Ministerial Ethics


By: E.L. Holley

Fundamentally, ethical principles are based upon the freedom of the individual to direct his own conduct. A person’s obligation cannot go beyond this ability to choose. To the degree that he can respond to moral demands he can be held accountable for what he chooses to do.

Scripture declares, “As he (a man) thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Being and doing are inseparable. Thinking good and doing good spring from the same source – the character, the inner person. This introduces a very significant fact: a person does what he is; in the arena of action one reveals what he is. It is not in his sentiments, aspirations, knowledge, or good resolutions; it is in his actions that the self is most completely revealed.

Our foundation of ministerial ethics, then, must be more than a formalized list of dos and don’ts. Ministerial ethics is a study of
standards of conduct as it relates to the minister. Yet it is more than that. Since all action is the outward expression of the inner person, the study of ethics must include both conduct and character.

The word ethics is derived from a slight variation of the Greek word ethos, which has to do with “habit.” Acts that spring forth from character are expressed according to a learned standard. Behavior so learned becomes habit through practice. Ministerial ethics, then, should be predictable behavior patterns that are learned and reduced to habit.

Our study of standards of conduct and moral judgment, then, will be incomplete until they become habit through practice. As we learn principles, they are to become our guide in behavior. And we learn by doing. Our goal is to incorporate Christian standards of conduct into habit through practice.

We can start at once by evaluating our deeds by biblical standards. Relationships with people will reflect our relationship with God. To know and obey Him is to know and love our fellow humans. While we cannot alter the behavior of others, we can, and therefore have the obligation to, conduct ourselves in accordance with Christian ethics.

Relationship to the Community

While it is quite true that we are not of this world, it is equally true that we are in it. And we are in this world for a purpose. That purpose is I stated in I Corinthians 10:31: “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” We are God’s ambassadors, His representatives. Everything we do must glorify Him!

As a practical self-evaluation, examine your relationship to the community in which you live. Have you labeled your neighbors? If so, by what standard? Do you really know them? Do you love them? Do you make yourself helpful to them in any way? Are you warm and friendly?

To look a little closer, are you honest and upright in all your dealings? Do you have any outstanding debts that are not current? Is
there an obligation of the past that, for one reason or another, you have failed to honor? Flaws of character and conduct in this area will severely affect your relationships in the community. Total honesty must mark all your business involvement’s.

Have you engaged in gossip with neighbors? Are you prone to speak ill of people? Do you tend to be critical or caustic in your reference to others? To talk with one neighbor about another is to destroy any influence you might have had with either of them. And soon the word gets around as to your behavior.

Even your enemies (if indeed you have any!) are to be prayed for, not discussed in a derogatory manner (Matthew 5:44). Make it a habit to speak ill of no one and to say all the good you know about everyone. Love your neighbors (Matthew 22:34-40). You “must have a good report of them which are without” (I Timothy 3:7). Your honesty and integrity must be above reproach. You must not be greedy, selfish, or petty. You must not be argumentative or abrasive. Kindness and concern for all are to be the hallmarks of your life.

A willingness to respond and assist in times of distress or disaster is essential. Floods, storms, accidents – all of these call for involvement by someone who cares. Words will not warm those who are caught in freezing snowstorms. As a minister you have an obligation to help those of your community who are in need.

A careful examination of the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-37 will help you get a better grasp on the relationship you are to have with your neighbors. The Lord asked the lawyer which of the three was a neighbor to the man who had fallen among the thieves. “He that shewed mercy on him,” was the reply. “Go, and do thou likewise,” instructed the Lord.

So, in all your dealings, you must remember your primary purpose on earth. We glorify God by living according to His teachings. To be ethical with his neighbors, someone does not have to be a Christian. But someone cannot be a Christian and be unethical in his community. Aloofness and lack of concern for others mark a person and speak louder than his proclamations of personal piety.

Relationship to the Pastor

In one sense, all ministers in a local assembly are assistants to the pastor. In other words, they should assist him in the furtherance of the work of God. Perhaps the most significant aspect of a minister’s relationship to his pastor is his attitude. It affects all other areas very much.

First, see yourself as a servant. This should not be difficult, for we are all to submit ourselves to one another (Ephesians 5:21). The only difference is in the areas of submission. As you spend the necessary time in preparation for your own ministry, you should look for things you can help your pastor accomplish.

There should be no task that you consider beneath your dignity. If you offer to take a load off your pastor, be consistent and faithful in maintaining it. As you faithfully carry out mundane duties, both your pastor and God will take note. Then you will find yourself with more responsible roles.

Second, you see yourself as a disciple, a learner, a student. Analyze the many different facets of the pastor’s role. Observe the ways your pastor leads the congregation.

I doubt the possibility – or the value – of adopting your pastor’s methods and mannerisms to the point that you are a mimic or a replica of him. But learn to accept his leadership even if you do not understand why he handles certain matters as he does.

Should you be unable to understand why he handles something differently from the way you would, say nothing critical. Recognize that you are not acquainted with all the facts. Further, keep in memory that God talks to the pastor. Even if you were right on some point of question, you would be wrong to strive for your view, or even mention it to anyone for that matter.

The pastor is your teacher, your mentor, your guide. When you become pastor, you will reap what you have sown. And the last thing you will need is a “sidewalk superintendent” who feels he is obligated under God to keep you in line with his “deep insights and wisdom.”

Finally, do not try to knock down doors to get into a pastorate to activate your full-time ministry. God will open doors as you seek Him diligently and labor faithfully in your present area of responsibility. On the other hand, do not spend your life contemplating the possibility of eventually stepping out by faith to preach. There is a middle ground. Lean on your pastor. He will help.

In the meantime, do not allow anyone to talk to you about your pastor in a derogatory manner. Honor his spiritual authority. Do not criticize. If he is wrong, he is still the pastor. Refrain from getting so close to someone in the church that you displace the pastor’s authority. Remember, you are not your own; you are called of God to a noble, lifetime task! Your relationship with your pastor will greatly influence your effectiveness in the work of God.

Relationship to the Laity

There is much truth to Lincoln’s maxim, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” While there should be no conscious effort on the part of a true minister of Jesus Christ to fool anyone at any time, there are traps into which he can fall. To be aware of the danger is to avoid the calamity, for the most part.

A good relationship with laity is dependent upon their confidence in you. Therefore, you should always treat everyone as you would have them treat you. (See Matthew 7:12.) If you are kind and considerate, you may expect those courtesies in return. If you
Patience, forgiveness, and longsuffering towards everyone will surely return to you. Your life will be affected by the law of sowing and reaping. (See Galatians 6:7.)

When you begin to seek a pastorate, there are a few things you will be wise to consider. First of all, if you should have a dream or see a vision of yourself in the pulpit of the church under consideration, keep it between you and God. If God has shown you this, He will bring it to pass. He does not need for you to tell different members of that congregation. In fact, your telling them could well be the cause of your not being considered at all. What if two aspirants of a pastorate have a similar dream and relate it to the people?

Next, you should work through the district officials. They can help you find and follow the will of God. After all, that is what you want to do. It is a sad situation when a minister evades the proper procedure in order to achieve his goal. The first problem that arises will cause him to wonder (or possibly remember) whether he should have relied on God.

If it ever appears to the congregation that you were placed by someone or that you manipulated them or circumstances to get the pastorate, you are in troubled waters from then on. Ethics are vital to your ultimate success.

When you assume a pastorate, you should not attempt to make yourself look good by pointing out the sudden improvements you have instituted since becoming pastor. Especially is this vital if there is even a hint of unfavorable reflection on the former pastor. Indeed, you run no risk when you speak about all the good you can concerning the former pastor. He is no threat to you. If the people loved him, they will love you for honoring him. If they did not quite appreciate him, they will not think ill of you for being kind. Moderation in remarks regarding your predecessor is wise.

Begin your pastorate with a wholesome attitude. Build trust without making sudden changes. Recognize the value of communication. Listen as well as tell. The listener lasts the longest! You are not expected to have the answer to every question. To give a matter careful consideration before giving an opinion – or, worse yet, an ultimatum! – will gain you a better hearing.

You will have people who will want to change membership from your church to another. If you undertake to persuade them to stay, do so from the standpoint of their own spiritual welfare. Do not beg them to stay because of your need for them. Neither should you threaten them with calamities or hellfire and brimstone if they want to leave. To keep them under those circumstances is to keep loose cannons on board. You never know what they will do next. It is better to let them go with a favorable spirit – if it can be – than hold them with dire methods.

Do not let church members who change churches divide and destroy your relationship with your fellow ministers. If some troublemakers are leaving you, you should inform the receiving pastor for his protection, yet you should tell him in such a way that he feels the assurance of your goodwill and your prayers. Let him know that you sincerely hope he can work with them and develop them into worthwhile members. Often this is possible. If so, rejoice!

If members of a neighboring church visit your services on a church night in their assembly, let a red flag run up in your mind. If you speak to them, explain your ministerial courtesy. At any rate, it is never ethical or profitable in any way to bait people for a move to your congregation.

When people leave your congregation as a result of their employment or other normal circumstances, help them by providing the names of churches in the area. If you have a preference, take great care to avoid any derogatory reference to those you have questions about. Remember, by tearing down confidence in one minister you can tear down confidence in all ministers!

The key to your relationship with laity is love-sincere Christian love. If you love the saints of God, you will respect them. You will be kind and considerate. Your love will show through even when you find it necessary to admonish, exhort, or discipline them. And they will know instinctively that you do love them.

(The above material appeared in the October/December 1992 issue of FORWARD.)

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