As a minister, I know that gaining a congregation’s trust is one of the single most important tasks in developing a sustainable and healthy ministry. It usually takes years to gain a church’s trust, and the hard work that it takes often requires experimentation and risk.
When it comes to trust, however, ministers face an uphill battle. Numerous sexual, financial, and abuse-related scandals have eroded ministerial integrity. A recent Gallup Poll shows that only half of the American population trusts clergy “high” or “very high.”
That means that one out of every two people in the United States does not trust their local church or minister. According to pollsters, this is the lowest that clergy have scored over the last thirty years.
My feeling is that this lack of trust is not so much a misunderstanding on the part of the general population as it is a failure among clergy to uphold ministerial ethics.
Sure, pastors are like everyone else and play down their formality in order to connect with congregations, but pastors still stand apart in most communities. Ministry does require a degree of professional ethics.
Ministerial ethics is founded upon certain bedrock principles. One of those principles is trustworthiness. People entrust their pastors to be spiritual caregivers. Because people grant pastors this kind of power, it behooves pastors to not abuse or manipulate their position of authority.
To avoid abuse, pastors implement another principle of ethics, which is confidentiality. As the people place greater trust in their pastor, the pastor has a greater responsibility to keep his or her interactions with individuals in the congregation confidential.
Where else is a person going to turn as they struggle with sin, despair, and doubt? An obvious answer to me is, “pastor;” but if a pastor cannot keep secrets and help individuals work through their issues with God, then trust is imperiled indeed.
Valuing professional ethics also means establishing boundaries. Ministry is an autonomous profession because most pastors keep their own schedules. Boundaries impart the self-discipline needed to be punctual, to be intentional about sermon preparation, and to be attentive to pastoral care.
Setting boundaries also safeguards against sexual impropriety. I once read that as many as 40% of pastors have had a situation in which some sexual indiscretion had occurred, be it related to pornography or inappropriate advances towards another person.
Ministers have a responsibility to care for themselves and their families so as to not burn out in ministry and fall into temptations beyond the point of self-control. An exhausted minister is a vulnerable minister.
Professionalism is not a one-sided affair; churches also have a responsibility to treat their staff with utmost professionalism. One way of determining whether your church is professional is by asking questions concerning human resources issues: Does the church have a written and clear job description for each staff position? Are there written policies pertaining to things like discipline, compensation, internet usage, and codes of conduct? Does the church have a system in place to critique and evaluate staff that is free from unrealistic expectations?
When we visit a doctor’s office, we expect our physician to act according to his or her profession because the doctor is trained to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses. So too with ministers. Ministers are professionals trained in spiritual stewardship. They—and the churches for whom they work—should act as such.