Ethics

In our denomination clergy are required to take specialized ethical training on a recurrent basis. Every five years, a class is required in order lo maintain standing as a clergy person. I have been an advocate of these requirements and have participated in many discussions with other clergy about how we can maintain high standards of behavior in our profession. This is especially challenging as more clergy enter the profession without the same academic preparation that was required of us. A certain amount of ethical training is intensely academic. It requires careful and consistent thinking and an atmosphere of rigorous standards. As clergy enter the profession who have not engaged in that kind of education, courses on basic clergy conduct need to be carefully designed to educate all of the participants. Fortunately, much of clergy conduct is common sense once you stop to think about it.

Much attention has been given to sexual abuse by clergy. There are some pretty terrible stories of abuse by clergy. I’ve interviewed some of the victims in my work as chair of an investigation team. In our conference there are two teams, one for each half of the state. The team is made up of two lay persons and one clergy and one of the laypersons has training as a counselor. Care is given to make sure that interviews are conducted in a safe manner, are well documented, and that participants are not pressured. I’ve heard stories of gross abuse by clergy and I’ve recommended that clergy have their professional standing removed. I never engage in this lightly, but there are instances where it is clear that the violations are extensive enough that the perpetrator no longer deserves to be called a minister.

In our boundary training we also discuss other ethical lapses of clergy. I know stories of clergy who have taken financial advantage of vulnerable members of their congregations. They tend to justify such behavior by making reference to financial troubles that stem, in their opinion, from low pay and benefits for clergy. Although none of us have entered this profession because of the promise of wealth, some have found ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the people that they serve.

I also take recurrent ethical training in my role as a Sheriff’s chaplain. Law enforcement ethical training is similar to that offered to clergy. A person in a position of power needs to understand that others may seem like they are consenting when no consent occurs. They are, rather, deferring to the differential in power. Although I do not carry any weapons as a chaplain, I do have symbols of the power of law enforcement in my identification badge and clothing that I wear.

It is very easy, to my way of thinking, to be careful about gross violations of ethical standards. It is easy to create situations where my behavior is witnessed and others are fully aware of what I am doing. I make it a point to consult regularly with leaders in my church about any questions or concerns that may arise.

Still, I am aware that I occupy a position of privilege. Last year, while attending a training seminar for law enforcement chaplains, I wandered into a cafe in Norfolk, Virginia. When I got to the check out, the clerk gave me a 50% discount because I was wearing a shirt that had the logo of the Pennington County Sheriff. She said that they had a law enforcement discount. 50% is a pretty deep discount. There is no way that the restaurant is making a profit from law enforcement officers. The discount smacked of protection money - funds exchanged unreported to purchase extra favor. Of course I don’t have any influence on law enforcement decisions in Norfolk, Virginia. I accepted the discount as a sign of generosity and gracious hosting of the event. But it did make me think. I brought it up in an ethical discussion among chaplains later. Our ethical rules state that we accept no gratuities or gifts from those we serve. What about a deep discount on a meal? There was spirited discussion around my question. I think that I was probably wrong to accept the discount.

Other things are signs of privilege. Having served in my current congregation for a long time, people are aware of some of my likes and dislikes. And I have forged friendships with those I serve. They are often gracious and make small gifts to me. It is known that I like molasses cookies and lemon bars. There have been several occasions when a small plate of treats has been left on my desk. It is a special privilege afforded to the pastor that is not offered to other members of the church. In a sense it is a gratuity offered because of my position. I haven’t had any ethical dilemmas in accepting those gifts, however. I make no attempts to hide the gifts. I am open in offering my gratitude. And I am carful never to ask for special privilege.

There is a big difference between three or four cookies on a paper plate wrapped up and left on my desk and the special privileges claimed by clergy in our misconduct investigations. I do not see the gift of cookies as an ethical violation. But it helps to be aware of such gifts and to understand that we who have the title of clergy are in a special position of privilege and power in our institution. Knowing that we are in a place of power helps us to be aware of the risks of abusing that power.

All who serve others owe it to ourselves and to the people we serve to uphold the highest of ethical standards. Regular education and conversation about boundaries and ethical standards is an important part of our continuing ministry. The people we serve need to know how to raise ethical concerns and have those concerns heard and taken seriously.

In the meantime, I try to be extra generous whenever there is a bake sale at the church. I’ve received plenty of blessings in my time and it makes sense to share.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!