Shepherd’s Care 2.0: Challenge

While in seminary decades ago, I came face-to-face with the great challenge of ministry: careerism. I heard it from a chapel speaker who said simply, “Don’t turn your calling into a career.” [1] Around that same time, a professor told us in class that one of the signs of careerism is when we look at our seminary graduation class and think of whom we’ve risen above in the system and whom we are behind. These statements made a deep impression on me then, and now, fifty years later, I continue to believe careerism is the great challenge we face as clergy.

Before I write more about this, let me be clear: being a professional clergyperson is inevitably a career, precisely because we do ministry in an institutional setting of some kind. Having a ministerial career is unavoidable; the challenge is not to make it central. Many elements of careerism are not bad. Some are necessary. But they are all secondary. The challenge is to keep them that way. Career serves us when we keep it on the circumference of our ministry; it sours us when it is at the center. Today I want to look at the souring from a spiritual formation vantage point.

First, careerism is the soil in which the false self grows, producing a harvest of deformative attitudes and actions. The false self (as Thomas Merton and others since have noted) is false, not because it is all bad, but because it becomes definitive when it should not be.

In her book, ‘The Spiritual Life,’ Evelyn Underhill wrote that our soul is deformed when it’s defined by the verbs “want,” “have,” and “do.” The soul, she noted, is only defined by the verb “be.” [2] Careerism diverts energy from being into a host of doings. When we live there, we become strangers to grace and become performance-oriented workers with a meritocracy mindset.

Second careerism makes “getting noticed” a priority. Years ago, while conducting a clergy retreat, a young pastor said during a dinner conversation with me, “I am in my first year at the church in ________. If I do a good job there, in several years I could be promoted to a larger church, and if I do a good job there, ten years from now I could be at a church like __________(he named one).” There’s too much here to write about in detail. It reeks of a careerism where “getting noticed” had become the motive for ministry, and the young pastor had contracted the disease early on.

Third, careerism produces “pleasers.” One day I was teaching about ordination and the ordination process. A student spoke up and said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I am doing in my ordination process. I am saying and writing what they want me to. That way, I’ll be accepted and I can get on with the ministry I am called to.” The room fell silent, and the other students turned to me with a “So….what are you going to say about that?” kind of look.

I did not say anything for a moment. I just walked silently and slowly to the side of the room where the person was sitting. He happened to be on the front row, which gave me the opportunity to make my response conversational. But I knew it was a “teaching moment” for everyone. I gathered myself and said, “I hope you are never my pastor. Given what you just said, I would never know whether you were telling me what you believe or only what you thought I want to hear.’ [3] Therein lies a major problem with careerism. Pleasers may be praised, but the accolades leave them with an increasingly hollow soul.

Fourth, careerism generates death by comparison. That’s what the professor I quoted above was referring to. From a spiritual formation standpoint, the problem here is that careerism produces a deformed understanding of the soul—one that keeps us restless and thinking we would have a “good ministry” if we were someone else and/or serving someplace else. This temptation has been increased by the “celebrity pastor” phenomenon, which creates the false impression that only a handful of clergy are doing it right. Careerism turns learning from others into trying to be like them.

There is more to be said about the contamination of careerism, but I want to end on a positive note: careerism is curable. I heard it in the voice of a pastor who was serving a small congregation. After telling me that he had suffered from some of the things I mentioned above, he went on to say, “I woke up, decided to unpack my bags and stay put in my appointment–and be myself, offering the people my ministry, not someone else’s.” In a nutshell, he personified the cure.. He exuded contentment, and there is nothing that sustains our ministry any more than that.

[1] I got an audio tape of the sermon and listened to it annually for many years. Later, I used it it my course, “The Spiritual Life of the Minister.”

[2] Evelyn Underhill, ‘The Spiritual Life’ (Harper & Row, n.d.), 24.

[3] This awkward moment had a happy ending. Several years later, the student came up to me at Annual Conference. He was in his first appointment after graduation. All he said was, “I cannot thank you enough for what you said to me in class that day. I just want you to know that I am telling the folks what I believe.” With that, he left, knowing I understood what he meant.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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