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Ministry And Ethics In Crisis:

Implications For 21st-Century Ministers

By Robert J. Young

An ethical crisis exists in ministry. Some days it seems religious people are not all that religious. With sexual scandals and abuses, homosexuality, and financial irregularities frequently in the news, the world sees an ethical problem. Of greater concern are the less visible ethical issues that tempt ministers daily in their choices, goals, and obligations.

The growing ethical crisis in ministry is seen in the increasing number of resources. Twenty years ago ministerial ethics was seldom discussed. Today, a quick survey of the Web reveals hundreds of sites with policy statements, disclaimers, and resources for ministerial ethics.

When ethics is defined and its theological foundations are reviewed, we can formulate reasons why the crisis is important. The nature of the crisis — its internal and external contributing factors — and informed suggestions for recovering ethical ministry based on a biblical foundation also need the minister’s consideration.


What is ethics? “Christian ethics is the study of good and evil, right and wrong. What constitutes good, virtuous, healthy character? How does one discern and do the right thing in various ethical dilemmas? How do Christian moral values play out in a diverse, multicultural, multifaith world? How does one teach and promote moral character and action?”1

Every Christian is an ethicist on a moral quest for virtue and character. It is not enough to identify and support ethical behavior. As Aristotle, an early ethicist, pointed out, ethica comes from ethos, referring to practices, customs, and habits. Ethics evaluates behavior and asks why we act as we do. How should we determine right actions?

Most of us know what it means to be virtuous. We know when we are persons of character and when we are not. We must never be satisfied with legal morality (I technically keep the moral code). Ethics is not only about morality, it is about character and virtue. Ministers are called to virtue.


We must recognize the biblical foundations of Christian ethics. Some wonder whether a Christian ethic is any longer possible in a postmodern world that questions the validity of the organizing tenets of Christian ethics. Hauerwas observes that Christian ethics is being called to exist in a fragmented and violent world.2 Absolutes are still needed in a world that has largely discarded them.

The privatization of religion has made ethical behavior fragile. There is a need for renewed truthfulness in Christian conviction. Abstract ethics is impossible. A familiar behavioral model says behaviors are based on values, and values on the principles or beliefs that in sum make up one’s worldview. At stake in the ethical crisis is the theological base of Christian behavior.3

Some maintain that our world needs to redefine ethics lest morality and virtue disappear.4 No doubt we exist in a world where postmodernism has shaken loose much that was formerly nailed down. We must identify a normative ethic of doing and an ethic of being.5 In the midst of questions about the biblical foundation of our behaviors we must reestablish moral norms, obligations, and values.

True Christian ethics is founded in solid theology — the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ, the new righteousness possible in the new kingdom. Unlike philosophic ethics, Christian character can never be considered apart from its religious nature — connected with God, personal, internal, future-oriented, and universally applicable.


The importance of the crisis may be seen by asking, “What is at stake for ministry, the church, and the world?”

Much is at stake for those who preach and minister. Understanding how and why ministers act is not easy because humans are prone to rationalization, personalities enter power struggles, and honest self-evaluation is difficult. We must admit that hard questions exist, identify them, and encourage personal reflection.

Ministry is not limited to full-time ministers or church workers. Interest in ministerial ethics expands to many professionals and volunteers who serve the church in a ministerial capacity: elders, deacons, pastoral administrators, pastoral care ministers, spiritual directors, youth ministers, campus ministers, directors of religious education, and teachers.6 As the secular world gives increased attention to professional ethics, the church must not lag behind.

While ethics and etiquette are connected,7 ethics in ministry is ultimately about integrity. What is at stake is the integrity of ministry. How can those who are not whole help others toward wholeness? Effective ministry does not demand perfection; it demands integrity.

No subject is more relevant for ministry than exploring how truth, beliefs, and values integrate in Christian living. No ministry can be faithful if it does not help people toward righteous living through the ethical challenges of our time. Ministers must do more than guide others toward ethical behaviors; they must be examples. Ethical standards apply to all Christians, but spiritual leaders have a higher degree of ethical accountability.

What is at stake for the church?

Churches seldom rise above the moral standards and teachings of the person who regularly provides spiritual nourishment. If the modern church faces a spiritual bottleneck that prohibits the church from pouring itself out into the lives of a needy world, the bottleneck is at the top. The church needs spiritual leadership that incarnates the life of Jesus before it can understand the challenge of living out the life of Jesus in our world. Virtue influences our choices, goals, roles, and behaviors. Genuine virtue connects faith and behavior. Virtue is a lifetime endeavor. Christian morality is not built solely on keeping rules. Christians shaped by the church community should have a moral shape.

What is at stake for the church may be summarized in three questions: Will we be spiritual or secular? Will we be God’s presence in this world with a clear word from God, or merely another siren song? Will we be light and salt?

What is at stake for the world?

One need only observe the catastrophe of ministers gone astray to recognize how closely the world is watching those who claim to follow Jesus, especially those who serve in ministry. For the world, salvation, eternity, the gospel, public morality, and ultimately society itself is at stake.

Societies function and are safe because a level of morality prevails. Generally my neighbors do not seek to rob me, kill me, or take advantage of me. I am safe in society because of a prevailing moral standard. However, increased random violence marks the decay of generally accepted moral standards. Prison populations swell. The dignity of human life is diminished in a variety of ways.

The Nature Of The Crisis

The ethical crisis is not limited to ministry. Our nation is in a moral crisis. The crisis in ministerial ethics is part of a larger moral crisis in our nation.

The crisis in ministry is evident in three main areas — false spirituality, false evaluation of ministry, and false expectations on the part of ministers, churches, and the world.

Spiritual ministry is easy to counterfeit. Preachers preach and teach with little or no study.8 Time pressures encourage plagiarized sermons and classes. Bulletin articles are copied without credit, or worse, set forth as one’s own effort. Ministers spend too little time in prayer, in speaking to God, in listening to God, all in the name of speaking for God. Some involved in ministry covertly pursue unethical, immoral lifestyles.

Compounding the crisis, our contemporary society does not appreciate that genuine ministry is not dependent on outward appearances nor external circumstances. The rapid transitions of contemporary society have blurred definitions of ministry. In fact, today’s world often measures ministry by worldly standards. This encourages hypocrisy and the lack of ministerial integrity. Ministry is in ethical crisis. Heightening the dilemma is the fact the crisis is generally unseen, even by many church leaders and ministers.

Internal Factors

How have we arrived at this point? Several internal factors have contributed.

Lack of spiritual focus

Ministry interviews seldom ask about personal spiritual health and growth. Few ministerial training programs require a spiritual-formation component. The significant requirement of spiritual reflection and formation in ministerial training is the exception not the rule. Have we forgotten that spiritual leaders must be spiritual? Are we so busy pursuing God’s work by methods proven in the marketplace that we have forgotten God’s kingdom work is spiritual? How will unspiritual people minister God’s presence effectively in the church when God is barely present in their lives? Without spiritual focus, spiritual famine will come. Genuine ministry is fraught with frailty, frustration, and even failure. The greatest failure, however, may be seeking power for ministry in the physical rather than the spiritual realm.

Misguided evaluation

How should ministry be measured? There are two opposite extremes. On one hand, worldly standards of success often replace spiritual evaluation. Some churches fail to appreciate effective ministry in their demand for numerical results. God’s Old Testament prophets would not have fared well in many modern churches.

On the other hand, some churches and ministers fail to understand the power and potential of effective ministry and suffer because of their low expectations. The ultimate measurement of ministry is faithfulness to God. Ministry that is faithful to God never fails. Faithful ministry brings God’s power to bear in this world, and God promises increase. His Word never returns empty.

Worldly expectations

Our society and churches often buy into the worldly mindset more than we like to admit. We frequently have expectations that do not appreciate the elastic, flexible nature of ministry. We do not know with certainty whether ministers work for God or for churches. We affirm the former, but often practice the latter. We are more apt to clone preachers than allow valid ministry consistent with the minister’s personality.

External Factors

How did we get here? The ethical crisis is also a truth crisis. Significant shifts in the behaviors, beliefs, and values of Western culture have contributed to this crisis, including privatization, humanism, relativism, secularization, and pluralism. The result is the moral crisis in our nation. Leaders in government, business, and sports are charged with various illegal and immoral acts. Church leaders are caught in unethical behaviors and activities. Our nation has lost its moral footing. Clearly, the crisis in ministerial ethics is part of a larger crisis. An examination of the effects of privatization, humanism, relativism, secularization, and pluralism will explain how this moral crisis occurred.


Privatization in our Western world moved religion and ministry from the public to the private arena which resulted in a loss of responsibility.9 The inability to discuss religion in the public arena is one consequence. Once religion is limited to the private arena, sharing one’s faith becomes difficult and responsibility is denied. “What I do is my business.” This attitude has contributed to the loss of Christian ethics both in the ministry and in the pew.


Our teaching of ethics has not kept up with the rapid advances in our world. Our world and our churches have experienced a loss of values through humanism. In the past, the church generally taught ethics by focusing on behaviors more than values or beliefs. For example, when my children were young, I taught them not to play between the sidewalk and the street (behavior). Later, I taught them how to distinguish safe and unsafe places and activities (values). If I know what is wrong but not why it is wrong, I cannot make valid decisions when new options are presented.

The value shift in our society must be addressed.10 The private availability of immoral materials has increased. Formerly, exposure in the public arena was a deterrent to pornography and other unethical or illicit activities. In the private arena, such checks are removed. Restoring Christian ethics will demand that we clearly connect behaviors (ethics), values, and truth beliefs.


Our world and our churches have experienced a loss of truth, an erosion of the principle base through relativism. If truth is relative, there is no objective truth. If there is no objective truth, no one can say with certainty that any behavior is right or wrong. Despite the discomfort of making truth claims that prove other religions, or even other Christian religious groups, false, the church cannot afford to deny the truth. David Wells has outlined the impact on a society and its future when truth claims are lacking.11 The church must return to the clear pronouncement of objective truth.


We have experienced a loss of mystery in the continuing secularization of religion. A poor spiritual focus results from a lack of spiritual training. The ultimate result is a totally secular version of Christianity, a result I fear may not be far away for some groups.


Our churches have lost some of their identity through pluralism. In a world of relative truth, secularized religion, lack of mystery, and loss of values, we hardly know who we are or why we exist. We have limited ability to identify ourselves as a Christian colony characterized by Christian behaviors in our effort to be Christ’s disciples.

The church can only lose if this truth crisis is not addressed.

Suggestions For Recovering Ethical Ministry

Finding a solution to the crisis in ministerial ethics will not be easy. No panacea exists. Encouraging ethical ministry requires focus in two areas — ministers and ministry. How can we develop ethical ministers and ministries? To begin, we must recognize that ethics is not only a minister issue, but also is a church issue. Churches build ministers as much as ministers build churches. Churches shape ministers and ministry by their expectations and demands. Churches must believe in powerful ministry. Ministers must develop purposeful ministries.

We will not restore ethics in ministry until we understand the reasons for its loss. Ethics sits at the top of the principles-values-ethics pyramid. Our worldview (principle base) informs and supports our values that in turn determine our behaviors. A person’s worldview is the assumptions one makes about the universe and how it operates. The foundation of ethics is one’s belief system. Changes in worldview occur slowly in cultures or societies through a complicated process. It is unlikely that we will redefine the worldview of our society quickly or reverse the slide into relativity.

Thus the question is asked how ministers and ministry must change and how the required change can be accomplished. Restoring ethics in ministry demands clear belief systems for ministers and churches, and the identification and reaffirmation of Christian values. We must learn to think like Christ to develop Christian values and behaviors.

The minister

First, we must provide better training for ministers. The church must demand adequately prepared ministers. What is an adequate ministerial training model for producing capable, competent ministers? While it is true that every Christian can serve, and many can stand and talk before a class, ministry demands more. Noyce12 summarizes the responsibility of ministry as three-fold — keeping our promises, honoring our commitments, and maintaining moral lifestyles. A step toward these responsibilities is the inclusion of ethics in ministerial training models. Our ministry training schools must teach that ministry is principle-based and values-driven. We must help ministers develop Christian attitudes and learn how to live by Christian principles and values. We must demand training that addresses the personal spiritual life; develops a Christian worldview that defines and trains for thinking like Christ; and connects beliefs, values, and ethics. Ministers must emerge from their training with a strong commitment to personal spirituality, blameless character, and morality above reproach.

Second, we must hold ministers accountable for their ministry. Ministry does not always produce the desired results, but ministers should be accountable for their lives, study, and ministry activities. We must encourage a greater openness in those who minister, and willingness in the church to let them be human, confess weaknesses, and receive loving support from the church.

Finally, ethical ministry requires ministers committed to ministry, who know that the rewards as the world measures success may be few, but that the job is worth doing and can be done. Only when I believe in what I am doing can I find the strength to develop the mind of Christ and to live by the principles and values of Christ.

The church

Churches must commit to developing better support systems for ministry and better understandings of ministers. Churches build ministers more than ministers build churches. The church’s interest in ethical ministry extends to every Christian servant. What steps should the church take to help recover ethical ministry?

First, the church must demand the integration of principles, values, and ethics in the lives of those who minister. Ethics is concrete; every Christian is responsible for character.

Second, the church should focus on and demand accountability for the task of ministry rather than the results. Churches must be prepared to support ministry and to help set reasonable expectations for accomplishment.

Third, churches must strive to develop an open atmosphere that encourages honesty and vulnerability among all Christians, including those who minister, allowing all to be human. Ethical ministry demands that members and ministers go into the world guided by Christian ethics.

Fourth, we must develop better support systems within the church for those who minister.

Fifth, churches must develop a better understanding of ministry. Each fall, I preach at least one sermon on the nature of ministry. My church needs to understand ministry and to understand my ministry. I am accountable to them; they are my support system.

Sixth, the church must develop a fellowship that allows the minister to become an authentic part of the local congregation.

Finally, the church must ever be ethical in its treatment of ministers, members, one another, and the world.

These simple steps will not solve every problem, but they can start the church down the road to restored confidence in ministry. Ministers will live better, preach and teach better. Ministers will be better ministers. Ministers’ families will benefit. Ministers will find a support base from church leaders, a better understanding of their role, and will be better able to meet the challenges of their congregation. The church will enjoy better teaching and preaching. The church will benefit from powerful ministries that touch lives. Finally, the world will be encouraged by ethical ministry to believe in Jesus.

When ministers believe in themselves and churches believe in ministry, the result will be a world that believes in Christ.


Ministers must act responsibly as we wrestle with our theology and ethic of ministry. We are called to be moral guides to help form a moral people.13 This involves reforming the church and transforming the culture, but it primarily involves forming moral people, beginning with ourselves.

Robert J. Young currently serves as masters of divinity program director at Oklahoma Christian University, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He maintains an active website with various ministry resources and is involved in several writing projects. He speaks regularly in seminars, lectureships, and special presentations. He is also involved in several missions efforts.


  1. Edited from David Gill, “Christian Ethics” syllabus, Fuller Seminary, online at <>.

  2. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1983), 1.

  3. Walter E. Wiest and Elwyn A. Smith, Ethics in Ministry: A Guide for the Professional (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).

  4. Vigen Guroian, Ethics After Christendom: Toward an Ecclesial Christian Ethic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

  5. Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics(Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press 1997).

  6. Richard M. Gula, Ethics in Pastoral Ministry (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1996), speaks to the breadth of ministry. He explores ethical ministry with headings such as biblical foundations, character and virtue in ministry, and the problems of power, sexuality, and confidentiality.

  7. Nolan Bailey Harmon, Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987).

  8. While not all ministry involves preaching, teaching and preaching will be used interchangeably to describe the task of ministry in this article. Most ministry involves one or the other in some fashion.

  9. For a good treatment of this, see Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

  10. Tex Sample, U.S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches (Louisville: WJKP, 1990), has a helpful treatment of the values shift.

  11. David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

  12. Gaylord Noyce, Pastoral Ethics: Profession Responsibilities of the Clergy (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988).

  13. Rebekah L. Miles, The Pastor as a Moral Guide(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999).


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