We need to first of all remind ourselves that all analogies break down at some point because we are comparing two things that are not completely alike. This one too breaks down at a number of points.
Let us suppose that a certain sport – say American baseball – is recognized as a professional sport. Upon what basis is this judgment made? First of all, the players are paid to play baseball, so it is professional in that sense. Someone or some agency or company supports them. We also note that one of the major considerations is the level of performance of the team, as determined by playing against other professional teams. Statistics are kept to support the claims.
But not all professional baseball teams are equal, some perform better than others. But even a team in last place (and therefore a “poor” team) is still a legitimate one. There are various levels of performance: major league, several grades or levels of minor league, even semi-professional teams. In every level and grade however, to be professional, the team members receive money for playing baseball.
Below the professional level amateur baseball teams thrive. Some of them are very good, but their players do not make their living playing baseball. But we cannot now claim that they are playing some other game. When they put on their baseball uniforms and play with a team they are baseball players — not bankers, mechanics, or pastors, although some of them may earn their money in such occupations. And they follow the rules of baseball as defined by the “rule book”.
My analogy is that SIL is an amateur applied linguistics organization. It is not in the major leagues, although some of its players have been there and others play well enough to be there. When SIL players attend universities, conferences and publish papers they generally do not intend to make professional linguistics their career. Most of them never intended to and would not even “try out” for a professional team (a university). Their consuming passion is not professionalism, i.e., being paid for the profession they are in, or achieving status. They do not want to be paid for doing linguistics or Bible translation. However, they do want to practice their skills so that they can do their work well, in a “professional” manner..
The analogy of SIL as a missionary organization can be compared to a group of people who love baseball and enjoy playing it. It has changed their lives. They may therefore want to teach people throughout the world what a wonderful sport it is. They may enlist the aid of companies, firms, and other agencies to send them into the far corners of the world to teach people how to play baseball. In the course of their work they teach the rules and the skills, form teams, build stadiums, and so on. They devise strategies, appoint coaches, hold workshops, and engage in other activities, all to promote baseball. After all, what good is a baseball if it sits on the shelf and no one uses it?
It may turn out that some countries and peoples don’t like baseball – the balls keep getting hit into the ocean or lost in the snow, or there are other environmental and cultural factors. But the baseball missionary believes that this is what the people need and that baseball will be accepted, given the right strategies and personnel and money. But the baseball missionaries know that there is a limited time to do their work. People are already losing interest in exercise, companionship, rules, organizational activities, and are becoming sedentary, preferring lotto and spectator sports.
The motivation of a baseball missionary is wonderful and he or she may have superb technology (metal bats, balls that last years) as well, but ultimately the outcome is dependent on factors outside of the missionary’s control. And this would hold even if he were a professional baseball player or if his whole professional team were to go to some areas of the world.
It also would not probably matter if a person said that he was a professional baseball player or if he was an ambassador of baseball. In either case he would have to prove that he knew something about baseball, although he would not necessarily have to be a professional player. In fact, someone with far less ability than a professional player might be more effective because of personal traits like patience, friendliness, endurance, and so on.
Personal application: I see myself as a minor league applied linguistic player who is trying to use my skills legitimately in the translation and promotion of the Scriptures. To my churches I am a missionary – no doubt – but to my linguistic professional colleagues I am a linguist, even if a minor league one. So I don’t have to accept polarization of my activities as the defining characteristics of who I am and what I do. I am both missionary and linguist. In my opinion, Uncle Cam had the terminology right when he said we are ‘missionary-linguists’.
Of course, baseball and missionaries need a supporting cast: umpires and coaches, who make judgments and devise strategies about the game, just as support missionaries make judgments and sustain the work through their activities. Neither baseball nor translation work can survive without a supporting cast.