Ministerial Ethics

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Pastors point people to God. Everything else they do is a means to that end.

Because God is ever-present in our lives, it takes special insight to become aware of God’s Shekinah cloud in everyday life:

“Shekinah is Hebrew word that refers to a collective vision that brings together dispersed fragments of divinity. It is usually understood as a light-disseminating presence bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be—a place…God’s personal presence—and filled that humble, modest, makeshift, sorry excuse for a temple with glory.” (Peterson 2011, 100-101)

Without assistance, people are more likely to see Harvey, the six foot invisible rabbit,⁠1 which makes the pastor’s role unique. 

The insight required of pastors is ironically not unique to pastors is a Christian mindset where everything is evaluated relative to Christ. While the world around us thinks of this attitude as obsession, it is a Christian distinctive seldom tolerated even among pastors. Blamires (2005, 148) writes:

“For if the Christian faith is true, and the Christian church the authoritative vehicle of salvation in time, then it is the most urgent, inescapable need of the modern [and postmodern] world to adapt itself to the church [not the other way around].”

Elsewhere I have described this mindset this way: Jesus is my denominator—the measure of all things. Without this mindset, the Shekinah cloud becomes invisible like Harvey and salvation disappears and becomes illusive, out of reach. Pastors unable to bring it back to view morph into beggars, social workers, and purveyors of religious entertainment, depending on your default prejudices.

Pastoring by the Numbers

The bane of pastors is the paying of bills.

If you take the Jewish concept of a minion and combine it will the tithe, you get an interesting transition into the Old Testament answer to financing a Rabbi. In order to hold a worship service in the Jewish tradition, a Rabbi needed ten adult men—a minion. If each of these men paid the tithe (which was an obligatory ten percent of income), then the Rabbi would enjoy the same living standard as the average person in his minion.

In a typical American church, people given an average of about one person of their income. This implies that a pastor’s minion is about a hundred families, which is coincidently the size of a typical church. This source of mathematics then suggests why we have seen the growth of mega churches who host a large pastoral staff and can offer numerous programs and quality music in worship.

The problem with this arrangement is that pointing someone to God requires intimate knowledge of the person in question, acquired only through spend time with them. This was entirely likely for a Rabbi with this minion, but seems far fetched for a pastor with his minions. Intimate communication cannot be one-way communication.

Other Duties as Assigned

The Book of Order 2007/2009 of the Presbyterian Church (USA) describes the duties of a pastor in these terms:

“The permanent pastoral officers of ministers of the Word and Sacrament are pastors and associate pastors. When a minister of the Word and Sacrament is called as a pastor or associate pastor of a particular church or churches, she or he is to be responsible for a quality of life and relationships that commend the Gospel to all persons and that communicate its joy and its justice. The pastor is responsible for studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, for administrating Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for praying with and for the congregation. With the elders, the pastor is to encourage the people in the worship and service of God, to equip and enable them for their tasks within the church and their mission in the world; to exercise pastoral care, devoting special attention to the poor, the sick, the troubled, and the dying; to participate in governing responsibilities, including leadership of the congregation in implementing the principles of participation and inclusiveness in the decision making of the church, and its task of reaching out in concern and service to the life of the human community as a whole. With the deacons the pastor is to share in the ministries of sympathy, witness, and service. In addition to these pastoral duties, he or she is responsible for sharing in the ministry of the church in the governing bodies above the session and in ecumenical relationships.” (PCUSA 2007, G-6.0202b)

The responsibilities unique to pastors are in practice the administration of the sacraments. Other responsibilities, including preaching, teaching, leadership, and pastoral care, are shared with others in the church.⁠2 

Note the bureaucratic nature of the above pastoral definition. First, terms are defined. The office of pastor (and associate pastor) is defined as permanent. Assistant pastors are neither called nor permanent. Second, the call is focused on modeling a quality of life and relationships of the Gospel (not God). Third, responsibility include studying, teaching, and preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and praying for the congregation. God himself is not mentioned until the fourth sentence where God appears in the phrase: “the worship and service of God.”

The point of discussing other duties as assigned is that the ethics of pastoring requires a clear focus on God in all that we do that can sometimes be hard to maintain within the institution of the church.

Case Studies in Ministry

While ministry is often treated as something of a mystery, it is a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice. One way to improve on ministry practice is to work as team and to encourage the team to reflect on and discuss events that do not go as planned using a case study approach. 

In their book, Shared Wisdom, A Guide to Case Study Reflection, authors Jeffrey Mahan, Barbara Troxell, and Carol Allen (MTA; 1993, 12-19) see the goal of case studies is to equip a presenter of the case study to return to ministry with greater insight and confidence in themselves and in God’s provision and protection.

Case studies are most helpful when they assist participants in learning from their mistakes, but, of course, focusing on mistakes requires that one first admit to them. In a world in which politicians and celebrities daily lose their jobs over a single mistake, even in the church it is totally counter-cultural to admit to and talk about mistakes. The need for confidentially is accordingly multifaceted—both those studied and those bringing forth the study need to have the process treated confidentially.

MTA (1993, 116-117) recommend a case composed of five parts:

1. Background. Usually a case study focuses on a specific event that requires some context be provided.

2. Description. In describing the event, usual dialogue is given to illustrate what happened and how the presenter responded.

3. Analysis. “Identify issues and relationships, with special attention to changes and resistance to change.”

4. Evaluation. The presenter assesses their performance–what worked, what did not work, and why.

5. Theological Reflection. How does our faith inform this event?

A case is about two pages single-spaced and the presentation should run about an hour.

While the ideal setting for discussion of case studies is with a ministry team, a modified case study can also be useful in writing about ministry. Clearly, the choice of events to study is critical in revealing strengths and weaknesses in ministry. In writing about actual people, however, the case study may need to be recast as a study of a biblical or fictional character in such a way that identity of the persons involved is maintained. In preaching, this often ends up being an “I know a person who” story that frequently is a circumlocution for the pastor giving the talk (Savage 1996, 89-92).

1 This is an allusion to a movie called Harvey about a man who sees a six-foot, invisible rabbit and is committed to an insane asylum until others start seeing the rabbit for themselves. Harvey is a 1950 American comedy-drama film based on Mary Chase’s play of the same name, directed by Henry Koster, and starring James Stewart and Josephine Hull (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_(film)).

2 Note that because the Book of Order is frequently amended, the title includes a date and the terminology often changes, even for the title of pastor. I cite this polity document as an example primarily because I am familiar with it and not because it is a model for other denominations.

References

Blamires, Harry. 2005. The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Orig Pub 1963) Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Mahan, Jeffrey H., Barbara B. Troxell, and Carol J. Allen (MTA). 1993. Shared Wisdom: A Guide to Case Study Reflection in Ministry. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Peterson, Eugene H.  2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 2007. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part II: Book of Order, 2007/2009. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening & Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville:  Abingdon Press.

Ministerial Ethics

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