Dentistry Is Ministry | Faithful Living in a Fallen World

“Dentistry Is Ministry: Bridging Biblical Worldview and Work”

An interview with Dr. Jim McKinney by Jimmy Davis

[NOTE: This is the full text of the story that I referred to in my sermon on Sunday, March 8th.]

I once worked on the student ministry staff of a large suburban church under the supervision of a man who had never been to seminary nor employed at a church. When Dr. Jim McKinney sold his successful dental practice and came to our church as the Director of Student Ministries, I told him that he may have left the chair for the pew, but working at a church was sometimes still “like pulling teeth.” As Jim’s story reveals, dentistry and ministry have a lot more in common than he first imagined. I recently suggested to Jim that his journey would be helpful for others to hear, so he agreed to answer a few questions (and you’ll see that, as is true about most conversations in the dentist’s office, the dentist will do most of the talking!):

Jim, you’ve walked quite an intriguing career path: you’ve been a dentist, directed the Student Ministry staff of a large church, and now you are a consultant to dentists and others. Tell us about that journey.

I never set out to be a dentist or a youth pastor and certainly not a consultant. I always wanted to be a missionary. When I was a kid, my father started a mission hospital in the interior of Honduras from scratch and turned it over to indigenous leadership and staffing within 25 years. Being a missionary was the highest calling I knew, and I was interested in only the most significant of callings. All of my education, including dental school, was pursued with the single-minded purpose of returning to Honduras or some other Spanish speaking country as a missionary. My choice of dentistry was utilitarian, something useful for a career as a missionary. When I finished my training in dentistry and began to pursue options for mission work, I was stymied in my attempts to return to Latin America. One door after another closed so I “settled”—temporarily, I assumed—for private practice in Knoxville, Tennessee. But while my practice was in Knoxville, my heart was still in missions, so I took short term mission trips and stay connected to all things Spanish. Meanwhile, I felt unfulfilled in my practice and that what I did every day was less significant than the places my heart longed to be. I remained connected to the hospital my father had founded in Honduras and in time gathered support and equipment to establish a dental clinic in the hospital. You can imagine the energy, excitement, and significance I felt as we turned what had been the hospital morgue into a shiny new dental clinic and began to treat patients. Eventually, the director of the hospital offered me my dream job: serve as the dental director of the hospital my father started. But I knew in my heart it was not what God intended for me and had to say no to my dream.

Obviously God was up to something significant in you, but I can see how this may have made it difficult to go back to the daily grind. How did that experience impact your work back in the States?

That experience, along with some other circumstances, some significant heart searching, and a very gracious work of the Spirit within me, completely changed my understanding of the meaning of mission, of ministry, and of work. I began to accept that God’s best, most significant work for me was in the place He had placed me—in my practice, with my team and patients. I began to see the tremendous opportunity and responsibility that had been given me to shepherd and care for the folks who work alongside me every day, God wanted me to call out the image of Christ in them, to help them become all that God made them to be at work, at home, and in their communities. I began to see my patients no longer as a means to funding my short-term mission projects, but as people who were seeking relationships and needed that most important relationship with the One who loves them most. I now saw ministry in Knoxville as a high calling.

So then, dentistry became ministry? What did that look like?

In the ensuing years I began to learn how to use my practice to develop people, to give them a vision for making every area of their lives--even their work—ministry. As a health care team we intentionally sought to honor God in everything, to pursue excellence, to develop people, and to be profitable in all things. Work became the adventure of fleshing out this vision with one another and our patients. The practice grew to include three other Christian dentists with the accompanying challenge to keep the same focus in a larger more complex setting. God used near bankruptcy and intense community to test, mold and shape our dependence on Him and our commitment to ministry when times are tough.

So, how did you end up leaving this thriving dental ministry to work as a full-time youth director?

Approximately 25 years into dentistry my wife and I were asked to become volunteer leaders with the high school program in our church. There was nothing I felt less prepared to do and felt sure that in the eyes of teens I was far short of cool leaning heavily toward geek. Reluctantly and somewhat motivated by guilt (I had two high school age kids and another coming) I agreed to sign on. In a fairly short period of time I became aware of two very pleasant surprises. The kids liked me (or at least tolerated me) and I absolutely loved hanging out with them. As I became more involved with students and more immersed in their lives I found myself looking forward to those parts of the week when I was hanging out with kids, I found myself working on patients and thinking about kids. Three or four years later when our church asked if I would consider becoming the director of student ministries it was an easy decision to say yes. God worked out a practice sale and transition that I could never have orchestrated to make it possible.

How did people respond to your drastic career change?

People’s response to this kind of change was very interesting. Many were impressed that one would leave a “secular” job for a “ministry” position. Most definitely saw it as a move from the secular to the sacred world. One of our elders gushed that it was such a wonderful thing to see one willing to make such a vocational change. I responded that I was not changing vocations, simply locations. One of our missionaries noted that it was wonderful that I would now be in a job that had eternal consequences. I could almost hear the toilet flushing my past 28 years (at least in his mind) as he spoke.

I’m curious to know what you learned about the differences between ministry beside a chair and ministry inside the church.

I learned that “ministry” was work not unlike dentistry. It has its highs and its lows, its celebrations and its sadness, the times you know exactly what is needed and the times when you are clueless. I found that church work is no more sacred or secular than dentistry, that it truly is a location not a vocation.

Jim, I’ve heard you say many times that “every Christian is in full-time Christian ministry.” What do you mean by that?

Six years on staff at a large church made me very aware of the sharp distinction we tend to draw between the sacred and the secular, the separation between work and ministry. I became very aware of the need to give folks the permission, the calling, to see their work as a ministry no different than the church and missionary stuff we value so highly. To see they are one and the same in God’s eyes gives a radical new focus to life. I believe the phrase “full-time-ministry” as it is currently used should be struck from our vocabulary. It implies a sacred/secular separation that is not Biblical and ultimately diminishes the work that most of us engage in every day of our lives. All believers are in full-time ministry. It is not any more “full time” because we are supported by donors or paid by a nonprofit.

Eventually you left your church staff position. How did you find yourself changing careers again?

The desire to speak this dentistry-is-ministry truth into people’s lives led me to leave my position on church staff and reenter the business world. A friend said to me, “You have to be the change you want to see.” I found it difficult to speak into the business world from a professional church context, because credibility with business professionals is low and the loss of perspective comes quickly. With a couple of friends I have launched into a consulting business that seeks to create space for personal and professional transformation in life. When we understand the larger story in which we live (Purpose) can clearly articulate our intended role in the larger story (Vision), and we honestly discover where we are not living out that role (Current Reality), then the particular choices and strategies needed for life today become clearer. Walking through this process in the light of God’s Word to us while remaining open to the leading and teaching of His Spirit in us leads to transformation.

Jim, as you look back on your career path, is there a theme that you can trace through all the changes?

The common theme for me is that our calling/ministry is to build the Kingdom, give God glory, by being a part of the coming restoration now, here, wherever we are planted. We are each uniquely gifted to fulfill the role God has for us in His Story. We are intentionally placed where He wants us to be. We are empowered by His Spirit to live this out now, here in our circle of influence. There is no sacred/secular separation, it is all ministry.


* This interview was originally published at the Colson Center's Worldview Church website and is reprinted here with permission from the author.