It used to be that clergy knew the difference between right and wrong. After all, teaching such matters was seen as a core part of the job.
But eroding standards, moral ambiguity, and other factors have made that assumption dangerous, says Luder Whitlock, who chaired a drafting committee for a National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) clergy code of ethics for clergy.
The code, released today, urges trustworthiness, integrity, purity, fairness, and accountability. The text of the code is available at NAECodeofEthics.com in both English and Spanish.
Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff interviewed Whitlock, who was a pastor for 10 years and president of Reformed Theological Seminary for 23 years. Under his leadership, RTS grew from a small regional school to one of the 10 largest seminaries in North America. Today, he is executive director of the Seneff Family Foundation and the CNL Charitable Foundation. (David Neff and Leadership editor in chief Marshall Shelley served on the ethics code drafting committee.)
News reports, particularly those about Catholic clergy sexual abuse, give the public a sleazy picture of American clergy. What is your general impression of pastors today?
Evangelical clergy are deeply committed to serving the Lord and his people. They are people of profound faith. They are compassionate. They are unselfish. Many of them could do far better for themselves in a secular job. But they do this because they love the Lord and they want to serve him and reach people for the gospel.
There isn't one of us who doesn't have his flaws, but in spite of those we hope we can be faithful to the Lord, obedient to his Word, and useful in his service.
Overall, I would give pastors a very high mark. I think their commitment and service is not always appreciated by the public as it should be.
Why do clergy need a code of ethics? Won't they do the right thing if they are walking with the Lord?
Clergy intend to do the right thing, but given the eroding moral standards of recent years in our country, in many instances there isn't adequate clarity and a strong enough sense of obligation to what's right.
Pastors need to be paragons of moral integrity for other believers and examples of moral integrity to the world. As Chaucer put it, "If gold rust, what shall iron do?"
Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, deserves the credit for this code of ethics because he saw the need for it and organized a blue ribbon committee to produce a document to serve the evangelical world, not just one or two denominations. Evangelical organizations have no such written guide. The NAE has a widely accepted statement of faith and has produced statements regarding other issues like sexuality and the environment. This ethics statement was overdue.
Don't denominations provide enough guidance for their pastors and churches?
Denominations have produced a few things, but most haven't. The few existing statements tend to be truncated in scope or overly legalistic and rule specific. There is no broad statement or code that everybody adopts, like we have the statement of faith.
Years ago we realized we needed to outline financial accountability for organizations, so the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability came about.
Strangely, no one has done the same for clergy's ethical behavior. Everyone kept assuming, "We know what's right. People know it, why don't they do it?" But really, when you have a world that's swirling with change like ours and so few people know the Bible well, it's all the more imperative to come up with something like this.
When we think of unethical clergy, sinful sexual relationships immediately come to mind. What are the other areas you want clergy to be cautious about?
The most important thing of all is the development of character, of personal integrity. When spiritual, moral maturity is the standard, then it helps bring all other issues into alignment with biblical standards. Having said that, financial issues quickly come to mind. Close behind are family matters. Inadequate concern for the reputation of others, including other pastors, resulting in tarnished reputations.
What are the sneakiest temptations pastors face? What do they find it easy to rationalize?
Their use of time, family obligations, playing favorites, plagiarizing, personal use of church resources without permission, accessing pornography via the Internet.
A lot of ministers don't have a strong sense of obligation regarding how they spend their time. They seldom have anyone looking over their shoulder. That's one area that needs more attention than it will get.
You have been a theological educator. Do seminaries generally cover clergy ethics in their curricula?
Surprisingly, they do not, other than a general course on ethics. Many other areas of ministry are routinely addressed, but it has been assumed that ministers would know what is ethical and live accordingly. Personal and professional ethics for the pastor have suffered benign neglect. But as a matter of fact, many students now coming to seminary are routinely involved in very unacceptable behavior.
Over the past few decades, our theological schools have addressed character formation by adding an emphasis on spiritual formation.
Most seminaries realized that they put so much emphasis on intellectual development that they had neglected the spiritual development of their students. Many realized that even what they were doing in practical theology was more cognitively and theoretically oriented than practically oriented. Something has to be done to make up these deficiencies.
What is the role of congregations in helping their clergy to be accountable?
Congregations should clarify their expectations regarding pastoral accountability and what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. They should establish ways to accomplish that, such as annual performance reviews, and those should include a review of moral behavior.
There is a difference between respecting pastors and putting them on a pedestal. Once they do that, pastors are sort of untouchable. In large churches, it's very easy for pastors to think they are more important than they really are. That makes it very difficult to have the accountability you need.
This happens not only with senior pastors, but with staff. I'm aware of incidents where staff had problems, but because they had such a following it was difficult for the pastor and the governing body to come to grips with it. It would create too much turmoil in the congregation.
Should congregations that are calling a pastor use this code of ethics as a framework for discussion before hiring?
Definitely. It can become an excellent way to clarify expectations, hopefully becoming the standard for expectations. Perhaps such a document can also be developed for congregations.
How will these principles work out differently in small congregations compared to large congregations?
In small congregations, there is no way to develop organizational groups and processes the way you can in bigger congregations. On the other hand, in a smaller church, almost everyone knows everything that is going on. Transparency is usually there in spades. In the larger congregation, it's easier to cover up and hide things.
Speaking of transparency, the biggest clergy ethics story of the past decade has been the way some Catholic bishops covered up sexual abuse by some of their priests. How open and transparent should Protestant church leaders be in dealing with their own? Whose privacy needs to be protected?
There are legal requirements that govern the need for privacy or reporting and those must be scrupulously observed. When serious issues occur, such as embezzlement or theft, the most important thing is to come clean. You should inform the congregation. You should explain how it happened and how the matter is being resolved. You should explain what's going to be done to protect the congregation and pastors in the future.
Transparency creates a space for repentance and forgiveness. Cover-ups destroy trust and impede straightforward resolution of problems. How congregations deal with these things expresses the integrity of the believing community. Is it willing to face up to its sins and deal with them?
Because Christian theology says we are all affected by an interior drive toward sin, we're not surprised that pastors do things they shouldn't. Yet we're also called to a life of holiness. In dealing with clergy, how do we balance realism about human nature with our strong commitment to holiness?
We need to be very honest about the standards the Lord gives us. We also need to avoid turning the standards into legalism.
We must realize that we are all sinners and will in some ways fall short. If we expect perfection of a minister or a congregation, we will be disappointed. How do we find the right balance? First, by making our dependence on the Lord and our obedience to him of paramount importance. Second, by being the same person in public that we are in private, by being people of integrity. Third, by coming to grips with any serious deficiency or disobedience. We must then confess our failure and sin, find forgiveness, and move on.
Nevertheless, we want to avoid the pettiness that flags every deficiency or mistake a person makes. How do you draw the line? That's a process of education and maturity. And in a way, it's a little of what we were doing with this document. We did not create a document filled with prescriptions and rules—but we took a principled approach saying, "You should understand the kind of person you need to be." When pastors learn that, it'll determine a lot of the specific issues.
How is the NAE going to promote this code in its member churches?
It will be placed on the website, endorsements sought from evangelical leaders, publicized in magazines and other public media, printed and distributed. Denominations and evangelical organizations will be asked to endorse and use it.