A Professing Profession

Posted on January 1, 2003

How do we pass on our faith to the next generation?

“Passing on the faith” is part of both being a Christian and being a health professional. In his booklet The Living Reminder, the late Henri Nouwen speaks of two aspects of being a professional, particularly when our profession includes ministry to others. We think of profession as training, skill, expertise, and a certain specialization. But he insists that, because the word profession is derived from the verb profess, the concept also refers to witnessing, proclaiming, and announcing. The professing side of profession is deeply rooted in the biblical story and requires continuing education as well as expertise. The two should never be separated. You may attend conferences on diabetes, teenage pregnancy, office management, or information technology, but you also belong to CCHF, thus attending to the professing part of your self as well. The professing side of our professional selves is what attends to passing on the faith to the next generation.

In this article I would like to share some ways in which I think that passing on the faith can be carried out as part of our ministry. These are through modeling, reminding, connecting, and mentoring. We also need to address where and how these roles can be assumed. But first, I would like to lay out five assumptions under which I am working as I approach this topic.

1. Faith matters, and makes a difference. I think I can assume you would probably not be reading Health & Development if you did not believe in the transforming power of Christ in people’s lives. In many settings, of course, this is not a forgone conclusion. Faith matters, we reaffirm, and makes a difference in how we relate to our world and the people in it.

2. Passing on the refers to salvation and beyond - to daily discipleship. I assume that “passing on the faith” begins with a call to respond to Christ’s offer of salvation, but that this is only the beginning of a conversion. The call to follow daily, faithfully, and joyfully must be answered over and over at different points in our lives. Passing on the faith includes preparation for and presence with folks at any of these points.

3. Following Jesus daily means rejecting dualistic discipleship. This involves taking the Sermon on the Mount and, indeed, all of Jesus’ teachings very seriously. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his introduction to Salt and Light by Eberhard Arnold, says,

We have listened to the Sermon on the Mount and perhaps have understood it. But who has heard it aright?. . . Humanly speaking we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand ways. Jesus knows only one possibility: simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing it and obeying it. He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal. He really means for us to get on with it.

These words point back to our first assumption, that we believe in Christ’s transforming power, and challenge us daily to live out that belief.

I grew up hearing this quote from sixteenth-century Anabaptist martyr Hans Denk: “No one can know Christ truly, except they follow him daily in life.” It was only later that I discovered that some Christians assumed that the Sermon on the Mount was an ideal picture only, and not really applicable to our daily lives. This latter view, however subconsciously, makes Christianity an overlay to a life based in Western dualism and the American dream, rather than the God-required foundation for life.

Tom Sine echoes the call to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously in his book Mustard Seed vs. McWorld. He argues that we, because of Western dualism, have settled for a dualistic discipleship. He says that in spite of the talk about Christ’s Lordship, everyone knows that the expectations of modem culture come first: getting ahead in our jobs, getting our kids to their activities, getting the right house, and so on. This produces a disconnect between living and our purpose for living. This third assumption then, is that we do not - we will not - settle for a dualistic discipleship in the way we live or the way we teach others to live.

4. Our lives have purpose and call. That our lives have purpose and that we are called to that purpose is the fourth assumption in passing on the faith. We do not work with those who have no health insurance or care for the homeless only because it is the right, good, and noble thing to do; we also do so because we are called to care for others in this way. We are part of a long story of God working in the world. Our story is part of that big story; we are not alone:

  • In Genesis 12 we are told that we, as spiritual descendants of Sarah and Abraham, will be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
  • The Old Testament prophets called God’s chosen people (and that term extends to us today) to return from exile, to live by the covenant. We are called to remember that we are not from Babylon (or, in our day, from the secular world); our home is in God’s Kingdom.
  • Micah 6:8 (NRSV) gives us one of many pieces of the biblical blueprint of purpose for our lives: “He has told you, 0 Mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
  • Mary, the mother of Jesus, reminds us of obedience and purpose in her response to the angel Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV).

We are called to the purpose of living out our faith daily in service to others. How that service is carried out is not always clear, but we do have purpose. If we are not clear about who we are and our purpose for living, we have nothing to pass on to the next generation all the answers. We do not! But we do have a direction and call and we are trusting God to guide us on this journey.

5. We are first of all citizens of God Kingdom, and then also citizens of a particular country. This last assumption is a very important one for me as I have been shaped by my Anabaptist Mennonite background. Passing on the faith implies an emphasis on being global citizens of the Kingdom of God first, and secondarily citizens of a particular country. This means that my Christian brothers and sisters in Virginia, in Nicaragua, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Rwanda, and in any other country on this earth, are to be considered in the way I live and beIieve - and this belief is to be passed on.

Where and to whom do we pass on the faith?

In our work, we come into contact with patients, colleagues, students, residents, coworkers, and staff. Anyone who has an opportunity to learn from you may be one to whom you may specifically be called to pass on the faith. This often is someone with less experience than you - but not always.

We have many biblical examples of passing on the faith. We can read the stories of Moses and Joshua, Eli and Samuel, Elisha and Elijah, Naomi and Ruth, and Paul and Timothy, among others. None of these older persons were the only ones who passed on the faith to the younger, but each relationship had a major influence on the younger person’s development and call. You might feel that these examples are not real specific to your situation, however. Many of you are practitioners with tightly scheduled appointments and mounds of paperwork to do before and after those appointments. Others manage the multiple layers of running clinics and offices, attending phones, reception desks, labs, insurance, fund-raising, and a myriad of other duties. Where do you find time to pass on the faith? Doesn’t this time take you away from your “real” job?

1. Passing on is part of our calling. no matter how busy or stretched we are. We must choose to pass on our faith, seeing it as a vital part of our role in life. As I work to find preceptors in community settings for students, I am keenly aware of which nurses see the students as interruptions and burdens and which are glad to share their lives (and hopefully some workload) with them for seven to ten weeks. I once asked a nurse friend at church how her department responds to students. She noted that, though she and her coworkers welcome and enjoy students, each one had to consciously choose whether or not to share their lives and their skills with the next generation.

2. In order for this passing on to occur, it must happen as we live, not after we live. My husband, Jim, and I get frustrated when folks say to us that they, too, would love to go into international church work, but they feel they need to raise their children first. We believe that our faith and our following Christ is a large part of how we raise our children. We must be raising our children as we serve, not serving after we raise our children. The means of serving does change as family situations change, however.

The same is true in passing on the faith. We must be consciously working at this in the midst of each busy day. I know it’s difficult to focus on psychosocial and spiritual needs when you are learning how to do a developmental screening test or a pregnancy test. But I insist that it takes little additional time to hear and at least recognize the cues that Mom is really worried about her child’s development or the teen does not want to be pregnant. Our response might trigger a longer conversation than we have time for, but we can also respond in a way that at least attends to the basic feeling. The same, I would argue, is true for passing on the faith. Attentiveness to asking questions or making comments as you work with a student or volunteer is essential to developing that mindset of sharing. A quick smile and a comment such as, “you seem to be struggling with whether or not this is God’s call for you” may be all you have time for, but may have lifelong consequences.

Some of you are in settings where you are preceptors and have students coming to you. Some work with young volunteers. Some are educators and relate to students in and out of the classroom setting. Others are in the position of hiring young, inexperienced staff. Setting up Bible studies or specific experiences such as mentoring are also avenues for interaction. I would argue that we must tithe our time in order to attend to the next generation. This must be as much a part of our work as reports and fundraising!

Now let’s move on to examine the means by whichwe pass on the faith as part of our ministry.


Pause for a moment and consider someone you know who has been a living example to you of how to serve and grow in faith. Those people serve as reference points for us in spirituality, in lifestyle, in values, and in professional expertise. Jot down their names right now. There may be many who see us as models as well an uncomfortable position at times! Think of someone who looks to you as a model and write his or her name down, too.

One of the persons I consulted in writing this article was Marilyn Metzler, a long-time member of CCHF who serves at Cross Over Health Center in Richmond, Virginia. Marilyn is a friend who was once my student. In the early 1990s, when she was finishing a bachelor’s degree at EMU, we spent a good bit of time talking about God’s call for her life. She wrote me these words: “You have much to say from your own story. Share that. You profess by example. Probably at least 50 percent - or more - of what I have learned from you over the years has been by example and by you sharing the choices you and Jim have made.“ This scares me at first because I immediately think of the unfaithful choices I have made. But then none of us is perfect. I am coming to realize that it is the journey that most of us are interested in learning from others, not just the answers. We want to hear about a journey, and also an honest struggle.

Another young woman who graduated from college several years ago approached me this spring about forming a mentoring relationship. She told me the following about the kinds of people who have influenced her beliefs and values: “They are honest. They tell me about their lives and struggles. They are able to communicate their priorities: love for family, for spouse, desire to be faithful followers of God, dedication to seeking peace. They lead lives that incorporate faith and action. They respect young people and learn from us.” Again, it is our willingness to share the journey to faithfulness, not the finished product that provides the model.

For Jim and me, living faithfully includes several areas:

1. Being open to sharing our lives with those who need a temporary home. Sharing our lives means we usually have someone living with us. In Nicaragua it was a medical student from the rural area; in Virginia it has been students, persons from other countries, foster children; and for seven months last year a woman from our church who 'Was evicted from her home and lost her children to foster care because of mental illness. We also try to have students over for meals, though this has been drastically reduced in the last years to adjust to two high-school daughters’ lives and schedules and Jim’s new call to pastor a small church.

2. Living reflectively and thankfully. This means that we try to notice, to be aware, and to marvel at God’s creation and at our relationship with God. Sitting together as a family at breakfast and noticing the rain or the good music to start our day helps us reflect on God’s faithfulness and our desire to respond in thankful, faithful living.

3. Considering the world’s resources when making decisions. Our Central American experience shapes our use of material items in this throw-away culture. When we left Nicaragua at the end of five years in 1990, a Mennonite pastor, Miguel Mendoza, gave us a note that said: “As you prepare to leave, we pray that you will be able to withstand the temptations to materialism that are so prevalent in your country. Remember to depend on Christ instead of on your ability to do and to acquire things. Work in your country. Our lives in Nicaragua will not change materially for the better until the church in your country is truly converted.” Now we have a measuring stick that is different from just comparing ourselves with our coworkers or fellow church members. (Some excellent resources for help in this area are Trek (Journeying to Enough) and Parenting for Trek by Mennonite Central Committee.)

4. Keeping the world at bay, as we are in the world and not of the world. Keeping the world at bay is another strategy for faithful living. We have chosen not to have television, though we do have a monitor and a VCR. And we don’t feel too far behind or out of it! Jim and I rely mostly on used clothes and yard-sale bargains, though we do not always ask our children to follow this standard now that they are older.

There are dangers in trying to live faithfully and knowing you are modeling that for others:

1. Self-righteousness is one of the worst. It is easy to begin to feel holier-than-thou or fall into "I-would-never-do-that” judging. It is also easy to feel alone, as if I am the only faithful one left. I often think of Elijah’s moaning to God in 2 Kings after the Baal incident. He is fleeing from Jezebel and is afraid. He crawls under the broom tree and asks to die. Later, after God takes care of him, he complains that he is the only faithFul one left. God tells him how he will take care of him and then adds (sort-of tongue in check, I think), “By the way, there are seven thousand others who have not bowed down to Baal!"

2. Another danger is tiredness and resentment of those who make other choices. I get tired ofweighing each little decision: Should I spend this money on this item or not? I get tired of not having certain possessions and comforts. And I get tired of Christian communities who argue over whether it is right to have a toaster in Central America.

3. A third danger is fear (and this is perhaps a middle-class fear born of the access to choice) that we really should stop living so and have a retirement plan. But a sense of call, a sense of humor, and a deep belief that God will care for us allow Jim and me to relax most of the time in this journey.

I must tell you a bit about how God’s sense of humor keeps us honest on the journey. I once described in an article a discussion we had with our children about “why we do not ski like your friends do" because of our lifestyle choice. Not long after the article was published, my daughter Rachel, then eleven, went to a university basketball game and at halftime joined the ranks of those trying for prizes with free throws. She did well! She won a pizza, fifty dollars, and two ski passes at the local resort! Soon I found myself on the lift with Rachel and Sara, shaking my head at God’s sense of humor.

A more recent incident has to do with academic garb for graduation. I have always refused to wear any such garb—in solidarity with the poor in Central America; because of elitism; and because I thought it was a ridiculous use of money. While finishing my dissertation in Nicaragua, the subject of graduation came up. I was amazed to find that my Central American friends thought I was crazy not to wear whatever garb would help us all celebrate. “Do it for us!” someone said. “You know Central Americans love pomp and circumstance!” But what about the cost? Well, I won an award for my dissertation that provided a sizable sum of money—more than enough for the robe and hood. So I found myself trooping down the lawn at the University of Virginia looking like everyone else and grinning at God. Of course I had to explain my change of behavior at EMU graduations!

Keep laughing at yourself and share your funny stories with those who watch you.


Another means by which we pass on the faith is by reminding. In The Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen urges us to remember that part of our job as professing professionals is to help others connect their stories to the divine story. I find that students often really do know who they are and what they are called to, but so many other things get in the way. One outcome of a post-modern approach to life is that students feel that they should be open to everything, to hang on to nothing from their past and who they thought they were. Many times what they felt in middle and high school is indeed where God is calling them. Sometimes simply asking someone to remember how God called and guided before is sufficient to bring that experience to bear on the present question or decision. I often ask students who are seeking direction, “How does God work in your life? How do you make decisions?” They need to remind themselves - and so do we.

Our role is also to remind people of the biblical story. How often is the word remember used in the book of Psalms, Isaiah, and the prophets? If we can remember, we are not so likely to make the same errors or need to move into “exile.”

I must continually remind myself before I can remind others. My relationship with the doctoral study enterprise was an exercise in reminders. While I love the intellectual and theoretical parts of life, I have a high level of skepticism of intellectual elitism as well. I want to be practical and real. When I returned from Nicaragua in 1990, I knew I would face pressure from the university to continue my studies. I vowed at that time I would not go back to school until I could see how a Ph.D. could benefit Central America and how funding would be provided for my studies. Within several years I was asked to consider assisting in developing a Master’s program for nurses in Nicaragua. It was clear I needed Ph.D. studies to contribute to that project. God’s humor again? With scholarships in hand, I went back to grad school.

The benchmark I gave myself as I went was that I would know I had strayed too far if I became uncomfortable in homes with mud floors. I would remind myself often of Doña Gregoria, who lived across the lane from the Nicaraguan clinic where I lived and worked in 1977. She and her husband had three small children and worked hard planting, harvesting, and selling melons. She was a wise woman and had a very clear faith in God. In my philosophy of knowledge course one day, we were discussing who produces the world’s wisdom. The conversation seemed headed toward the conclusion that it was the scientists and philosophers; after all, we were sitting in one of the original buildings on Thomas Jefferson’s lawn at the University of Virginia. But then I brought up Doña Gregoria, her contributions to my life and to her community, and the wisdom only she could give because of her life situation and her reflection on that life. After that day, Gregoria was often referred to in class. My personal reminder became the class’s reminder.

I also reminded myself of 1 Corinthians at the beginning of every semester of grad school, and now as I teach. In the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians Paul has very strong words about human vs. spiritual wisdom. As invigorating and delightful as study was for me, I want to be reminded that true wisdom is found in the fear of God.

Students not only need reminders to connect their stories to the divine story; they also need specific questions that can help them connect their lives to God’s purposes. As a mentor, I ask them questions about how well they are keeping the Sabbath and how their choice of faith community might affect their post-graduation plans. These are some very specific ways to serve in my role as a “remind-er."


Close to the reminding role is a connecting role with the next generation. We not only remind ourselves of our roots as God’s children and of our common call; we also connect that call to the present and future needs of the world. We never know when what seems to be a small connection for us will have a lifelong affect on someone else.

One helpful tool in connecting is known as the examen. Saint Ignatious recommended centuries ago that everyone be taught this simple ritual. The examen consists of two questions: “For what am I most grateful?” and “For what am I least grateful?” Ignatious used the terms consolation and desolation. Consolation is whatever connects us with God, ourselves, others, and the universe. Desolation is whatever disconnects us. A story of children orphaned during the bombing raids in World War II graphically illustrates “consolation” (as told in the book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Give: You Life by Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn). These children were rescued and placed in refugee camps with good food and care. But they could not sleep because they were so afraid to be without food. Realizing this, someone gave each one a piece of bread to hold as they went to bed. Then they could sleep because they were holding on to what gave them life. The examen is like holding on to what gives us life. It is a way to connect ourselves, and those with whom we relate, to God and God’s call on our lives.

Another way of making connections is to make your mission and values as explicit as you are able in your work setting. Some of you are in small, private settings, and making your mission and values explicit is not difficult. Others are in public settings without the overt freedom to do that. At EMU ten years ago, the nursing faculty decided that we wanted to draw stronger connections between our faith and nursing as we related to students. As we acknowledged that caring is a part of any nursing education jargon, we asked ourselves, “So how were We different at EMU, a Christian Mennonite university?” We settled on nine approaches to caring that made us unique. These include service, agape love, presence, justice, empowerment, advocacy, reconciliation, partnership, and grace. Several of these approaches are present in secular nursing literature, but taken together in the way we define them is unique and connects our profession to our faith. We do better some years than others in helping students make the connections.

There are also connections to be made that are not always pleasant. When Jim and I take EMU students on required cross-cultural semesters, we make many connections concerning how globalization and U.S. foreign policy affect our brothers and sisters in the church. This kind of connecting can create a personal crisis of identity (Who am I as a North American?) or of faith (How can God allow this suffering?) I sometimes ask myself what the ethical implications are of walking a student into the pain of systems that do not work and of nearly hopeless situations. It is the same connection question I asked myself when we worked with community health workers in Nicaragua to analyze their community needs and to respond to those needs, only to have those workers become targets of U.S.-supported terrorists since they were now leaders and organizers. (What right did we have to expose them to this risk?)

I eventually learned to rest in the pain that some connections produce. Knowing is richer than not knowing, and God can handle both my and my students’ questions, as well as the choices community leaders make. Susan Classen, an author and church worker in Central America, draws a parallel between the image of dcwdrops on spider webs and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. She explains how she was always walking into invisible cobwebs when she passed through the door of her cabin. But after a heavy dew, the sun would shine on the webs and make them glisten, showing their connections. The Spirit makes God visible in ordinary, everyday aspects of our lives. The dew of the Spirit makes our interconnectedness visible. Our role is to recognize and point out the connections.


Much has been written about mentoring. However, as Sondra Mattaei points out in Faith Matters: FaithMentoring in the Faith Community, the most recent writings refer nearly exclusively to professional mentoring and the facilitation of career development. One source even discredits mentoring that is personal as not representing true mentoring. This is why Mattaei uses the term mentoring. Similarly, when I speak of mentoring, I use Websteri definition of a mentor as “a close, trusted, and experienced counselor and guide.” Mentoring is forming deliberate interpersonal relationships for passing on the faith. Mentoring is actually another term for “passing on the faith” and certainly includes modeling, reminding, and connecting. However, I also use the phrase "Passing on the faith" to more clearly dilneate the purpose of the mentoring.

Mattaei's book i hte summary of a study of 75 persons who shared in depth about the influential relationships in their lives. They identified some of the qualities of a mentor: caring and accepting, attentive, and offeirng companionship. Words the interviewees used to describe these qualities include: available, feeling at home, and dependable. In myown experience, student evaluations identify good mentors as those who challenge them while at the same time support them.

Mediation and advocacy are also important aspects or mentoring. Sometimes a mentor needs to mediate or intercede fo the "mentee," helping them to understand themselves etter. Another aspect of mediating is to bridge the gap between the mentee and new ideas, new experience, and new relationships. We may also need to convince others to take a chance with our mentees, to trust them with a task that might seem to big fo rthem

We must remain aware and vigilant of the dangers in a mentoring relationships. Just as nurse Rachet in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest became dependent on her patients, so we, too, can find ourselves needing to be needed. this is most often seen when mentors cannot let go of the relationship when it is time fo rhte mentee to move on. In addition, power differentials are usually great in mentoring relationships. I may work as a mentor with sutdents, but in the end, after all, I do give them their grades. You who hire staff memebers and mentor htem give them their paychecks as well. Faith mentors must stand beside others in their efforts to discover and claim their own power.

Mentoring is a huge but rewarding hcallenge. Laurent Daloz, an educator with a focus on mentoring, describes it this way in the book, Mentor: "We walk at times ahead of our students, at times beside them, and at times we follow their lead. In sensing where to walk lies our art."

As we consider how to pass ont he faith to the next generation, let us remember that we are cocreators with God and thus can participate with God as a representative of God's grace int he lives of others and in our own growth.

In closing, take the name or names you wrote down or remembered who have passed ont heir faith to you. Bring them to God in prayer, and in so doing, celebrate the link from past to present. Pray also for anyone you are mentoring or who looks to you as a model - and ocnsider how youya re the next link in God's chain in faith.

Ann Graber Hershberger, RN, Ph. D., is part of hte faculty in mursing and general education at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Ann, her husband Jim, and their three children, Sara, Rachel, and Nathan spent 10 years working with Mennonite mission and service agencies in central America. This article is an adaptation of her plenary talk at the May 2002 CCHF annual conference at Eastern University. She can be contacted at hershbea@emu.

For Further Reading

Classen, Susan. Dewdrops on Spider Webs: Connectinos Made Visible. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1997.

Daloz, Lauarent. Mentor: Guiding The Journey of Adult Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Linn, Dennis, Sheila Linn, and Matthew Linn. Sleeping with Bread. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1995.

Masson, Veneta. Rehab at the Florida Avenue Grill. Washington, DC: Sage Femme Press, 1999.

Mattaei, Sondra Higgins. Faith Matters: Faith-Mentoring int he Faith Community. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996

Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in the Memory of Jesus Christ. New York: Harper and Row, 1996

Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Mentoring Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Sine, Tom, et al. Mustard Seed vs. McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Yancey, Philip. Soul Survivor. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Tags: H&D, Biblical Principles, Discipleship


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