A clear case of Jesuit, er, Methodist casuistry, I tell you
I was an emergency substitute presenter at our Crew's Ethics Forum today. In that program, the Venturers recruit and introduce adults they know who speak about ethical challenges they face in their various workplaces. After the presentations are done, the presenters form a panel to take questions from the Venturers and others in attendance.
I've seen a fair number of these Ethics Forums, but I had never been a presenter myself. So, it was a new experience. Out of the myriad ethical challenges I maneuver through as an ordained minister, I wondered which would make sense to the youth. I offered for their consideration four ethical challenges faced by me and other pastors.1. Handling confidentiality.
I wanted them to understand that whatever you tell your pastor because he is functioning as your pastor is held in confidence. We don't have to be in a special room or doing a counseling session or something; we could be on the trail somewhere. And what I get told as a pastor I don't pass on to others, even parents. Now, I can share my own impressions of people and situations, but I don't report
things. For example, one of the commonest things I do is visit hospitals and nursing homes. And people ask me afterward, "How is So-and-so doing?" As friends, as members of the church community together, this is a natural thing. The hospitalized person as well as the people hanging around the church kitchen would want me to pass a fair amount of information along; however, what someone tells me in the hospital room often includes their personal fears, test results, prescription information, and so on. They certainly might not want all that shared with the world, unless they're in charge of how much gets shared. So I'm constantly assessing how much I can share with people who ask after others. There are ethical decisions to be made every week.2. Work habits.
I essentially have no boss. Oh, yeah, there's a committee I report to in the local church, and I have a bishop and superintendent set over me, but nobody keeps a clock on me. Nobody decides what I should do this week, where I should be, how long I should keep working. A lot of folks only see me on Sunday morning. And since it's hard to quantify the results of my work, it's easy to avoid responsibility for failure. All this means that if I want to be lazy, I can be a great deal lazy and the likelihood that I'm going to be caught at it is fairly low. This is an ethical challenge that requires me to set goals and hold myself accountable for keeping them, in order to deliver on my responsibility to God, to my church employer, and to the people I share my life with.3. Living within the rules.
As someone who is used to speaking with authority, indeed, as one who speaks for God on a regular basis, I face ethical challenges posed by external rules -- government rules, Church rules. It's easy to rationalize that what I want to do is the will of God. It's easy to get into letter vs. spirit dichotomies and give oneself a pass. It's easy to say that mere human laws and regulations must give way to the freedom of the children of God. This is how clergy get in trouble with the IRS, with building inspectors, with denominational policies, yada yada. There are many clergy who are just too cute by half. In contrast to their attitude, I remember a charismatic friend of mine who said, "I believe God blesses obedience." D.L. Moody put it, "character is what you are in the dark." Or, as our Wesleyan examination for clergy asks us, we should be bound by the advice, "do not mend our rules but keep them, not for wrath, but for conscience' sake."4. Teaching the Faith.
Clergy are ordained in and by their faith tradition to uphold and teach a certain doctrine. In many Churches, there isn't really much governance on what doctrine is actually taught. People fall in love with their own ideas. Some people think it's bold and exciting to throw off the old in favor of the new and trendy. It takes great discipline to examine everything you say and make sure that it lives up to your vows to teach the doctrine you promised to teach: to neither contradict something you're supposed to maintain, nor conveniently neglect something that doesn't excite you. Long ago, C.S. Lewis put his finger on the ethical question here, when he spoke of clergy who see themselves as risking punishment in order to sincerely teach the views they personally hold rather than the doctrine they can no longer believe in. Lewis pointed out that no one thought that these clergy were insincere in their beliefs, but they were hired to teach one thing and wound up teaching another, and that is simple fraud: taking pay for work that was not performed as specified. It lacks integrity. If you can't believe it any longer, then you need to resign your orders or transfer them somewhere else. People are counting on you to teach "the faith once delivered to the saints," not your personal take on Life, the Universe, and Everything.
There are a lot of other things I could have talked about. We clergy have a code of conduct to maintain relationships with our fellow clergy. We have rules about how we relate to parishioners. There are all kinds of other trap doors and expectations we wrestle with on a regular basis. But a lot of that I thought might be more than the Venturers were prepared to chew on. So, I hope they got something out of the issues I raised with them. And I hope you do, too.