I was serving as interim pastor of a small congregation and working with their search committee as they sought a new pastor. The committee asked me to make some contacts related to one particular candidate. I made several phone calls and discovered a disturbing pattern. The pastor in question had a reputation of borrowing money from lay leaders in a congregation and then moving on, failing to repay the indebtedness. Although the candidate was an effective preacher and seemed to have pastoral ministry skills, this raised some red flags for me and the search committee when they received my report.
This is one of those ethical areas that are rarely touched in seminary or when groups of ministers gather to talk. There are certain boundary issues—such as money, relationships, and time management—that are often overlooked in ministerial training. Although some denominational groups have codes of ethics that address such concerns, Baptists—being congregational in polity—often fail to address these concerns.
Why do otherwise good and effective leaders ignore common sense and fail to observe boundaries? I think we often rationalize our actions with internal arguments that justify our actions or seem sound at the moment. We succumb to our own hubris despite our better intentions.
For example, a minister may say, “I have been called by God to accomplish a mission, so it is acceptable if I cut some corners.” This false sense of entitlement may lead to charging expenses to the church for personal items, accepting large gifts from church members, or using church resources for personal projects. The minister argues that I am on “a mission for God,” so I have some latitude in these cases.
Sometimes a minister ignores boundaries out of fear of not being able to satisfy everyone in the congregation. This sense of Insecurity or inadequacy leads the minister to seek validation in places that should be “off limits.” This results in sexual impropriety, manipulating others to one’ own ends, and lying to cover one’s actions.
There are occasions when ministers justify their ethical shortcuts as an effort to provide proper support for their families. Certainly one wants to be a responsible spouse and parent, but the end does not justify the means and can bring shame to all involved.
How can a minister avoid these transgressions?
First of all, find a group of ministers where you can be transparent about your struggles. Very often, a pastor benefits more from being part of an interdenominational group rather than one made up of members of his or her denomination. Internal politics in the denomination may inhibit honesty and openness. If such a group is not available, seek out a pastoral counselor or therapist for regular meetings.
Second, learn to be transparent with your spouse about your struggles. Although you cannot expect your spouse to fulfill all of your emotional needs, you owe it to your partner to share the challenges you face.
Third, have a clear understanding with staff and lay leaders in the church about how potentially compromising situations will be addressed. Who handles the money in the church and who approves payments? There should be clear, written procedures in place with oversight over everyone involved including the pastoral staff. When and where will the pastor or other staff meet or counsel with lay leaders? If these sessions do not take place in the church office, are they in a public place or is there someone else present in the house if it is a home visit? As trivial as such guidelines may seem, they exist to protect all who are involved.
Can a person who wishes to transgress get around these guidelines? Of course, but all of us benefit from these reminders that we have limits in our lives and ministries. Good boundaries protect us rather than restrict us.