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Ministry Ethics

People do MAs instead of MDivs at Fuller for two reasons:

(1) To avoid language classes and focus on ministry.

(2) To avoid ministry classes to focus on academic stuff.

There is actually a third reason, too, which is something along the lines of “stupid –> thought didn’t need one because didn’t plan to be ordained.”  I might or might not be a part of that third group, but I digress…

I’m definitely a part of the second, though.  Even so, we had to take a couple classes which related a bit more closely to ministry.  What we didn’t have to take, though—what I don’t know that I ever even saw offered at Fuller, really—was a class about the ethics of ministry.  Everyone had to take an ethics class, but this was thinking about the death penalty, war, racism, sexuality, end of life issues, etc.  There wasn’t a class specifically about ministry ethics… and I find that a little strange.

I think the ethics of ministry is a very important course because there’s not necessarily the consensus on such issues that exist about ethical and legal issues for fields like marital and family therapy.  For my second Fuller degree in the Marriage & Family department of the School of Psychology, I had to take such a class.  A number of values drive MFTs, such as justice, autonomy, beneficence, non-malfiecence, and fidelity, and very specific codes guide practices in areas from confidentiality to advertising.  Our tests were multiple choice but hard.  Some case studies were extremely murky, but there were “right answers” that the profession had agreed upon, and once those answers were explained in light of the ethical guidelines, it all made sense.

The course was challenging, and you left the class knowing that you would need to 1) continue to study in order to pass your really difficult licensing exam and 2) seek help from supervisors and peers in the profession in uncertain situations to ensure you really do act ethically.  To go against these principles and codes was obviously something people had done before (yes, sometimes therapists have sex with clients and lose their licenses…), but they were taken so seriously in the class that if anyone knew that anyone else didn’t obey the rules, there would have been some intense shaming going on. There was a very strong sense of responsibility to clients which motivated students to think carefully before acting so that they might uphold the standards agreed upon by MFTs.

Somehow ministers agree less about ethics than MFTs, however.  Pastors and other Christian leaders do so many ridiculous things they have no business doing.  For example, many ministers think they are counselors.  They do not have adequate training in therapy so this is dangerous.  They do damage to people and their relationships because they don’t know what they’re doing.  This, my friends is unethical and should be strongly frowned upon by other ministers.  But everyone does it and few are frowning.  What’s up with that?  It’s so clearly a bad idea.  It’s an awful, awful idea, really.  They need to stop right now, and we should make them through establishing a consensus about ministerial ethics.

Another problem in ministry is emotional manipulation and coercion.  There can be so much unhealthy pressure coming from leaders and laity alike just because religious people often struggle with judgmentalism.  What is crucial for ministers to keep in mind, however, is that they occupy a place of authority in people’s minds.  Even in a “low church” setting where people call their pastor by his or her first name, they have influence—perhaps more than they realize.  The same perhaps especially true of many non-ordained ministers working in ministry with children and young adults, since an age gap also contributes to a power differential.  While plenty of people have plenty of backbone and will simply leave a community if they feel pushed around, there are also people who are really looking for advice from leaders they trust.  What is challenging for leaders is knowing how to effectively guide their flock without essentially making decisions for them about what to believe or how to behave.  Sometimes people will not realize for some time that they were acting more on the basis of a leader’s views than their own, but once realized, this knowledge can really sour someone’s relationship with their church or even with their faith as a whole.  Autonomy, then, is an important value for ministers, too, as well as therapists.

Other important ethical issues might relate to specific ministry areas such as economic development, evangelism, teaching children, etc.

I’m sure some individual denominations do have ethical codes, but I’m wondering why there’s not interdenominational agreements or anything that parachurch organizations also are willing to sign.  To start with it wouldn’t even need to be the most detailed statement—something is better than nothing.  A good starting point, however, might simply be more classes on the topic.  Bringing together professors and students with an interest in ministry would be a wonderful place to bounce around ideas and debate ministry ethics.

Based on my own experiences, I definitely have some specific ideas about ministry ethics, but before moving forward with this topic, I’d love to hear from others.  What sorts of ethical problems have you observed in ministry?  What principles, guidelines, or rules might be useful to implement to prevent future harm?

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012