The Matter of Ministerial Ethics

Paper presented at Atlantic Union ministerial institute.

By CHESTER WICKWIRE, Pastor, Hamden, Connecticut

In discussing ministerial ethics, I will confine myself to some phases of the subject which are particularly relevant to us as Seventh-day Adventist ministers. In doing this, I would like to look at certain roles the minis­ter is called upon to play in life: the minister in his profession, the minister as a man, the minister among his fellow ministers, the minis­ter as a citizen, and the minister in the pulpit.

I. The Minister in His Profession 

In Dr. Leiffer's recent book The Layman Looks at the Ministry, a layman is quoted as saying, "After all, being a preacher is about like being a member of a draft board. He can do his best and be nearly perfect, but he'll get criticized." The minister is never given an op­portunity to forget the practical words of Paul, who said, "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient."

There is no profession as unique as the minis­try, for here in a real sense the people make of the minister a priest and a prophet because he is God's representative to them. To the layman, what is perfectly proper and good for him may be in his eyes improper and sinful for his minister. In a sense the minister is not al­lowed to "let go" as other men, for he is God's man, and the servant of the people. His actions in all situations are guided and channeled by the significant relationship which he bears to both God and man. His office may not be dese­crated. Many things which he might do as a 'layman he must forgo as a minister.

II. The Minister as a Man

What of the minister as a man ? President Woodrow Wilson, in speaking to a band of Christian workers and ministers, said that his father's thought and teaching was that the Christian minister must be something before he can do anything. His life and his character are greater than his work. For one whose life is devoted to the service of Jesus Christ and the people, this responsibility calls for a devotion of life and a discipline of body and soul com­mensurate with the charge. A guarding of the physical man, proper care for the body, adequate exercise and recreation, are essential in a minister's life.

Another phase of the ethical responsibility of the minister as a man is his mental life. The exigencies of services, campaigns, visiting, Bible studies, and other pressures have the tendency to keep him from devoting enough time to study. But it is undoubtedly true that an ordered program which allows time each day for study, along with other activities, is not only desirable but imperative for any creative and lasting productivity. Dr. M. E. Russell said, "The more we work on the soil, the less we have to work on the crop; the more we work on the preacher, the less we shall have to work on the sermon."

When we watch the minister as he moves among the people, we see many areas of poten­tial ethical tension. What of the special privi­leges such as discounts and rates which minis­ters receive? Is it ethical to "pull the cloth" on merchants, automobile dealers, police, church members, and others with whom we come in contact? Although the cost of living is high and salaries may not go as far as we would like, can we afford to use our office as a minister for our own advantage ? There are both good and undesirable results which may follow from the acceptance of special privileges, and the subject has many angles. There are occasions when it would do more harm than good to refuse a gift or a favor, but at least one may offer to pay for such kindnesses. Though no hard and fast rules for action in all situations may be given, it ought to be remem­bered that it is easy to abuse these privileges, and thus to reduce one's influence and the influ­ence of the church.

There are other situations that may be con­sidered as the minister walks and works among the people. Take the occasional meetings which he has to conduct. A funeral service -offers a unique opportunity for the minister to talk to people he may not have seen previous to the service, and whom he may not see again. Here there is a definite responsibility resting upon the pastor to avoid a pointed, doctrinal sermon, or a long emotional call to repentance. He is here presented with an occasion for bringing a mes­sage of comfort and hope, one which may possibly call forth an awareness of the frailty and need of all who are present.

Not only non-A dventists but church members resent it when a minister takes advantage of his office at a funeral to "give them the truth be­cause he'll never have another chance"—and he generally doesn't. Frequently we hear people say, as I did recently when conducting a funeral for a man who had never been a member of the church, that they hope the minister will be care­ful in what he says. Several years before, at the funeral of a close relative, certain remarks had been made about the "truth" by the minis­ter, which other members of the family had never forgotten, and on occasion they would recall these remarks and twit the mother about them. Thus any opportunity that the service might have offered to lead the children toward the church seemed to have been neutralized.

As pastor of the church, the minister is placed in close contact with his members and therefore is subject to many opportunities for good or for ill. How friendly shall he become with the members? Undoubtedly he will be on better terms with some than with others, but if he is guilty of obvious partiality, his influence is definitely impaired. One of the main tasks of the minister is that of calling upon all the peo­ple, particularly upon the sick and the aged, and laymen will put up with much in the pulpit if the minister is a faithful visitor.

III. The Minister Among His Fellow Ministers

To look at the minister among his fellow ministers is to discover much about his ethics, character, and personality. The incoming tninis­ter generally will hear many glowing accounts of the ability and achievements, and perhaps the shortcomings, of his predecessors. Regardless of what his feelings may be, he has no right to encourage or to carry criticism of anyone who may have preceded him in office.

The outgoing minister has certain obligations to the one who follows him. One thing he ought to do is give the new man any records and helpful information which will be valuable in carrying out a successful program. Probably there are danger points within the church where a knowledge of its past history is necessary to avoid trouble; yet the minister who is leaving ought not to tell everything he knows about the people, because they deserve a chance too. One generally finds out most of the Unpleasantness soon enough anyhow. There are many other points of contact between ministers within the denomination where opportunity for friction, or for understanding and co-operation, are pres­ent. Nowhere else does one need to practice the golden rule more than in these relationships which he has with fellow ministers.

What of our attitude toward ministers of other denominations ? We will gain by co­operation wherever possible, by friendliness, by tolerance and respect for their traditions, be­liefs, and problems. People are usually afraid of, or antagonistic toward, a person they do not understand. Getting acquainted with other ministers and talking over differences of belief and points of common interest is broadening, educational, and stimulating. Many indicate that the relationships which they have had with ministers of other denominations have been fruitful and rewarding in friendship and under­standing.

IV. The Minister as a Citizen

One may ask, What responsibility does the minister have in the community, the city, and the nation? As citizens ministers are recipients of many privileges which carry with them responsibilities. They are first the servants of their congregations, but they are also servants of the communities in which they preach and reside. The following example illustrates how a church exerted an influence in a certain com­munity.

Some time ago, during one of our Sabbath services at New Haven, a loud pounding was going on next door. Finally one of the brethren went out to see if he could stop the noise. The disturbance stopped, but after the service an angry man came in and asked for the minister. He had come to apologize for the racket, but he also wished to register a complaint against the man who had asked him to stop pounding, for the brother who had accosted him had threatened him with the law. I tried to undo the damage our brother had done.

Since that incident, some of us in the church have had occasion to unite with fifty-five families in the neighborhood in opposing a move by some of the large industries to take over parts of the immediate area where the church is located and make it into an industrial zone, thus reducing its value for residential and religious purposes. At one of the hearings of the case, the man who had been so angry at our brethren came up to me all smiles and shook hands say­ing, "You remember me, don't you? Well, you know that time I came over to the church, I didn't mean anything. Everything is O.K. now." The church has not only made a friend of him but has also made friends of most of the citizens in the neighborhood, by taking an in­terest in a common problem. Where we have opportunity for co-operation and assistance in worth-while civic activities, our responsibility as citizens demands constructive action.

V. The Minister in the Pulpit

To go from the minister as a citizen to the minister in the pulpit, how much of his respon­sibility as a citizen does he carry over into the pulpit? Our first task is to preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The minister should not use the pulpit as a sounding board for partisan politics, but as N. B. Harmon suggests in Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette: "The minis­ter not only has the right, but is obligated to speak upon purely moral questions, in the pulpit or out of it, be the political or social implications what they may." Consider Amos and others of the prophets who were concerned with the injustices of their time.

Plagiarism is an ethical question which meets us in the pulpit. I suppose that most Of us are guilty of it at times. But is it proper to copy verbatiln material from any source, and use it as our own? There is a matter of personal in­tegrity at stake here, for it is not only a matter of using what is not our own, but it is a question of what happens to our personalities in the process. Nothing is more devastating to creat­iveness or to one's self-respect than a slavish dependence on the sermons or writings of others.

There is no question but that we all stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us, and we are indebted to those who are our own contemporaries, yet material which we glean from others ought to be digested and become a part of us. "There is." as John Oman says, "a difference between finding a nugget and appropriating a bar of gold." What a travesty upon the ministry to hear that someone can preach another person's sermons better than the author himself. All of us may at times find ourselves in an emergency where we have to use another preacher's sermon. When we do, the ethical thing to do it to acknowledge the borrowing.

There is a great temptation to make careless or unverified charges in polemical sermons when one is in the pulpit. Yet such statements may convey a wrong impression of the central theme of the gospel. Not that we should avoid calling a spade a spade, but the message which we bear to the people ought not to be negative but positive, not apologetic but dynamic. Often an unnecessarily intolerant attitude is built up in the minds of church members toward other churches.

In the pulpit the minister may take many liberties which he is not called upon to give account for. If there were someone standing by our sides to check up on us, and occasionally ask for more proof and reference for what is said, it would be helpful. It is not ethical to take texts or statements of any kind out of their context and historical background, and make them say something far from their original intent. When we do take texts out of their context for some homiletical purpose, why not admit what we are doing?

In a cursory manner we have looked at some phases of ministerial ethics. Undoubtedly most of us are at times overwhelmed with the seeming futility of our efforts to attain as high a peak in our ministry and service as we desire.

We are constantly reminded of the fact that "we have this treasure in earthern vessels." Yet there is no greater satisfaction in life than that which comes from the attempt to be all things to all men, knowing that one bears a message of hope and salvation to the world.

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By CHESTER WICKWIRE, Pastor, Hamden, Connecticut

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