In grade school I had to write the obligatory “what do you want to be when you grow up” essay. The teacher specifically stated that we students had to pick the three professions that we wanted to be when we grow up . . . three things, mind you. So . . . I chose to be an officer in the Air Force, a special education teacher, and . . . I just could not come up with a third one. Finally, in desperation, I wrote . . . minister. Those were the three—well, maybe two—professions I chose.
Number one was an Air Force officer. This was a natural choice as my father was a careerist in the Air Force, but I wanted to make sure that I was one up . . . not a non-commissioned officer like the old man, but a commissioned officer. And, it almost happened. Right before I graduated from college, I applied for the Officer’s Candidate School . . . and, missed it by one slot. I was the first alternate from the region in which I was living.
Number two was to be a special education teacher. Again, this was a fairly natural choice as I was a sibling to two brothers with disabilities. Throughout junior and senior high I did a lot of work—paid and volunteer—with organizations that serve the disabled. My undergraduate degree is a Speech Pathology major, with a Special Education minor. I just never did the student teaching to get the official title. It was close, but no cigar.
Number three . . . minister. That was what a kid comes up with when he or she has no idea what else to put on the paper. I guess I could have put fire fighter or police officer . . . but, everyone else in the class did that. I grasped for the farthest and craziest profession that popped into my mind. Never in a million years did I ever think—at that point in my life—that I would be a minister. Shoot, my family never went to church. My mother was a Methodist, my father a Baptist . . . but, mostly, they were non-practicing in their faith. If I wanted religion while I was growing up, I was on my own. Growing up—at least until I got to high school—I didn’t know a minister from rabbi or priest. And, guess what, I ended up a minister.
Now, people end up in the ministry for a variety of reasons . . . some to find God and faith . . . some because they felt a call to serve God . . . and, others to find vindication, respect, and love. You see that is one of the myths of the ministry . . . ministers are loved and respected by all . . . especially if that minister has “Reverend” in front of his or her name. At one time that might have been true . . . that ministry was a loved and respected profession, and thus those who were ministers were automatically loved and respected . . . but, not anymore!
In the realm of public love and respect, ministers are dropping like a lead balloon. At least that is what the latest Gallup Poll reveals. Ministers have dropped below the fiftieth percentile for the first time since the Gallup Organization has been polling the public about professions . . . first time since 1977! According to the poll taken in December of 2013, only about 47% of the people polled ranked ministers high in the poll . . . clergy finished seventh out of the twenty-two professions that the pollsters sought opinions about. Nurses (1), pharmacists (2), grade school teachers (3), medical doctors (4), military officers (5), and police officers (6) finished ahead of ministers. In reviewing the list, I noticed that my number one and two choices as a kid finished higher than what I am now.
According to an article in the most recent Christian Century (January 22, 2014) this downward spiral of respect for ministers has been fairly steady since 2001. Reasons listed for this plunge are the many sex scandals involving minors and divisive clergy. No one is going to argue that the sex scandals within the walls of the “church” did not severely affect the attitudes of people towards clergy . . . anyone who messes with children loses all respect from others. The divisive clergy . . . well, we live in contentious times where differences seem to be painted in black and white . . . lines are drawn in the sand . . . sides are picked . . . and, no one likes conflict. When ministers are seen to be in the eye of the storm when it comes to divisive issues . . . whether it is true or not that they are the trouble makers . . . they lose respect.
But, ministers need to smile . . . at least we are not at the bottom of the pile . . . at least we are not among the lowest rated . . . and, I would contend, reviled or professions. No, that honor goes to car salespeople (20), members of Congress (21), and lobbyists (22) . . . nine, eight, and six percent of the people had any respect for these professions. Also, if a person wants to play the game, the respect issue can be split between political parties. It seems that the more traditional and conservative Republican party has a higher tolerance . . . I mean, respect . . . for ministers. Within the Republican party, ministers ranked number two and had a 63% rating. Unfortunately, those darn liberal Democrats did not rank ministers so highly and their rating was only at 40%.
There used to be a time when ministers were not bashful about telling others what they did for a living when standing around shooting the breeze at a dinner or cocktail party. That announcement often came with a respectful acknowledge and a free drink or meal. Not so much anymore! Ministers are not so quick to confess their profession any more. People look at ministers with that funny look that is usually between confusion, pity, and disdain. Being a minister is no longer an automatic for love and respect that it once was . . . unless you happen to be a Republican.
Like anyone else, I want love and respect. Looking back nearly fifty years to an assignment I received in elementary school . . . it would seem as if I chose the wrong profession. I should have gone with being a teacher or military officer if I wanted love and respect based on an occupation. But, hey! That would not be the Keener way . . . the Keener way is always a lot more difficult . . . if it were easy, it wouldn’t be the Keener way! Of course I was not going to take the easy road to respect and love . . . no, I would take the harder route . . . I would be a minister.
According to the researchers for the Gallup Organization, part of the problem with these rankings is that most of them are based off of stereotypes. Long-held stereotypes are hard to shake . . . all car salespeople are crooked scum . . . while the truth is, most car salespeople are fairly decent, hard-working individuals just like you or me. Yet, when we think about them in the areas of love and respect, they do not do too well because we are a people of stereotypes and generalizations. Ministers fall into that trap too when it comes to love and respect.
Ministers are as different and diverse as any other group of professions. Ministers fall between everything from being a liberal to a conservative . . . from being Democrats to Republicans . . . from male to female . . . to even being (gasp) gay! No two ministers are exactly alike . . . we ministers are all over the board. There is no standard mold that you can fit ministers into as a litmus test. Nope, people just have to take ministers for who they are . . . individuals trying hard to answer God’s call in their lives.
I never went into the ministry thinking I was owed the love and respect of the people just because I jumped through some ecclesiastical hoops, went to seminary, and was bestowed with the title of “Reverend”. I went into the ministry because somewhere back in elementary school God began calling me to come and join in the dance. Upon graduating college I really thought I would end up as an officer in the Air Force . . . but, God had other plans. I also thought that I would be a teacher for kids with disabilities . . . but, again, God had other plans. Instead of heading off into the professions of the military or education, I ended up heading off to seminary. Since then, I have dabbled in a few other professions . . . but, primarily I have been attempting to follow God’s call upon my life. So, when it comes to love and respect as a minister, I want it based on the relationships I have and not on the titles I have earned.
The camp song said that people would know that we are Christians by our love . . . I think the same thing is true for us ministers . . . people will know that we are ministers by our love. When they do, we will have their love and respect. Besides, I could never join the Republican party just to boost my rating. Who would have thought that the number three goal of occupations would be the one that I ended up being . . . I think God respects me for that, and that is all that matters in the end.