The latter half of the 20th century witnessed a relative silence on the subject of ministerial ethics; seldom did theological seminaries offer training on the topic, and texts written on pastoral ethics were scarce.
Although not many books on ethics in ministry appeared during the final years of the 20th century, a handful of excellent texts on the subject were written.
During the last two decades, little has changed – the lack of adequate resources for the study of ministerial ethics continues.
A corollary truth adds to this serious deficiency in pastoral education: Very few seminaries offer even one course in this subject.
Ironically, the most conservative Bible schools and theological seminaries are the ones most lacking in the study of ministerial ethics.
Most divinity schools speak to this subject in pastoral ministry classes. However (as is so often true), the subject usually is left until last and thus, often left out completely.
To be fair, many religious schools and seminaries have accepted greater responsibility to develop moral character in their students through studies in spiritual formation.
Emphasis on spiritual growth and ethical character form a good foundation for ethics in ministry, but the complexity of moral issues in the minister’s home, church and society require more than a “character development” course.
Rightly or wrongly, churches formerly assumed Christian ministers were persons of integrity who could be counted on to be ethical. No longer is this presumption possible, if it ever was.
In 2002, clergy sexual misconduct by Roman Catholic priests, coupled with an apparent cover-up by church officials, shocked a nation and captured the news. Lawsuits threatened to bankrupt several dioceses. Leaders in all religious groups reassessed the need for ethics in ministry among their own clergy.
Since then, hardly a week goes by without a revelation of a fallen minister. On April 15, 2016, the new director of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote, “This week another high-profile pastor was removed from ministry for immorality, this time a friend of mine.”
Add to this the number of knotty social issues faced by the modern minister that increase annually, especially those ethical dilemmas exacerbated by our complex technological society.
More than ever, the minister in today’s world must be prepared to grapple with intricate moral problems and community conflicts as well as ethical dilemmas in his or her own church and personal life.
The purpose of our text is twofold: First, this study intends to teach Christian ministry students the unique moral role of the minister and the ethical responsibilities of that vocation.
A second purpose is more practical: to provide for new and established ministers a clear statement of the ethical obligations contemporary clergy should assume in their personal and professional lives.
The text begins with the minister’s unique role as a professional (chapter 1), followed by an elaboration of those ethical responsibilities of the clergy to self, family, ministry colleagues and society (chapters 2-6).
Unique to our text are two concluding chapters that address the importance of a “code of ethics” for ministers (chapter 7), followed by a practical chapter outlining the way a minister may write his or her own personal code of ethics (chapter 8).
Four appendices at the close of the book provide the reader with “A Procedure for Responding to Charges of Clergy Sexual Abuse” (appendix A), “Early Denominational Codes of Ethics” (appendix B), “Contemporary Denominational Codes of Ethics” (appendix C) and “A Sample Code of Ethics” (appendix D).
Robert Creech is Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership and director of pastoral ministries at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. His writings also appear on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @rcreech.
Joe E. Trull, now retired, previously served as professor of Christian ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Ethics for Christian Ministry: Moral Formation for 21st-Century Leaders” written by R. Robert Creech and Joe E. Trull. It is available here.