It occurred to me this afternoon that the capitalist and professional models of service are radically different. While I believed the professional model of ministry to be disturbing – and I still see difficulties there – it is rather the current capitalist model that deeply offends me. More, perhaps I should say that it leads me to think the church as we know it will fail if we continue down the current path. Similar problems have arisen in the legal and medical professions, so I hope you will continue reading even if you aren’t particularly concerned with the health of the church.
As always new times call for new paradigms. I know this to be true and try to go with the flow. Mutatis mutandis, and all that. We’ve known for thousands of years that things change. The challenge comes not from trying not to change, but trying to find the aspects of the Spirit of Age that can yoked to traditional wisdom and those we must resist. Sigh. Life is hard. Morality is even harder.
This is not my area of expertise, but I will try to capture something of the sociology of the last century in the hopes of explaining why I feel the way I do. Perhaps some of you know this stuff better than I and I sincerely hope you’ll step forward and correct me where I’m wrong.
First, the professional model. From the Victorian age through 1970s America, many services have been subscribed to the professional model. In the areas of medicine and law, it was expected that every family (certainly every family of a certain standing) would have their own expert. If you were poor, you would buy individual services. If you were middle class, you might have a go-to person who was connected with you socially, if only occasionally. If you were rich, you would have someone on retainer. The family lawyer. The family doctor.
The word professional was borrowed from religious circles where one “professed” a life vocation as a monk or nun. By around 1800 it came to signify the body of people devoted to a certain career. They belonged to professional societies, adhered to professional ethics, and above all had professional boundaries. Among the chief hallmarks of a professional were strict confidentiality and a willingness to put your interests first, while acting in a professional capacity.
This model became very successful. It worked for society because it allowed us to trust certain people – people who were vetted, trained, and monitored by their professional colleagues. Thus the Bar Association and the American Medical Association developed the power they have today. The model became so successful that other career paths picked it up. Other professions were born. We started to talk about professional Accountants, Psychologists, Educators, and Politicians, despite the fact that those professions were less organized and had less clear standards of ethics. We even started talking about professional ministers.
By and large, the system worked. Society ran smoothly because of the trust engendered by the guilds, the professional societies and professional certification. You knew you could trust your (blank), because they were a real (blank). Professional meant competent and discrete. It also, the more so the higher your social status, meant personal. Your doctor could be counted on to know your situation. They weren’t quite a friend, but they were in a real way a part of the extended family. They got a Christmas card. They got invited to the New Year’s party (even though they might not attend). Professionals formed a social network, in which social interactions were strictly regulated by ethical norms. You could not actually be friends with your psychiatrist, but you could be friendly. In fact, you had to be friendly. The more personal and competent the service, the more respected you were. It was a people oriented model.
The capitalist model is different. Sometime around the 1970s and 1980s we discovered that a service oriented model was more efficient and productive. You don’t want a doctor; you want medical care. We don’t optimize the relationship; we optimize the outcome. Suddenly metrics were all the rage. And I don’t doubt this was hugely beneficial to manufacturing and a hundred other endeavors. It meant operational accounting. It meant action by action you could measure the effect of your activities. Above all, you could maximize profits and minimize costs. The lower class model of providing one-off services moved up the ladder to apply to everyone. Why do you need an accountant when you can pay someone at H&R block to spend 1 hour in March on your taxes? Why do you need a family doctor, when you can drop in to the drop-in clinic and have a nurse practitioner look at you? It’s more efficient, more cost-effective, and far more amenable to scientific analysis, to go interaction by interaction.
On the down side, “professional behavior” shifted from being the best possible practitioner to providing the best quality of care to providing the cheapest, most reliable service and all the way to providing the best outcome for a minimal fee. And lets face it, “professional” incentives now mean that our service providers feel a need to get market value for their services. Lawyers have a bad reputation because they know market value for their time is exceptionally high and, compassionately, limit the amount of time they devote to your case. Doctors still operate under the older model, in my experience, but the hospitals don’t. The doctor is assigned a number of patients and given the minimum time with each to maximize average outcome.
The professional ethic of the best outcome for each was replaced, ideally with the best outcome for all, practically with the most profitable outcome. Look closely, corporations are legally required to behave in this way. Goodness is measured in profit under capitalism, because we use money to measure personal preference and summed preference to allocate resources.
The hideous thing is how well it works. I don’t want to see another model for lawyers, and I’m not sure I can see another model for doctors. Sigh.
Priests, on the other hand… Ministers… That’s another story. Part of our job, arguably the most important part of our job is to build communities, to foster relationships…let’s be blunt and cliche, to spread love. Our congregations don’t want operational accounting because they need a relationship with us and with one another to feel a relationship with God. We are to love people so they know how to love one another and care for them when it seems hard to understand that God does. That’s the goal of all Christians, but it is the professional responsibility of ministers. Our vocation is to make the common vocation of love work better. One of the very worst things we can do is shift focus away from relationship onto outcome.
The church can tolerate being a professional society. After all, professional societies were originally holy orders. It cannot tolerate being a business. We do not provide a service – be it salvation, inclusion, or empowerment. As easy as it is to think in those terms, it cannot help but foster idolatry. The more insecure we get about declining models, the more we turn to conventional wisdom about businesses, and the more that will lead to our own demise.
What we offer is ourselves, our lives and labors. We make a sacrifice to God and to the community. We must ask, is the church producing good people? Does it foster trust, virtue, faith, hope, and love? If the answer is no, all the operational accounting in the world won’t do a damn bit of good. If the answer is yes, the business aspect will take care of itself.