Saturday, April 14, 2018

Death By Credentials

As a professional pastor, I receive a lot of emails for various programs that are supposed to show me how to pastor a church - of course, always for a fee.  Recently, I had an email extolling the virtues of a "coaching" organization, which if I want to avail myself of their services, involved some individual who had become "certified" as a trained, competent professional who would come along side me as a mentor and guide as I serve as a minister.  Now, I'm am sure this is a fine, worthwhile organization that is of great help to many pastors.  However, it struck (in a figurative sense only) me that this "coaching" service is one of many trends in our churches to "professionalize" things that used to occur naturally and informally in the church's many forms of ministry.

When I was ordained 37 years ago, there were always older experienced ministers who became informal mentors to those just embarking on their pastoral careers.  This happened naturally through relationships that formed as newer ministers made friendships among their pastoral colleagues.  In turn, I have in my years of service become a virtual mentor to younger and newer pastors.  As I have experienced this, this is a good and beneficial cycle of mentoring that has always existed in the church, from what we read about the church in the New Testament to this very day.

But now, one can in some fashion leave doing pastoral ministry and become a "certified professional coach" for those who actually are engaged in pastoral ministry.  In some cases, the "coach" has never been a practicing pastor.  My mentors and my serving as a mentor to others is no longer as "trained" as it should be, nor is it as "intentional" as it should be.  Apparently, if this is not part of some course with a certificate of expertise to show for it, then the quality and effectiveness of the mentoring is deficient and less worthy than the informal "coaching" relationships that have always been a part of the life of the church throughout the ages.

This is a path that is destructive to the natural development of the gifts and ministries of people in the church.  It takes away the recognition and evoking of ministry that happens within the life of congregations, and places it in the judgment of groups that are outside and who are not as familiar with the people or the contexts in which they are seeking to serve.  This is the trend in many areas of ministry, such as spiritual direction, evangelism, prayer, or even the process of identifying any spiritual gift.  I'm not saying these programs cannot serve a good and helpful purpose in helping people develop in a particular area of ministry, but I am saying that when these programs claim that a certificate is needed to validate anyone as truly proficient, that hurts the natural organic practice of ministry both within and beyond the church.  This is death by credentials.

The church is to be the "laboratory of faith" (Gordon Cosby's words) where people can discover and explore their place and calls to ministry in the context of relationships with people who accept them, know them, forgive them, and challenge them.  Organizations and programs which claim to develop people in any form of ministry can provide help and assistance to churches in developing people in their ministries, but this should never take the place of the people of the church as the ones who recognize and validate the ministries themselves.  Expertise in ministry happens in the life together of the body of Christ, not in the credentials bequeathed by a commercial course of instruction.

(And yes, I am very aware of the irony of making this point as a "professional pastor.")