Ethics and Leadership in the Church

There has been a lot of talk about politicians in trouble, recently. Talking heads on the TV are jabbering about it incessantly. And we realize that it’s true: nobody likes a slimeball leader. We don’t like them politics. We despise them in the corporate world. When they fall, they become the talk of the tube.

We expect ethical behavior from leaders. We hold them to high standards and evoke the word “scandal” when ethical standards are broken and become public, when a person uses her political office for personal gain, when corporate executives earn raises while wages for workers remain stagnant. Rarely does a week go by that some sort of scandal isn’t spoken of by national media outlets. With each breach, we are reminded that it’s true that all of us are held captive by sin and cannot free ourselves. We, therefore, rely on the grace of God. Relying on the grace of God, however, does not release us from setting high ethical standards – in all we do.

Standards for leadership are important in the church. How we lead, the lives we live, and the way we treat others are directly tied to our witness to God’s work in the world. The Christian community hopes for the dawning of God’s new day, when God’s kingdom will finally and fully be among us. We hope for a future that God is already bringing, a day when all those things that cause death and destruction will be brought to an end.

The cross of Jesus gives witness to God’s deepest will: that abundant and new life would rise out of all things that cause suffering, death, and destruction. Believing this, we live as part of God’s emerging kingdom. We participate in and give witness to the hope we have while embodying God’s hoped for future. In other words, we live as the body of Christ, being the ongoing presence of Jesus in the world. Our lives and our leadership give witness to the work God is doing through Jesus. The Holy Spirit calls us together to be a witnessing community that lives together in ways different from the world.

The ways of the world are often corrupt, as seen in the multitude of actions taken by leaders, individuals, and corporations. While the world calls people to get what they can while the getting is good, our hope in God’s future calls us to give because we can, to pour ourselves out (kenosis) for the sake of the world in the same way Jesus poured himself out. Ethical leadership in the church attends to the hope we have, and turns us toward the ongoing task of embodying Jesus in and for the world. Our churches need to think carefully about these things and to work together to think about what that means for how we lead.  

In my parish I use an ethics document to help articulate expectations for leaders in the church. It sets high standards for the sake of ministry. It reminds staff/leaders that how we live is tied to how we lead. It encourages leaders to live consistently with the hope we have while giving both positive and negative examples of lives that are consistent with the Christian witness. The ethics document calls leaders to tend to interpersonal relationships carefully and gives some guidance toward that end. It covers issues of confidentiality and sexual harassment. 

A significant portion of the document tends to issues of leaving the congregation well. When written, this section was responding to a nagging problem in the congregation of employees leaving the congregation in ways that damaged the church’s ministry. It gives guidance to remind people that how a person leaves is an important aspect of ministry. It calls leaders to remember that care of the congregation is the most important task we have in our departure.

The document we have in place is an important tool for ministry. It is not all inclusive. When I use it again in my new congregation (I’m in the process of moving), I will add an important section that is missing. It will be a section about ethical boundary-keeping that calls all leaders to maintain boundaries in proper ways.

What tools do you use in your congregation to talk with leaders about ethical behavior? What would you add to an ethics document that may not be present in the one I use?  Leave some comments in the box so that we can learn from each other.

The above picture is entitled, “All Saints Birsbane” by Leonard John Matthews. It is used according to its Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

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