established professionals and people like your new friend. No “confession” necessary.

  2. Jeff Edwards January 21, 2016 at 7:14 am #

    Your photos are still the best. Here in Wheaton, the snow is dirtier thou.

  3. Jürg Kessler January 21, 2016 at 8:01 am #

    I guess we are an “established” church. 55 years old, 450 members, a pretty definite place to worship, a few people on the church staff and a parking place for the pastor – I guess that is pretty established. And – nothing wrong with it as I see it. I personally count myself blessed that I can worship in a community like this, and in order that I can do it I (we) need good leadership, good pastoral care. So keep going; thank you – no need for regrets. There is a place and a need for many different things! Planting is one thing, watering and making it grow is another thing, and keeping it from wilting is yet another! All are needed!

  4. Charles Scouten January 21, 2016 at 10:15 am #

    That’s the Dickens with “decently and in good order.” To make matters worse, scholarship is one of the Six Great Ends of the Church. Fortunately for the rest of us, you never lost your enthusiasm for the Gospel. But too many seem to do so, trying to be deep, decent and in good order – professional pastor. Maybe Presbyterians need to explore more off the beaten track. Maybe even sing a hymn or two that wasn’t a staple in their church 50 years ago. A thought keeps bugging me: How about a sermon series exploring the theology of the altar call? Then end worship with an altar call every now and then? I cannot find anything in either the Book of Order or the Book of Confessions that specifically prohibits an altar call, or even showing the joy of having Christ in one’s life. Indeed, I find myself rising with the rest of my congregation to publicly confess my sins each week. We rise and file to the foot of the chancel steps to receive the Bread and the Cup for remission of sins – but that’s to our benefit. There must be something worthwhile in an action explicitly designed to signify our commitment or re-commitment to Christ, his teachings, and his Great Commission in public view. Between confirmation and ordination as a deacon was a dry spell that was far too long. But I’m no theologian. I need help and guidance. Thanks for sharing experience with your young friend. Maybe we can all learn from him?

  5. karen parkinson, wheaton January 22, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    Doctor Brouwer,
    I am Blessed you chose Ministry as a Career. You taught me so much. When days are long and hard I read one of Dietrich Bonhoefer’s sermons. I can still remember some of the words you Preached from the Pulpit in Wheaton. Betty Strunk has a notebook of your Sermons, I hope to borrow it and make copies. At this time I am reading a book by Karen Armstrong. It was Jack’s book and Betty was giving it to Ericka, I am taking the book on a little detour.
    Karen Parkinson

  6. Rev Andrew Gifford January 25, 2016 at 11:51 am #

    I once was involved in a discussion with Dr Bob Webber (Of Ancient/Future Church fame) and he asked a group what was easier, a new church plant or an old established church? After much debate it was concluded that both have their difficulties and rewards but one is more convenient.

    • Doug January 26, 2016 at 3:01 am #

      Andrew, thanks for reading and commenting. I see the need for both church planting and the careful tending and watering of established churches, and it seems clear that I have been called to the latter rather than the former. My concern, though, is with the professionalization of clergy, our desire to use the categories of professional life to measure and understand life in ministry. When I see someone who cares nothing for these categories, I feel convicted. That’s what I tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to say.

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