Why it’s time to rewrite your ministerial code of ethics


This interview article is published in Leadership Magazine (details), January 2003, Eric Reed Editor. An interview with Joe E. Trull, pastor, ethics professor and editor of the journal Christian Ethics Today, living in Wimberly, Texas.

Scandal among Catholic clergy is forcing all ministers to reconsider our practices—not only in working with children, but setting ethical standards in all areas. It’s time to dust off the code of ethics, and in light of social and technological developments of the last decade, it’s time to rewrite.

Or in the case of some pastors, it’s time to draft one.

Many denominations have such a code in place. For their pastors, adopting the code is mandatory. Some in the free church tradition have resisted adopting a national or regional standard, because of issues of authority and autonomy.  

The Baptist General Convention of Texas is considering, for the first time in its history, adopting a model code of ethics for ministers. The recommendation came from Joe Trull, editor of Christian Ethics Today (CET online), (the author of several books on ministerial ethics, and a Texas pastor.  

Why is it important, especially now, for pastors to have a code of ethics?

In a word, accountability.  

A Texas pastor once said, “In most other denominations, clergy are fools who are restrained by the hierarchy of the denomination, but Baptists are just fools at large.” His point, tongue in cheek, was one of accountability. A code of ethics can provide a framework for accounting for our behavior.

But we have seen the failure, in large numbers, of pastors who have systems of accountability.

True. A code of ethics by itself will not keep anybody from sinning. Nevertheless, a good code of ethics, rightly used, is an encourager to do the right thing.  

Every three to five years, the minister should examine the code and rewrite parts of it. A code of ethics, like your own personal beliefs—your understanding of God—has to be growing. As ministers mature spiritually, we also grow ethically. We become more aware of areas that have been overlooked.  

There are ethical demands on the minister that didn’t exist ten years ago, not as they are now.  

Such as—

Technology, for one. In the next edition of my book, I need to address the Internet. Beyond downloading pornography or stealing sermons, a minister may need to think about the issue of isolation. The pastor’s study can be a retreat, and with the Internet, there is little need to leave the office.  

I need to include the amount of time and interaction a minister gives to the church members. And people have a right to ask whether their pastor is spending most of his time in the office surfing the Internet. Technology makes it easy for a pastor to be just an administrator and to cut himself off from the members’ lives.

Has the reported abuse of children by priests changed your approach to ministerial ethics?

In part. The clergy sexual abuse scandal has changed the way we look at confidentiality.  

Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. It means privacy, unless someone’s well-being in question. The value of the person, whether the one confiding the information, or especially where the safety of a child is at stake, demands that we not make idle promises about confidentiality or allow someone to assume confidentiality just because they’re talking with a minister.  

The minister must be up front about that, that some confidences can be broken if it involves a person’s welfare.  

And the laws have changed.

Right. If you haven’t examined the laws in your state in a few years, or if you move to another state, you’d better check it out. The list of things ministers are required to report, particularly involving children, is growing. And in many states, the time you have to do it is short.  

Should that kind of information be included in a code of ethics?

Yes, in general terms. You might state that you will keep up with changes in the laws and make matters of proper confidentiality and protection of children a priority. 

What areas should a code address?

Ideally a code of ethics will address personal ethics, then relationships to the church members, to colleagues, and finally to the community. It will speak to competencies and accountability, and make some attempt to define ministry as the minister sees it.  

I advise pastors to ask for input from colleagues and the congregation. If you write your own code alone, you’ll miss something, because we all have blind spots.  

How specific should a code be? Is it about behaviors?

The Catholics approach ethics from the virtue and character angle. In my circles, we seem to approach it from the behavior angle, “do the right thing.” But you don’t want a personal code to be a job description or a list of do’s and don’ts. You should not try to list everything a minister might do wrong.  

A code ought to focus on principles—Christian, biblical principles. You can’t spell out every possible situation, but if the principles are clear enough, they will set the boundaries. On the other hand, you don’t want it to be a general list with an emphasis on character and virtues, with no specificity.  

In what areas should we be specific—those where we feel especially vulnerable?

Yes. Be specific about the weaknesses. Some pastors are very specific about behavior in the presence of the opposite sex. Others detail how much time they’ll spend with family or which day of the week they’ll take off. One pastor here in Texas went three years without a day off, and ultimately had a breakdown. He could have used some help setting guidelines for his schedule. It’s situations like that where input from the congregation is especially helpful. 

What happens when the pastor’s values conflict with a church member’s?

A good code of ethics protects a minister from social pressures from congregants and others to violate aspects of the code. For example, during election time, a lot of members will want you to endorse a certain wonderful Christian candidate.  If a minister can say, “Look, my code of ethics does not allow me to be involved in partisan politics. I'm sorry, but I can’t do that.” 

Is official recognition of the code by the church important?

Oh, yes. When a minister comes to a church, he should encourage the church to endorse his code if they do not already have one in place. That strengthens the authority of the code. I encourage pastors to share it with the leaders and the congregation. Tell them, “Here are the ethical standards by which I am going to conduct my ministry. I want you to know what I feel the biblical standards are and what God expects of me as a minister. If you feel I am not living up any of theses areas, challenge me.” 

And, in my experience, the lay people are often more excited about it than the ministers.

Joe Trull’s book, Ministerial Ethics (Broadman & Holman) includes 13 historic and contemporary codes of ethics.

Online Poll:

Have you or your church adopted a ministerial code of ethics? 

Yes    41% 

No     52% 

We’re working on it    7% 

—www.LeadershipJournal.net (Nov. 2002)

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