Scandals involving well-known pastors and evangelists in recent times have sharpened the need for renewed emphasis on ministerial integrity and ethics. For many, the zeal to build "empire-like" ministries has taken precedence over the call of Christ for shepherds to feed and care for the flock. There is nothing wrong with building large churches, but certainly there is a problem in the "end justifies the means" theology that governs some church growth. Pastors need to build a ministry that has integrity, ethical behavior, and principle-driven conduct at its core. Five areas require the focus of pastors.
Ethics in finances
Paul's entreaty that an "overseer must be above reproach" (1 Tim. 3:2, NIV) is a call for pastors to practice fiscal integrity both in their personal life and in the administration of their church. We cannot establish credibility in the church we pastor unless we run its financial affairs above reproach. Those who provide the financial base must know where their giving is being directed. Nothing undermines a member's motivation to give to the work of God as the feeling that the church itself is using poor stewardship. As James M. Stowell says: "God supplies money to affirm a ministry, and He can withhold money to draw our attention to something amiss." 1
Thus finances are often a barometer that measures a congregation's approval of or dissatisfaction with the way the church is run. Members contribute best when they see accountability and veracity in the handling of church funds.
Ethics in the pulpit
Much that is said from the pulpit has no place at all coming from such a place. For example, it is true that very few of us would publicly divulge what goes on within a confidential counseling relationship with a parishioner. Professionally inappropriate as it is, have you caught yourself at times referring even obliquely in a sermon to something that has gone on in such a counseling setting, feeling that as long as you do not divulge identities, all will be well? A minister may not give the person's name, but the fact that the person may be in the congregation would certainly make the situation uncomfortable.
A second concern in pulpit ethics is plagiarism. Surveys show that preachers are notoriously guilty of using other sources without giving proper credit.2 In the name of not distracting from the sermon, or of maintaining its flow, or of not boring the congregations with long recitations of our sources, we can enter the gray area of quoting the thoughts or expressions of others as though they originated with us. Deep in us, as we do this, is the hidden desire to appear more wise or eloquent than we really are. Though extensive footnoting isn't necessary in a sermon, acknowledgment of the name of the person quoted and the source is always appropriate and honest. Plagiarism, no matter how admirable our motives, is still a form of stealing.
A third concern in pulpit ethics is using the sermon to attack those with whom we disagree. I remember once being confronted by a couple who were displeased with some disparaging remarks I made about some other churches. When I realized what they were saying, I apologized to them and to the congregation for that indiscretion. We need to ensure that preaching is primarily for the proclaiming of the gospel of Jesus Christ; it is never a forum for our own personal likes and dislikes.
Ethics in our conversation
The third ethical concern is an extension of the second. That is, what we might inappropriately say in the pulpit may not be all that different in its effects from what we say in our private or non-church-related encounters with other persons or groups. For example, it is easy in the comfort of a social event, as the conversation warms, to release an interesting or titillating piece of information or perspective that is damaging to someone. A wise pastor once said, "Remember, everything you say can and will be repeated!" In the truest sense there is no such thing as a pastor being able to go in any setting to a parishioner and telling him or her "in confidence" something disparaging about another parishioner. The risk of that kind of action backfiring is so great that serious discretion must always be used. Many of us have unintentionally let our tongue slip and lived to regret it. We have little tolerance for politicians who do so, so why should we be any easier on pastors' "slip-ups?"
Normally the only ones we can share confidences with are those on the church board, and even then it must be done with the greatest of care and the purest of motives. Discretion and sensitivity are what it is all about. Even after we make it clear that what is said in such settings is confidential and can't be discussed outside of that setting, such divulging can prove destructive.
Ethics in relations to the opposite sex
The old pastoral counsel is perhaps more valid than ever: "There are three things that will ruin one's ministry: money, women, and power. So we might well pray: 'Lord, keep me poor, keep me ugly, and keep me unknown!'" Perhaps it is too well known that talented pastors and evangelists lose their ministry because of indiscretion with the opposite sex. Of course, no one at first intends that what is just a warm, almost passing attraction should go in the direction it does. But if allowed, such things, as we know, do have a way of "developing" over time. Since most pastors are men, and the bulk of their counseling load seems to be women, there's a real need to address this issue.
Here the well-aired rules are never outmoded. When I'm counseling a woman in my office, I leave the window shades open. As a rule I simply do not visit the home of a woman parishioner unless her husband is present. If that is not possible, then my wife or another church leader can accompany me. Otherwise, the visit should be postponed.
For male or female clergy, counseling vulnerable people of the opposite gender requires care, thought, and, especially in some cases, personal honesty and complete integrity with oneself, with God, and perhaps even with one's spouse. If there's even a hint of attraction between a counselee and the pastor, then it's time to cease counseling and make referrals. It is wise for pastors to limit themselves to pastoral counseling---the true center of their expertise.
Counseling involving mental illness and severe sexual or other forms of physical or mental abuse may be wisely left to those with clinical expertise. Part of being ethical in counseling means knowing one's limits, being genuinely in touch with one's feelings, and being unhesitatingly willing to deal wisely with those feelings.
Ethics in personal life
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to any minister is for it to be said that he or she really lives what he or she preaches. Many pastors' children leave the church because of the hypocritical lifestyle of their parents. One young woman calling into a nationwide Christian talk show sobbed as she told of being beaten to a pulp by her preacher father when he discovered that she'd become pregnant as a result of his ongoing sexual abuse of her. In the days and weeks that followed she called in to tell of her decision to keep the baby, and of how her father repented of his actions, and resigned from his church to seek help. Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it does illustrate how important it is for those wearing the mantle of ministry to live up to its rigorous demands of godliness and integrity.
A pastor in a neighboring community shared with me that one of the reasons he responded to the call of ministry in his life was that his father was exactly the same both in the pulpit and out of it. There was no phoniness or contrived spirituality in the house hold that he grew up in; everything he heard from the pulpit was fleshed out in the life of the family. His father put a higher premium on developing a healthy church that demonstrated the gospel of Jesus Christ in daily living than he did in building a big church that would enable him to "look good." This is what it means to be a man or woman of integrity being unswervingly committed to do what is right regardless of the consequences.
A return to ethics
Don't we all have a deep longing for the day when ministers recapture the type of community respect they once held? Perhaps it is a bit sentimental, but I remember as a child meeting my great grandfather, who by then had retired from active ministry. What struck me most was his desire to be seen always as a person of integrity. Because of that, his community loved and respected him, even those who weren't members of his congregation.
A ministry with a strong commitment to ethical bearing and deep personal integrity is not built overnight. An honest effort toward that end, under the blessings of the Holy Spirit, will change the focus and base of our ministry.
1. Joseph M. Stowell, "Putting It on the Line: Teaching People to Give," Leadership, Winter 1987, p. 24.
2. Raymond W. McLaughlin, The Ethics of Persuasive Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 24.