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A Minister’s Code Of Ethics: A Higher Level Of Commitment And Conduct

By James A. Reasons

See also "Sample Code of Ethics: Pastor or Senior Minister Code"

Today’s newspaper headlines and the lead stories of televised newscasts beg an examination of ministerial ethics. From the high-profile disgrace of clergy sexual abuse to the common daily dilemmas of making good decisions, ministers clearly need to work on their behavior. While ministers regularly teach congregations the biblical mandates of right living, some fall prey to the tongue-in-cheek admonishment, “Do as I say, and not as I do.” As a public proponent of morality, a minister’s credibility is contingent on his ability to regulate his personal ethical behavior.

Religious bodies have traditions and unspoken expectations for ministerial behavior. However, few have assimilated these assumptions into a written standard of ethics. Since denominational and ecclesiastical structures rarely offer such a code, the responsibility falls on the local ministerial staff to self-impose behavioral regulations. Therefore, the minister needs to address three questions:

What Is A Ministerial Code Of Ethics?

The role of the minister encompasses a maze of responsibilities. He is expected to be the compassionate counselor, articulate preacher, spiritual mentor, efficient business administrator, and studious scholar. Plus, these roles regularly overlap. A minister counsels while preaching. He employs biblical scholarship for inspiration with his administrative tasks. He attends social gatherings, only to find himself spontaneously offering advice to the confused, providing biblical insight to the curious, or justifying the latest administrative decision to the critiquing congregant.

Within these countless experiences of daily living, the field is ripe for ethical dilemmas. The minister must be alert in his quest to do the right thing. Acutely aware of any potential pitfall, the minister has foremost in mind the question, What ought I to do?

A code of ethics is a set of principles for ministerial behavior. The laws of society provide a general standard; many people believe if behavior is legal, then it is ethical. This is not always true. It is shortsighted to equate legality with ministerial ethics.

Law is essentially the minimum standard for public order, while a code of ethics presents a higher level of commitment and conduct. The law must be respected by society to steer a community’s behavior down proper societal pathways, but law is not equivalent with a code of ethics. Ethics clearly demand obedience to the law — but that is only the beginning. A code of ethics requires far more.

A minister’s code of ethics calls him to rise above the minimum. As a prophetic voice in the quandaries of parishioners’ daily lives and a spokesman for the community at large, the minister must stride confidently on the road he calls others to travel.

Do Ministers Need A Code Of Ethics?

Every minister who has sludged through the quagmire of ethical confusion realizes the need for ethical guidelines. Ethics for professionals is not a new topic of discussion. Since the early attempts to establish rules for medical practitioners, many professions have made an effort to regulate the behavior of their members. In the majority of cases, the primary method used to govern conduct has been a code of ethics. Businesses now employ ethical experts to instruct and educate employees on vendor/supplier ethics. The downfall of many modern-day corporations serves as a constant reminder of the slippery slope of ethical failure.

A valid code of ethics for ministers must contain a key internal ingredient — integrity. Many professions have a code of ethics that contributes to the ethical environment by providing professionals a general understanding of what is expected. They are nonetheless missing this essential element.

In its biblical uses, integrity is wholeness and completeness. To be whole is to make all areas of life consistent with internal values, commitments, and allegiances. Regardless of the meticulous details of a code, a list of rules cannot produce wholeness in an individual. Codes supply basic rules for external action but cannot forge the steel of one’s internal character.

In ministerial ethics, integrity is the wooden forms that ethical decisionmaking is poured into constructing the concrete certainty of God’s call. Wholeness and completeness are the bedrock of a covenant of faith between the minister and God. A code of ethics mutually agreed upon by clergy and congregation gives reasonable assurance to both when they plan how the structure will be built.

In summary, a written code of ethics cannot affect a character change. Only internal integrity, the righteousness and the godliness of a minister, will chart his course through dark, murky waters. Even so, a code of ethics is a sieve through which gray areas with seemingly no clear delineation of right and wrong, are exposed to light. A code of ethics is extremely helpful in the minister’s quest to do the right thing. Yet, without the basic, internal commitment of integrity to his calling, the code becomes only another set of rules to digest.

How Do Ministers Compose A Code Of Ethics?

The need for ethical standards is increasingly apparent. Internal integrity is paramount to the ethical constitution of the minister. Given these observations, how should a minister compose a code of ethics?

Authorship

Since most denominations do not have a written code of ethical behavior, individual pastoral initiative can fill that void. If the minister has a staff, their collective input will facilitate the task and offer a sense of ownership as the standards become effective guidelines. Deacons, governing boards, and administrative bodies can also assist in the formative process.

The minister must willingly seek the counsel of others. Established and accepted standards of behavior not only free the minister to live his calling, but also keep him from struggling alone and confused in a deluge of ethical predicaments.

For example, confidentiality can be a prickly problem. Most ministers know the huge responsibility they have to keep the confidences of their congregation. Yet, they also expect the constant barrage of pointed questions that come their way. “Did you know that Alice and Bob are having marital troubles?” An instant internal struggle ensues — the minister does know of their problems, but only in strictest confidence. Ethical guidelines not only help the minister anticipate such questions, but also prepare the congregation that their minister may gently refuse to answer awkward questions. Undoubtedly, a consensus of clergy and laity facilitates the implementation of an ethical code.

Content

A ministerial code of ethics must be specific enough to give real-life application but broad enough for the inevitable unaddressed issues that arise. A code of ethics cannot address every potential conundrum. That would be as futile as it is cumbersome. Instead, the code should offer general guidelines that uphold core values for a variety of unforeseen situations.

Keep in mind that the integrity of the minister must always be front and center. The starting point for any code is defining the values that are integral to the minister’s decisionmaking. First, brainstorm the list of core values, truth, honesty, and respect that will define the preliminary code.

Second, develop principles that present these values in an understandable way. For example, the value of truth might be written, “The minister must always speak the truth and should be intentional that the perceptions of his actions are truthful.” These principles are positive assertions of how the minister fleshes out the value.

Third, when composing the code, apply the principles to actual situations. The minister might apply the principle on the value of truth to his preaching. Hence, one of the canons of the code might be: “The minister must preach sermons of his own authorship and give credit to original sources where applicable.” In other words, the minister must not plagiarize.

The content of the code will enlarge as more stated values lead to more written guidelines. From this exercise, the code begins to spell out actual expectations of behavior. No code is exhaustive, but the exercise itself will assist the minister in anticipating future dilemmas. This work in progress will continue to expand as situations warrant.

A minister encounters unique situations for which no specific black-and-white rule exists. His personal integrity (wholeness), coupled with a growing code of ethics, will maintain the equilibrium needed to minister in life’s unique circumstances. Only with character and a well-defined code can the minister complete God’s calling for his life.

— James A. Reasons, Ph.D., senior minister, Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, Huntington, West Virginia.

 

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