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.
But not all professional baseball teams are equal, some perform better than others. However, even a team in last place (and therefore a “poor” team) is still a legitimate one. There are various levels of professional (paid) performance: major league, several grades 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 even those who do not put on a uniform can still play baseball—as long as they have the facilities, the people, and follow the accepted rules.
My analogy is that SIL is an amateur applied linguistics organization, not a professional one. 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 what they do. 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, perhaps even 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 negative 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. At the same time, 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, so baseball may have a limited life.
The motivation of a baseball missionary is wonderful and he or she may have superb technology (metal bats, balls that last years), but ultimately the outcome is dependent on factors outside of the missionary’s control: it is up to the players and the support they receive. And this would hold true, even if the person was a professional baseball player or if his or her whole professional team were to go to some areas of the world.
If a person said that he or she was a professional baseball player or they wanted to be an ambassador of baseball, it would require further proof. In either case they would need to prove that they knew something about baseball, although they 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 – even a professional one because they pay me – but to my linguistic professional colleagues I am simply a linguist and translator, even if a minor league one.
It follows that I don’t have to accept polarization of my activities—either a missionary or a linguist—as the defining characteristics of who I am and what I do. I am both missionary and linguist. In my opinion Uncle Cam (Cameron Townsend) had the terminology right.