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Professionalism has accelerated the decline of the Catholic Church in America. The mission of the Church can’t be made into a profession…..

Professionalism has accelerated the decline of the Catholic Church in America. The mission of the Church can’t be made into a profession…..

For several years I was part of a group of Catholic leaders who helped shape and lead a week-long ministry formation program every summer. We had funding from a large Catholic foundation and were officially a project of the US Bishops (USCCB). At the end of the week, we gave each participant a certificate stating they completed the formation program and then we encouraged them to go even further to become certified in their area of ministry. This meant they had to meet certain further standards, interviews, etc. before they got another certification.

This is not uncommon. There are certifications for catechists, RCIA (now OCIA), youth ministry, DREs, campus ministry, and more. You can go to conferences, get advanced degrees, get certifications, get online professional formation, etc. I have personally been certified in campus ministry, have a Masters degree in Theological Studies, have completed coursework for specialization in Theology of the Body, gotten continuing education in fundraising, and been to several other professional formation seminars through the past few decades. Much of this was helpful for me as someone working in pastoral ministry. Yet I believe all of these degrees, certifications, and associations we have are symptoms of a problem with the Church, not a solution to our issues. Please bear with me as I attempt an explanation.

Last week I went to a huge conference. While there, I had a discussion with a friend who runs a very large youth apostolate. He told me that they are struggling to help parishes they work with find youth ministry personnel to take jobs the parishes are offering. During the pandemic, many parishes laid off personnel and now fewer people want to work for the Church. This has made it hard to fill open positions with qualified candidates. My response is that the paradigm we currently operate under will have to change, rather than the way we find candidates. More on waht I suggested to him later.

For the last few decades many parishes, dioceses, and apostolates have hired just like a business would. Advertise the job, accept resumes, interview candidates, and then offer a position. I have led many such hirings myself. It just doesn’t work as we want it to. That is because the Church isn’t a business and merely taking the practices of the business world (which work well there) may or may not be the best way to operate in the Church. Not every business practice is worthy of adoption by the Catholic Church. Hiring is one of them.

Let me stop and say this – having standards of excellence, continuing education, healthy human resources, better communication, and clear leadership standards are all very good things. But the Church does not exist to sell a product, market a commodity, or even to perpetuate modern institutions (e.g., diocesan staff, parish buildings, etc) and therefore the modern business practices of “professionalism” have become part of a cultural problem the Church needs to talk about and deal with. TO BE CLEAR – professional standards and practices aren’t the issue. The problem is when we make mission, evangelization, etc. something that a professional class of people who work in ministry do…rather than the average Christian.

What is this “professionalism” I am talking about?
It is found when we believe and act as if everyone who is active in ministry must have various expertise before they can do the work of ministry. Thus, before you enter into mission we train, educate, certify, grant degrees, and more.

  • The interior life of prayer isn’t just for professionals.
  • Faith and hope isn’t just for professionals.
  • Charisms of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for professionals.
  • Sacramental grace isn’t just for professionals.
  • Caring for the poor isn’t just for professionals.
  • Sharing the Gospel of Jesus isn’t just for professionals.
  • Growing as a disciple isn’t just for professionals. 
  • Teaching the faith isn’t just for professionals.
  • Leading others to maturity in Christ isn’t just for professionals.

In other words, the heart of the mission of the Church can’t be made into a profession and isn’t meant to be bound by professional standards or practices. The power of the Holy Spirit is meant to work through all baptized Christians.
All of us.
Certified, degree granted, professional, or not.

The Church exists to bring Jesus to the world and the world to Jesus. Put another way – the Church exists to “make disciples of all nations”. We simply aren’t doing this in our modern practices and while all the professional standards are well-intentioned, they have perpetuated the idea that ministry is for the highly educated “super Catholic” religious, clergy, or full-time lay person working for the Church.
In fact, the professionalization of Catholic ministry has accelerated the decline of the Church in our country.

I know – this is a bold statement. But, in many ways professionalization means specialization and this has nothing to do with spreading the Gospel far and wide. If the folks with certifications, degrees, and expertise are the ones doing most of the work of ministry…then we have forgotten what it means to “make disciples of all nations”. The leaders are supposed to be pouring into others, so the Church can evanglize more people.

Jesus didn’t do it all himself. He empowered others and taught them to empower others. Who went on to empower others. He poured 75% of his time into 12 men. Do we do the same?

Probably not, because this isn’t happening (in large measure) in our institutions today. Rather, we have the experts and specialists who do the work for the congregation. The people come to be fed. They leave and after they leave, they rarely bring the faith out to the world. This isn’t how it is supposed to be.

Furthermore, the professionalized model wears out clergy and staff and ultimately bottlenecks pastoral care to be done by the “experts”. Think of how busy your parish priests and staff are (or if you are clergy / staff – how busy you are). Think of how many have been burned out, because they are paid little, don’t have time to themselves, feel overburdened, etc. This is an unsustainable model, because it means that “ministry” to the community is kept for the privileged few that we go to for their expertise. This isn’t the way Jesus intended us to care for one another. Of course, there are things that only clergy can do (the Sacraments and other duties reserved to them). But, we still rely too heavily on them even outside of these areas.

What if we had another model? One where we care for one another through real relationships and an intentionally structured community. We all want to be connected to others and know we are truly valued and cared for. We have to do this for one another to be able to reach the masses. Leave it to the “professionals” rather than the common people and we will only be able to reach a select few, rather than the crowds that need to know they are cared for too. Empowering the average Catholic to take on their own personal mission – by apprenticing under more mature Christians – is the model taught by Jesus.

The solution isn’t to have fewer mature disciples or to have less-educated, poorly formed, who have few skills. We want to have leaders who are professional in their duties. But, we need to reject a culture of professionalization of mission. That is, we need to do three things:

1 – Empower the masses to evangelize and form relationships by investing in a few
This starts by having leaders who understand that their primary job is to raise up the current generation to take over for the next generation. Leaders who reorder their schedule and priorities so that they spend time and energy pouring into the next generation of missionary disciples. Leaders who believe that their primary job should be to reach many by investing in a few and then teaching the few to go out and invest in others. Without capturing this vision of spiritual multiplication and then living it out, we won’t change the current state of things. Go spiritually deep with a few rather than staying shallow with the many.

2 – Raise up leaders from our own congregations
Let us revisit the conversation I had with the leader of the youth apostolate that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog. What I suggested to him is that the paradigm shift the Church ought to work on is finding a completely new way of thinking about employment. First of all, if we need to hire someone, and we may need to do that in order to maintain and run our institutions – we ought to think differently. Instead of hiring through a search of qualified candidates and having them move into our area from the outside, what if we raised them up  from our community? What if we were to invest deeply in others, help them mature as disciples, walk with them as they discern their own charisms and gifts, and then empower them to take over once we discern they are a right fit for a job? They would already be familiar to the community, know the local culture, and be invested to stay longer. It is a difficult and long-term solution, but one I think is worthy of the investment of our time, effort, and money.

3 – Grow in our belief of that all are called to mission
Professionalization of Catholic ministry has made those of us who work in the Church the ones who do most of the work. This has been one reason for our decline. Disciples aren’t supposed to abdicate their responsibility of mission to the professionals. EVERY disciple is meant to be on mission to the world. What we might call the “proximate periphery”. Those who are close to us, but not yet disciples of Jesus. Family. Friends. Coworkers. Neighbors. Yet how many Catholics are actively seeking out relationships with these people in order to earn their trust so they might evangelize them? How many have a vision for how they might share the Gospel today? Until we get the average Catholic disciple on mission, professionalization will continue to bog us down. Mission is for us all, not just the professionals.

We don’t just need better practices, standards, and education.
We need better (AND MORE) missionary disciples of Jesus.

Having been born consequently out of being sent, the Church in her turn is sent by Jesus….And it is above all His mission and His condition of being an evangelizer that she is called upon to continue. For the Christian community is never closed in upon itself. The intimate life of this community – the life of listening to the Word and the apostles’ teaching, charity lived in a fraternal way, the sharing of bread this intimate life only acquires its full meaning when it becomes a witness, when it evokes admiration and conversion, and when it becomes the preaching and proclamation of the Good News. Thus it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole.
-Paul VI, EN 15

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