JANUARY 7, 2002
The Minister as Professional
-- Martin E. Marty
"The profession of ministry is too important in our culture and society for it to go unmonitored by and uncontributed to by universities." That was the answer the late Edward H. Levi once gave me when I asked on what rationale he supported the inclusion of "ministerial studies" alongside "religious studies" at the University of Chicago. He was the provost who brought me there, a decisive president, the main inventor (for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences) of the Fundamentalism Project, a friend of the Divinity School, a great host and good friend, a person who always chose his words with care, but then could be provocative. And was.
The two "un-'s in the phrase in the previous paragraph, inelegant though they be, had to be considered choices, and they were. Churches and synagogues may not look to be "monitored" by universities, but it is flattering and advantageous to them when they are. And religious institutions may think of university-trained clerics as ambiguous gifts but they are, emphatically, gifts.
What President Levi was saying is confirmed too rarely in American public life. One has to go sighting beyond conventional spheres to see it. Publics do not wake up in the morning reflecting on the details of curricula in law, medical, and other professional schools. But they have some sense of these as monitors who are monitored, contributors who are contributed to, among professions that matter. Now, ministry gone wrong can be disastrous to persons and publics. Ministers are often strategically poised, visible after tragedies, quoted in times of crisis, embarrassments or assets when they speak up in economic and political life.
My most recent and very positive sighting on the minister as professional appears in William F. May's broad-ranging and coordinating book, Beleaguered Rulers: The Public Obligation of the Professional, brand new at Westminster/John Knox. Those who know Southern Methodist University professor May's writings do not need encouragement. Those who don't can here sample the scope and depth in this clear guide and argument. It could be a good lay retreat or conference volume, since religious leaders do care, as he here does, about professionals in law, medicine, engineering, corporate executive, political, educational -- and, nota bene! -- religious life.
Chapter 7, which places ministers in the context of other major professions, is subtitled, "Ordained to What Public Purpose?" May offers some answers worth following up on. Even their leadership of "intercessory prayer" is a public activity, when sighted as May sights things: with vision and balance and purpose.
P.S. I "have no interest" in this book other than to welcome its approach.