Is a clergyperson a professional? The answer to that depends upon who is talking and the criteria used to decide.
Approaching the question from the angle of “standards” yields an affirmative response. Most clergy strive for very high standards in both performance issues and logistical issues.
Over the last several centuries, the tasks of clergy have remained amazingly constant. Most Protestant clergy are involved in leading worship services, preaching the gospel, teaching about the faith, administering the work of the church, performing weddings, funerals and baptismal services and offering pastoral care to people in crisis.
Many clergy regularly participate in continuing education in the primary areas of their job description. Nearly four out of five clergy do so on a regular basis. Many also engage in monthly conversations with a colleague group aimed at improving their performance in these significant areas. Initiating weekly feedback groups for sermons is even a tactic many clergy have employed.
There is ample evidence that clergy care about, promote and practice high standards related to the primary arenas of their careers.
Clergy also practice high standards related to the logistics of their careers.
Clergy keep privileged communication in confidence. They model Christian behavior in their communities. They support their colleagues in ministry. They model spiritual formation. They advocate for justice and volunteer time in community improvement projects. They strive for integrity, dignity, and discipline.
At times, well publicized examples of clergy not holding to these standards tempts one to think that the standards themselves have been shattered, but still the respect for clergy endures, fueled by the many clergy who continue to give their profession a good name and a high standard.
If “standards” or “behavior” are the main criteria, clergy are indeed professionals. If we look at professionalism in terms of benefits, however, clergy do not experience the same kind of benefits of other professions. This is primarily because clergypersons do not hold a monopoly over their profession in the ways that most other professionals do.
In most professions, such as for physicians and attorneys, the professionals define the body of knowledge necessary for the profession. Many of the continuing education events offered for clergy, however, are taught by professionals in other fields or theologians with no local church experience. This may be an extreme statement, but sometimes it seems as though clergy are encouraged to learn from everyone except other clergy!
In most other fields, professionals not only establish the body of knowledge, but they also write the textbooks, teach the classes and administer the schools. Seminaries, however, often employ fewer administrators and professors without master-of-divinity degrees than with them.
In most other professions, the professionals discipline their own and regulate entry into their profession. But most ordination councils include non-clergy persons, as do most clergy misconduct review boards.
This is not to argue either for or against clergypersons as professionals, but rather to point out the discrepancies that exist.
Most clergy are expected to maintain the standards of a professional, but they do not enjoy the benefits of most of professions, in areas such as career choice and salaries, due in large part to the lack of having a monopoly in those areas.
Should clergy receive similar benefits as other professionals? If clergy are not professional, should there be a clergy union? Would the standards of clergy themselves be even higher if only clergy served on ordination councils? One could probably make an argument on both sides of these issues, and many already have.
Are clergypersons professionals? It depends upon whom you ask and what criteria are chosen to frame the discussion.
Jeff Woods is associate general secretary for regional ministries with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.