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More Groups Embrace Ethics Code for Ministers

In evangelical life, the high value placed on ministry as a “calling” and the relatively low value placed on ministry as a “profession” traditionally meant that ministers were expected to know how to behave apart from any attempt to set professional standards. We had the Bible as our guide, and that was thought to be good enough.

Sit in a seminary classroom, though. Hear the idealism and dedication in the voices and stories of those preparing for ministry, and you get a very different picture. So what’s the problem?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
In evangelical life, the high value placed on ministry as a “calling” and the relatively low value placed on ministry as a “profession” traditionally meant that ministers were expected to know how to behave apart from any attempt to set professional standards. We had the Bible as our guide, and that was thought to be good enough. 
Many groups, especially mainline Protestants, have elaborate books of order or discipline governing the conduct of their clergy. Even evangelicals have come to realize in recent years that there must be some way to guide ministerial conduct in matters that are not made explicit in Scripture. Scripture has only the most primitive and provisional concepts of a professional ministry.   
So one sees more groups producing documents that set forth some sense of what they expect from their ministers. Classic versions of these, such as the one-page “Covenant and Code of Ethics” for American Baptist ministers, deal with topics such as denominational loyalty,   ecumenism, proselytizing and ministerial discounts. 
The most encompassing paragraph in the ABC statement is here quoted in full: “I will maintain a disciplined ministry in such ways as keeping hours of prayers and devotion, endeavoring to maintain wholesome family relationships, sexual integrity, financial responsibility, regularly engaging in educational and recreational activities for professional and personal development. I will seek to maintain good health habits.”   
Another aspect that the ABC document shares with many other such codes is a statement on confidentiality. In some cases, that statement is absolute. The North American Baptist Conference statement says simply, “I shall … hold as sacred all confidences shared with me.” 

The ABC statement allows exceptions in cases of “imminent, life-threatening, or substantial harm to self or others.” State law in many cases now requires ministers to report sexual or child abuse regardless of scruples regarding confidentiality.  

Generally speaking, more groups are working to make more explicit their ethical standards regarding sexual behavior, counseling practices and ministerial boundaries.  

Does it work? ABC ministers are expected to sign the statement when they begin ordained service. Some groups use such statements as a basis for discipline. Others do not. No such statement in any profession guarantees that practitioners will follow it.  
Still, in a complex and confusing world, I’d rather have a minister with a code of ethics than one without.              
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.