Recently I spent a couple of days visiting my sister. This year, she is teaching elementary honors students. During our conversation, she told of her dismay at the unprofessional attire, postures, and demeanor of several of her fellow teachers during the orientation sessions prior to the beginning of this school year. She shared her opinion with me: ill-fitting low-rider jeans, shorts too short and too tight, too short immodest crop tops, lounging wear, flip-flops, and big wads of chewing gum communicated a negative message about the quality of education the students could expect in the coming year. After all, the teachers attending orientation were at work and "on the clock." We laughed together (but not necessary because it is funny) at the story told by a teacher who was finally able to complete a parent-teacher conference when she encountered the parents of one of her students during a Friday night visit to a local bar. This experience, and current cultural conversations about where our children find their heroes, focuses the question of whether teachers should be expected to be professional (and professionals). It also raises a larger question of the value and place of professionalism in our society--what that means and whom it touches.
In the midst of a society and culture that is increasing informal, what is the place of professionalism? Is professionalism a thing of the past? Perhaps not! I am impressed when I visit the office of my financial advisor and see the employees dressed in suits and business attire. By their actions and attire they communicate that they are professionals. It is not only their attire--they demonstrate professionalism by their professional commitment to their job, by their attitudes and interactions, and by their speech and conduct during our meetings. (These do not eliminate friendships and personal interactions; they often enhance them.)
I maintain that professionalism is not dead in our society. I see professionalism in newscasters. I see it in their speech, demeanor, and yes, in their attire. I also see professionalism reflected among the "experts" interviewed on the newscasts. I suspect that their attire and attitudes are chosen to suggest expertise, and that they know what they are talking about. I see professionalism in the court room as I watch attorneys. It is evident in their manner of speech, respect, attire, and demeanor. I see professionalism in the protocol and attire of those who lead in government. I see professionalism at funerals as I observe funeral directors who wish to reflect honor and respect. These five cultural examples can easily be expanded.
These cultural reflections bring me to the church house and the question of the title of this article? What is the role of professionalism in the work of the church? Should preachers or ministers be professional and reflect professionalism in what they do? This is a hard question. First, it depends on what is meant by professional. Some ministers have become so "professional" that they are unavailable except during work hours. Some have developed ministry into a 9-5 "professional job" that meets minimum criteria. Do we need more "professionals" who see ministry as only a job? No. We have correctly bemoaned the fact that we have developed a "too professional" clergy in this sense. Do we need more ministers who see ministry as their "profession"--a way in which they say something about who they are? Yes. Ministry is a task that never stops. Ministry is not something to do--it is something to be. Ministry is a "profession" in the best sense of the word. In Christian ministry, one commits to spirituality, study, and service. Do we need ministers who approach the tasks of ministry in a professional way? I suggest the answer is "yes". There is no place in ministry for a casual and nonchalant approach. If ministers are always on call and seek to represent God in their communities, professionalism in demeanor, attitudes, actions, speech, and attire are essential.
Think with me. About two years ago a couple seeking marriage counseling dropped by the church building unannounced. I was available and invited them into my office. I had on my normal slacks, shirt and tie (no coat). I greeted them and asked the reason for their visit. We visited briefly and arranged to begin counseling later in the week. We met three times, after which they said the difficulty had been resolved. During the second counseling session, they told me that they did not plan to arrange counseling with the church during their initial drop-in visit because their religious background was in a different church. They were merely seeking information. Because they were impressed with the attire of the secretary and minister, the way they were received, and the professional attitude and demeanor they observed, they decided to pursue the counseling. What they said is significant. People want to receive counseling from someone who is professional, and our attire says a lot about how we see ourselves. Studies indicate that students who dress well do better in the classroom.
We face a struggle in taking the gospel to a society and culture characterized by informality. That we are informal down at the church and call everyone by their first name regardless of age does not make it right--it only shows that it is becoming acceptable in our culture. I understand the tendency to "dress down" to the practices of the surrounding culture. It may be that some people are more likely to attend a church where attire seems less important. It is also possible that some people do not attend, do not return when they do attend because of the exaggerated informality they observe. Buying into the informality of the culture may not help the church in the continual struggle to define and live out what it means to be counter-cultural.
I do not profess to have all of the answers, but I am confident that the solution to the difficulties and challenges of cultural communication is not in ministers or ministry that gives the appearance of being "unprofessional." So in the opinion of this "old fogey": enough already with the slang, chit-chat, informality and artificiality. Let us figure out how we can communicate the seriousness of what we are doing. I see no value in appearing to be unprepared or in failing to take church seriously. The church may need a lot of things, but it does not need an unprofessional approach to worship and teaching and preaching. We are not likely to accomplish much for the Lord when our actions and demeanor communicate lack of pride and that what we are doing doesn't really matter much. We have but one opportunity to make a good first impression--in our attire, speech, demeanor, seriousness, and competence. For better or worse, the first impression still tells most people in our society how serious we are about what we are doing.