This year was supposed to be the year my football team broke out of their rebuilding phase and rose to challenge the Patriots, Colts, and Steelers for the right to represent the AFC in the SuperBowl. Instead, we have sunk to cellar, hoping to crawl out with a new head coach who is younger than his best veterans and without a Pro Bowl quarterback who was supposed to be the second coming of John Elway.
The trouble began months ago when a teary man in his mid-sixties simply said he was firing one of best friends because "it was time". Pat Bowlen's joint press conference with Mike Shannahan, his Superbowl-winning coach of 15 years, was the most crying I've ever seen in the NLF-- except of course for the time Brett Favre retired...the first time. Pro football, as we are reminded every offseason (which should be called "contract dispute season") is a business. And in any business, the bottom line is what matters most. Friendships are good; team loyalty counts for something, especially during the season. But in the end, players, coaches, owners, and VPs must produce or be fired.
America's pastime, baseball, now marred by multiple steroid scandals, is carnage on the altar of bottom-line thinking. Is it really surprising that the immense pressure to produce godlike statistics to match their godlike salaries has driven so many pro athletes to Performance Enhancing Drugs? Teams want to make more money; to make more money you have to win more; to win more you need the best coaches and players; to get the best players you've got to pay them the best salaries for their position. And when you pay them that much, they better produce. And when there's that much pressure to produce, vocational purity is lost. There is nothing sacred or pure about the game anymore. There is no longer anything special about being a baseball player or a football player or a basketball player. It's all just a business.
Such thinking is all around us. A few years ago, my wife and I took our daughter to a pediatrician that many of our friends recommended. At first, we appreciated his efficiency, the way we got in and got out. But after a few visits, he seemed more willing to write a prescription for Amoxicillin than to listen to our concerns. We began to feel like we were being herded through the office and rushed through an appointment so the maximum number of patients could be seen each day. In short, it seemed our pediatrician had reduced his vocation of caring for children and attending to their health to simply a business. And the more patients he had, the better his bottom line. Eventually we left and found a different pediatrician who was more willing to take her time with her patients, one who was running her business but preserved the purity of her vocation.
Bottom-line thinking has a way of undoing our best intentions. I know because my vocation is not immune to it. Pastors are tempted to evaluate their work through the same grid as pro athletes and pediatricians: as managers of a business. Our bottom line, though it could be measured in dollars, is more often measured in people. Because of that, it seems purer. And to some degree it is. It's better to evaluate a church by the lives it is affecting than by the money it's bringing in. But still, it's a way of reducing the richness and complexity of our calling as pastors into something as static and unreliable as numbers. Worse, it often leads us to justify a way of doing ministry that looks nothing like Jesus simply for the sake of reaching more people. The proof of the pervasiveness of that thinking is in popular church campaign slogans like "Reach the Lost at Any Cost."
It might be worth noting that Jesus didn't reach the lost at any cost. When the rich young ruler walked away sad because he wasn't about to sell all he had and give it to the poor, Jesus let him. When the prodigal son left home, the father didn't run after him. To top it off, Jesus seems to have made a concerted choice to avoid a more popular and potentially more effective approach to reaching people simply because it was less personal. The two large cities in Galilee of Jesus’ day were Sepphoris and Tiberias. Sepphoris, Galilee’s capital, was only a few miles from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Both cities were centers of activity and influence. Both were within view of the places Jesus frequented. Yet neither is mentioned in the stories of Jesus. (Tiberias gets a passing mention of people coming in boats form Tiberias to look for Jesus.) Instead, Jesus, as Eugene Peterson suggests, worked out “his way of life in the intensely personal and God-oriented small towns of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida.” It wasn’t that He didn’t have any other options. He most certainly did. Could it be that Jesus chose these more personal settings on purpose? It seems consistent with the rest of His ministry approach. When Jesus did set His face toward Jerusalem it wasn’t to perform a spectacle at the Temple, as Satan had earlier suggested He do; Jesus went to Jerusalem, to the epicenter of culture, to die. These are certainly not the choices of a person driven by the bottom-line of producing more or reaching more.
To be sure, all vocations have an element of business. We are to be shrewd managers, faithful stewards, making the most of what we have been given. It's not wrong to get paid for what you do...even as pastors. (Paul makes a strong case to young pastor Timothy about the merits of rewarding those who serve as elders, governing the affairs of the church, in particular those who teach.) And it's not wrong to watch the bottom-line in your business. But at some point, too much attention to the bottom line corrupts the purity of any vocation. We must ask ourselves not simply how well our business is doing, but how well we are doing business. Are we losing the purity of our vocation-- as doctors or lawyers or pastors or athletes-- because of an obsession with the bottom line? The bottom line is one piece of what we do as a professional in any field. But if the bottom line drives our decisions and shapes our vocation, we will find ourselves in the place my beloved Broncos are in: ruined.