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The Moral Dimension of the Ministerial Vocation

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. … Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing — for that would be harmful to you. (Hebrews 13:7, 17)

Clergy members accompany their congregants through life from infancy to the deathbed and beyond. Ministers are not just called to be good human beings or faithful disciples of Jesus. We are called to something more, to responsibilities that are unique to this ministerial vocation.

There is a meaningful body of literature that has been developed in the last generation under the heading of “ministerial ethics.” Works such as Gaylord Noyce’s Pastoral Ethics (1988), Walter Wiest and Elwyn Smith’s 1990 Ethics in Ministry, and Joe Trull and James Carter’s Ministerial Ethics (second edition, 2004) have attempted to articulate the specialized moral responsibilities of clergy.

Noyce organizes his discussion around the primary tasks of the minister: leadership, preaching and teaching, pastoral care, financing ministry, relating to other clergy, community outreach and service, public relations, evangelism, church growth, and management of personal life.

Wiest and Smith focus on issues of truth, authority, character and relationships. Joe Trull and James Carter address ministerial vocation, moral choices, personal life, congregational, collegial, and community relations, and the issue of clergy sexual abuse. Trull and Carter also suggest that ministers draft a code of ethics to govern their ministry and share it with their congregations.

Most ministerial-ethics books address the issue of whether ministers should be considered “professionals” and whether ministerial ethics is a form of professional ethics. The answer tends to be that ministry is a profession, while also being more than a profession, and that it is important for ministers to think systematically about their professional ethics.

Karen Lebacqz, noted earlier for her work on justice, helped bring the professional ethics discussion into contact with ministerial ethics through her 1985 book Professional Ethics. But it took some time before ministerial ethics began to be treated routinely as a species of professional ethics, and even today the idea is an unfamiliar one in many Christian settings.

But professionalizing the ethics of ministers is indeed needed. At least in many U.S. church settings, congregations do not adequately prepare, educate, examine, guide or regulate the ministers who serve them. In a time in which most professions are making significant efforts in professional ethics, ministerial professional ethics standards often are nebulous and woefully inadequate, and ministers too often drift or rush headlong into moral disaster. Abuse of power, financial misconduct, sexual abuse and immorality, violations of confidentiality, spiritual manipulation, and other forms of misconduct are reported routinely and create grave problems for those who are affected.

“Ministerial ethics is not just about developing a code of ethics, informing clergy about their legal responsibilities, and providing a structure of oversight for the work of ministers.”

Ministerial ethics is not just about developing a code of ethics, informing clergy about their legal responsibilities, and providing a structure of oversight for the work of ministers. While all this needs to happen, ministerial ethics is also about two prior questions: whether churches can still provide a context in which spiritually and morally mature persons sense a call to ministry, and whether ministerial training, in seminaries or elsewhere, will refine these budding ministers to become persons of sustained integrity and faithful service.

There is another dimension of ministerial ethics: the role of the minister in shepherding Christians toward faithful discipleship.

Sondra Wheeler on The Minister as Moral Theologian

On this theme, we turn to The Minister as Moral Theologian, a 2017 work by Methodist ethicist Sondra Wheeler. This book reminds us that ministers are not just responsible for developing strong personal morality and professional ethics, but are also, as Hebrews 13 reminds us, charged with looking after the moral well-being of our flocks.

Sondra Wheeler

Ministers study ethics, not just so we can become better Christians but so that we can become more competent guides on the discipleship journey of those we serve. It is a major viewpoint shift when we move from considering what all this material means for me to what it means for them — all those we will serve in ministry, all those for whom we bear sacred responsibility.

Wheeler was trained at Yale University and served until 2021 at Wesley Seminary. She has offered throughout her career a version of Christian ethics oriented toward the formation of morally serious Christian disciples — and morally serious Christian ministers to serve them. Her love for the church has motivated her work in Christian ethics. That is very much how I understand my own vocation as a Christian ethicist. I do Christian ethics as an expression of my prior call to Christian ministry.

The central claim of The Minister as Moral Theologian is that all ministers are moral theologians (another term for Christian ethicist). While Wheeler seems especially to be thinking of pastors and other congregational ministers, she does not exempt those serving in other ministerial posts, such as pastoral counselors or chaplains, from the same moral responsibility. I fear the proliferation of ministerial vocations outside the churches, with professional formation and ethical expectations that likewise come from outside the churches, to some extent threatens the clarity of ministerial identity and ethics.

Wheeler knows the idea that ministers are moral theologians for those whom they serve is not universally shared among ministers. That is not just because of weaknesses in ministerial formation. It is also because not all ministers — or Christians — understand the church to be “a body that must be a moral community if it is to retain its identity as the church.” In practice, some churches are not communities of serious moral purpose as an expression of discipleship. But for Wheeler, when that is the case the church has fundamentally lost its way.

Wheeler argues that “a church must be a moral community in the deepest sense in order to retain its identity as a witness to the gospel and a sign of the reign of God.” If the church is not a community that seeks to follow Jesus faithfully, we are not the church — regardless of what the sign on our building might say.

“One aspect of this office is that we must be the in-house moral theologians for our people.”

Moreover, if we are not a community serious about following Jesus, we also fail our mission in a core aspect, because we do not give any evidence to the world that the claims of the gospel are true. I imagine many of you can think of sad cases of churches in which this is exactly what has happened — a public moral scandal or collapse, leading to massive credibility loss, resulting in derision toward our claims about Jesus.

But if the church is a serious moral community seeking to follow Jesus, this has implications for what ministers must be and do. We occupy the pastoral office, which is consecrated to serve the church in its quest for faithfulness to Christ.

One aspect of this office is that we must be the in-house moral theologians for our people. We must have the knowledge, character and skills to perform this role. Wheeler further specifies that our goal should be to encourage the church to be a community of moral discernment, formation, conversation, reform and reconciliation. We must seek this through all aspects of our work, including preaching, teaching and counseling, and in our personal conduct, especially amid difficult congregational relationships and power dynamics.

Morally responsible preaching

Wheeler argues that quality Christian preaching requires us skillfully to interpret the text, the current moment and the listening community. Good preaching is not just a matter of developing excellent exegetical skills in relation to Scripture, although these are, of course, essential. It also is a matter of being able to read the moment and the audience, to have a sense for what a timely word looks like in the precise context of these people — this text — this moment. Preaching is so deeply contextual in terms of both moment and audience that few sermons can just be picked up and reused without alteration in different times and contexts. While your exegetical work on a text may be able to cross over, everything else probably will require reworking.

“Preaching is so deeply contextual in terms of both moment and audience that few sermons can just be picked up and reused without alteration in different times and contexts.”

Dealing with the most difficult biblical passages and contemporary moral issues requires trust between congregation and preacher. Trust is built up over time, earned through our caring performance in countless pastoral situations, and ultimately rooted in the congregation’s sense of our character, vocation and love for God and the church. Many fiery young ministers forget this. They run directly from seminary to a congregation, say something perhaps true but also incendiary in the first month, and end up selling shoes or cookies a few months after that.

This is not an excuse, though, for failing forever to address hard texts or issues. Perhaps you have experienced preachers who never seem to get around to morally significant texts or morally important contemporary issues. They offer pablum week after week because they think it will help keep their people happy and the minister’s family in food and diapers.

Wheeler is right that this approach is an abdication of the minister’s vocation as moral theologian. She also is correct in saying that silence itself teaches, and that sometimes things happen in the world, nation, neighborhood or congregation to which the morally responsible minister must respond. There are also central texts — such as the Sermon on the Mount — that raise crucial moral issues and must be addressed periodically in the preaching program of the minister. We are not free to “edit the Word,” says Wheeler; we must address what is there and we must do so honestly, though with great sensitivity to our audience and moment.

Here is a suggestion drawn from my experiences as an interim pastor: Develop a preaching program that offers a balanced diet of Scriptures, themes and issues. If you are concerned that people will think you are likely to overdo the “ethics stuff,” surprise them with the breadth of your theological and biblical interests. In one long-term interim, I did a sermon series on the Cross, the Gospel of John, the Holy Spirit, the parables of Jesus, Christian practices, and several rounds of Advent. Even though I am a Christian ethicist, I did not load up my sermon time on Christian ethics.

There were times when I had to address divisive social-ethical-political issues in a politically diverse congregation. I was able to do that successfully because I had not worn out my people with constant preaching on contested topics. In Wheeler’s terms, I had earned their trust, partly by my regular pastoral care attentions, but also by regular theological sermons. When it was time to go hard on the ethical issues, I was able to do so and keep the congregation with me.

Morally responsible teaching

Wheeler distinguishes between preaching and teaching about moral issues. She sees both as exercises of the minister-as-moral-theologian but as involving different processes and skills. As a Baptist minister, I think of the distinction between the 20-minute Sunday morning sermon and the long-form teaching opportunities that might happen in educational programming or retreats.

When speaking of the teaching role, Wheeler emphasizes that teaching competently about moral issues involves thoughtful use of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Moral teaching, says Wheeler, requires not just tossing off opinions about moral issues, but showing the sources from which those views come, giving clear reasons for your position based on those sources, and demonstrating awareness of counterarguments that, in the end, you choose to reject.

“This approach has the virtue of showing the congregation how to think, not just what to think.”

Wheeler is arguing for ministers demonstrating both moral arguments and their process for developing them. This approach has the virtue of showing the congregation how to think, not just what to think. It also can invite the community into a rigorous deliberation process on contested issues.

Morally responsible counseling

In Minister as Moral Theologian, Wheeler pleads with Christian ministers to reject value-neutral approaches in counseling and instead to offer Christian moral counsel fit for a community that is serious about discipleship. Wheeler knows that her approach cuts against common approaches in secular counseling, some of which have migrated to Christian counseling and pastoral care.

When you go to a secular counselor, probably they have been trained to ask you what your goals and values are and to align their counseling accordingly. The counselor is not to impose her goals and values but instead help you achieve yours.

But, says Wheeler, the Christian minister represents the Christian community. He or she is the bearer of the tradition and the holder of an office with a distinctive responsibility — to keep watch over the souls of the flock. This means the minister cannot be value-neutral in counseling, but instead aims to help the professed Christian follow Jesus. Wheeler writes:

“The minister cannot be value-neutral in counseling, but instead aims to help the professed Christian follow Jesus.”

A minister cannot simply accept uncritically whatever life goal or strategy parishioners offer and neutrally set about helping them to achieve the proffered aims by whatever means come to hand. Rather, the minister must engage with the counselee in the work of discernment, of coming to moral clarity and judgment, and must call the person to faithfulness in this work as an aspect of discipleship.

This does not mean the minister starts preaching at the counselee. Wheeler offers strategy tips like asking questions, listening, offering general care and support, and engaging the imagination. But Wheeler firmly says that Christian counseling falls into the tradition of aided Christian moral discernment.

If a congregant is on a path that clearly violates the way of Jesus, and if she cannot or will not see that for herself, eventually she will need to be challenged and admonished, perhaps called to repentance and reminded of God’s forgiveness for those who repent. Even in a context of love and support, of faithful journeying together with the congregant, the goal is to help believers follow Christ faithfully. Ministers may not always find congregants willing to be guided toward that goal, but we are certainly not free to abandon the goal ourselves.

I remember a situation from decades ago in which a young man active in our church decided to have an affair while his wife was pregnant, and then left her for the other woman. This man later went to our pastor and looked for his support in a quick second marriage. The pastor offered that support and in fact performed the wedding himself. In several tense conversations within the church about this matter, the pastor said that “who am I to judge?” was his philosophy in such situations.

I am confident Wheeler would say this is both a misunderstanding of what the New Testament teaches about “judging” and a gross abdication of pastoral moral responsibility. I agree, even though I know that attempting to do anything more corrective or confrontational in such a situation can be vocationally risky — especially when the member holds substantial power in the congregation. Ministers need to keep their suitcases metaphorically (or literally) packed, aware that moments such as these can arise at any time.

The minister’s moral example

Wheeler acknowledges that ministers face “constant scrutiny” and are expected to be moral exemplars. This pressure is remarked upon by most ministers and often deeply resented. Wheeler recognizes that life in the ministerial “fishbowl” is highly stressful and that ministers can be the objects of judgment and gossip quite undeservedly.

However, says Wheeler, it is certainly clear that glaring moral failure in ministry is disastrous for all concerned. Indeed, that is what most ministerial ethics textbooks focus on: the most egregious instances of clergy misconduct, often related to sex.

But, she adds, even moral “mediocrity” on the part of ministers is problematic. Congregants and society in general look to us as models, judging our words by the quality of our lives. If our office is to shepherd communities whose calling is to follow Christ faithfully, not obvious failure alone but also lazy mediocrity presents an obvious vocational problem.

Wheeler writes with great sensitivity about how, if ministers are moral models, we are “models made of clay” — and we must be the very first to acknowledge this. The journey of Christian discipleship is a vulnerable one, empowered by God’s grace, a long process of growth in love, humility and maturity.

We are not capable in our own power of becoming “signs that point to the possibility of goodness overcoming evil,” but by God’s grace we can become this. We must constantly recenter spiritually, take our bearings from our deepest sense of call, remain honest with ourselves, keep in communication with our own trusted counselors, maintain appropriate transparency about our human struggles, be sure to take “time out of the bowl” on a regular basis, and never forget that we are on a journey toward holiness.

Accountability, community and freedom

Some readers serve (or will serve) in church contexts in which the very idea that a minister might challenge the actions of a congregant is entirely beyond the pale. Such churches assume or emphasize maximal personal freedom, including the freedom to affiliate quite loosely with the congregation or to move readily from one church to another if anything becomes uncomfortable or displeasing.

Sometimes, in Baptist settings, such a maximalist freedom position is explicitly grounded in doctrines like the priesthood of all believers. This core Baptist belief can tend to weaken the role of church authorities and heighten the responsibility of individual believers in their walk with Jesus.

“A church is not a church if it is just a loose, temporary affiliation of people who currently find the congregation a pleasing religious product.”

I would suggest that even within a Baptist framework that emphasizes the priesthood of all believers, congregations need a covenantal dimension to their identity, and ministers have a covenant-guarding responsibility. A church is not a church if it is just a loose, temporary affiliation of people who currently find the congregation a pleasing religious product. That is more of a consumerist model than anything like a covenant, in which members enter a disciplined community with shared commitment to a serious journey of Christian discipleship.

I find it impossible to read the New Testament seriously and accept that the minister is just a provider of religious products, with no obligation to care for the souls of the flock, including by providing directive, sometimes corrective, moral counsel. Sondra Wheeler agrees, which is one of the reasons why I find the work of this Methodist ethicist an important contribution to our conversation. We are called to be moral guides to those Christians whom we serve, and we will be held to account by the God who called us.

This column is adapted from David Gushee’s latest book, Introducing Christian Ethics.

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1 thought on “The Moral Dimension of the Ministerial Vocation”

  1. David E. Roberts

    Would Wheeler’s book be a good study for a Peer Learning Group? It sounds as though it would be challenging.

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