Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University

February 11, 2016

Persons who achieve noteworthy success in the helping professions – such as clergy, teachers and therapists – must balance personal authenticity with scrupulous professionalism.

By “authenticity,” I mean a close congruence between one’s “private” and “public” selves, that is, between one’s inward emotions and convictions on the one hand, and one’s outward conduct and comportment on the other. We say of an authentic person that she “lives from her center;” that he is “real” with people; that with her, “what you see is what you get;” that what Jesus says of Nathaniel can also be said of him, namely, that he is “an Israelite [or Seattleite] in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47).

By “professionalism,” I mean the attainment of the standards of excellence set collegially by the practitioners of a given trade.

One can have a considerable measure of personal authenticity without being a “professional” person, or feeling beholden to the standards of any profession. On the other hand, one might display, or at least simulate, a highly professional demeanor, without ever quite attaining the self-assurance and naturalness of manner displayed by those who internalize and “live into” the standards of their craft. One might “do the work” reasonably well, but be stiff, awkward, unduly self-conscious and cool to the point of being cold, or, at the other extreme, effusively friendly to the point of smarminess or pathetic over-eagerness.

But someone who balances both authenticity and professionalism – who somehow becomes the professional role he or she plays, who is effortlessly “real” in both the formal and informal interactions with others that his or her role entails, and who does his or her work with sure-footed competence and a kind of joyful promptitude – is one who gradually, almost effortlessly, attains eminence among his or her colleagues and popularity with his or her clients.

I can recall one occasion, early in my ministry, when I clearly tilted too far in the direction of professionalism. I was serving two small rural churches in southern Wisconsin, and I was determined that they would flourish under my leadership. I filled my calendar with house calls and hospital visits, with counseling appointments and committee meetings, with Bible studies and times for study and sermon preparation. I logged many miles each week on my Chevy. I was constantly gauging my “approval ratings” among my parishioners and ecclesiastical superiors.

Thankfully, I was also undergoing spiritual direction. My director was an elderly monk named Marian Belka. Marian was a member of the Society of Mary, who held a doctorate in education. He was a man of great wisdom, great kindness and great mirth. He also had the quality that has marked nearly all the people who have spoken powerfully into my life, namely, the ability to state the obvious in very simple terms. This is a rare quality among learned people, and immensely valuable to (although not always sufficiently appreciated by) those like me who associate with learned people.

One day I went for my monthly meeting with Br. Marian. I began our session by regaling him with all the things I was doing “professionally.” He nodded repeatedly as I ticked off all my comings and goings and doings, appearing to affirm the value of every item on my list. Finally, I ran out of gas. He was quiet for a moment, and then made a remark that changed my life. “You know, Rick,” he said. “There’s only one Savior in the world, and you’re not him.” Well, of course, I knew that! Heck, I’d taken Christology at Yale!

But that was precisely his point: My pride in my Yale education and the value I attached to all my professional activities were both symptoms of an idolatrous self-importance. And the perfectly appropriate form which God’s judgment against that particular kind of idolatry took was physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion and secret resentment toward the very people I thought I was “serving.” I was not living from my center. I was too busy to be real. I was breaking the law of Sabbath in the name of ministerial earnestness, and the form that repentance had to take was a day off once a week and an occasional belly laugh at my own expense.

I can recall another occasion, in which I tilted too far in the other direction, sacrificing professionalism for authenticity. This occasion took place when my wife Marilyn and I were serving a congregation in Brookfield, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee.

A year or so earlier, two children had been born to members of the congregation. One was our own daughter, Sarah, and one was Jimmy, the son of a couple named Bill and Sandy. For the first few months of their lives, Sarah and Jimmy went through the usual stages of childhood development in lockstep with each other. But when Sarah was four months old, she was diagnosed with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a rare genetic disease that causes the ossification of one’s skeletal muscles and the gradual immobilization of one’s entire body. By the time the two kids were ready to learn how to crawl, Sarah’s disease had already locked her neck and forearm muscles, severely inhibiting her mobility and causing her great pain. In contrast, Jimmy was all set to go – brimful of energy and endlessly curious about his world. Marilyn and I were exhausted from raising a severely disabled child. Bill and Sandy were exhausted from raising a perfectly normal one.

One day, Bill came to my office, looking even more dejected than usual – he had always been something of a curmudgeon. “That kid of ours is driving me crazy,” he complained. “He crawls faster than I can run! I put him down on the floor, turn my back, and a minute later he’s pried open the cabinets and thrown the Tupperware all over the kitchen.”

At that moment, all my professionalism evaporated, and I was reduced to unfiltered authenticity – a combustible, 200-proof mixture of moral outrage and parental envy. “Bill,” I growled, “I would cut off my right arm and eat it for breakfast, if Sarah could get into the Tupperware cabinet.” This was not exactly the kind of pastoral care Bill had come for, nor is it, I hope, the kind that most people get when they visit my office. True, Bill needed a reality check, but the ferocity of my remark was utterly uncalled for and suggests that my personal sorrows had completely extinguished my professional aplomb.

In the helping professions, we speak of the self as instrument. That is, the practice of our craft is inseparable from the cultivation of our personhood, and the faithful and effective performance of the duties associated with our professional role depends not just on the skillful and well-timed use of certain “methods,” but also upon the ability to use those methods in a way that expresses our feelings, values and commitments, without threatening or manipulating those we are called to serve. When we sacrifice authenticity for professionalism, we lose the very self that God means to use as an instrument of healing for others; when we sacrifice professionalism for authenticity, we forget the skills and tools by means of which we properly express and regulate our personality in our encounters with others.

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