Ministerial ethics must be continually rethought because so much is at stake. First, much is at stake for those who preach and minister. Understanding how and why ministers act--identifying potential problems--is not as easy as one might think because humans are prone to rationalization, personalities enter power struggles, and honest self-evaluation is difficult in the fervor of life. We must admit that hard questions exist, identify them, and encourage personal reflection. Second, much is at stake for the church. Only with difficulty and much struggle do churches rise above the moral standards and teaching of the one who regularly provides spiritual nourishment. Third, much is at stake for the world. One need only observe the catastrophe of tele-evangelists gone astray to recognize how closely the world is watching those who claim to follow Jesus, especially those who serve in ministry. Our effectiveness in proclaiming the gospel to reach souls for Jesus is at stake.
The Crisis in Ministry
Perhaps no task is as easy to fake as spiritual ministry. Preachers preach and teach with little or no study.(1) Time pressures encourage plagiarized sermons and classes. Bulletin articles are copied without credit, or worse, copied and set forth as one's own effort. Ministers spend too little time in prayer, too little time speaking to God, too little time listening to God, all in the name of speaking for God. Some involved in ministry covertly pursue unethical, immoral lifestyles.
Compounding the crisis, our contemporary society little appreciates genuine ministry not dependent upon outward appearances nor external circumstances. The rapid transitions of contemporary society have blurred definitions of ministry. In fact, that today's world often measures ministry by worldly standards encourages hypocrisy and the lack of ministerial integrity. Ministry is in ethical crisis.
Two questions may be helpful. What is the nature of this crisis? How may we encourage ethical ministry?
The Nature of the Crisis
The crisis exhibits itself in all of the ways mentioned above and more. Heightening the dilemma is the fact that many church leaders and many preachers barely see the problem. How have we arrived at this point? Several factors have contributed to the crisis.
Worldly expectations. Our society, and churches which buy into the worldly mindset more than we like to admit, frequently set up expectations which do not appreciate the elastic, flexible nature of ministry. We do not yet know with certainty whether ministers work for God or for churches and elderships. We affirm the former, but most often practice the latter. We are more apt to clone preachers than to allow valid ministry consistent with the minister's personality.
Lack of spiritual focus. In my experience, preacher interviews seldom ask about personal spiritual health and growth. Have we forgotten that spiritual leaders must be spiritual? How can one minister God's presence effectively in the church when God is barely present in the life of the minister? Without spiritual focus, spiritual famine will eventually come. Genuine ministry is fraught with frailty, frustration, and even failure. The greatest failure, however, may be the failure to find the power for ministry in the spiritual rather than the physical realm.
Misguided evaluation. How shall ministry be measured? Consider two opposite extremes. On the one hand, worldly standards of success too often replace spiritual evaluation. Some churches fail to appreciate effective ministry in their demands for numerical results. God's Old Testament prophets would not have fared well in many modern churches. On the other hand, some churches and ministers fail to understand the power and potential of effective ministry, and suffer from under-expectation. The ultimate measurement of ministry is faithfulness to God. Ministry which is faithful to God never fails. Faithful ministry brings God's power to bear in this world, and God promises increase as his word never returns empty.
Recovering Ethical Ministry
The recovery of ethical ministry demands that we face two concerns--the minister and the task of ministry. Where integrity, authenticity, credibility, and competence are lacking, the personal life of the minister must be repaired. Those who minister must be persons of integrity. No room may be given for even a moment to ministry's constant temptations--plagiarism, hypocrisy, ungodly attitudes, and unspiritual expectations. Paul's words to Timothy are vital (2 Tim. 4:2-5). Be prepared. No preacher should stand in the pulpit unprepared. Every lesson deserves study, and restudy. Every audience deserves a thoughtful application of God's message to their unique needs and circumstances. Effective ministry facilitates a fresh hearing so that the message might be understood and lived, because teaching is not just for believing, teaching is for living. Correction must be with great patience, rebuke with careful instruction. Ministry should bring encouragement. Preachers must work, endure, and be level-headed in every situation.
Churches want to know at least three things about a preacher. First, are you competent? Are you able to do what God wants done here and what we need done? Do you know what you are doing? Will you minister among us effectively? Second, are you "for us?" Will you try to understand us and bring God's word to us afresh? Will you cry with us and laugh with us? Will you endure with us and persevere? Or are we just another rung on a ladder you are trying to climb? Third, will you work reasonably hard? Are you willing to put in the hours, do the hard work of study, and share the difficult times in our lives? Ministers who cannot solidly answer "yes" to all three of these questions should rethink the task of ministry.
"...Set an example for the believers...devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching...be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them...watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them...." (2 Tim. 4:12-16) Ethical ministry must set an example, be devoted to study, constantly consider one's personal life and teaching closely, persevere in every circumstance, and diligently preach and teach.
The motivation for such ministry comes from three sources: the example we are to set for the believers, the scriptural warrant we face when we look within ourselves through God's word, and the Christ to whom we are all ultimately accountable. May God help all who are involved in ministry in any way--preaching, teaching, counseling, encouraging--to recover ethical ministry which makes a difference in our world.
1. While not all ministry involves preaching, teaching and preaching will be used interchangeably to describe the task of ministry in this article.
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