A classic guide to ethics since 1928. Nolan Harmon studied the ethical codes of conduct of five major denominations and secured the opinions of eighty-six leading pastors. Harmon uses this wisdom to show ministers how to conduct themselves ethically in virtually every phase of ministry, including special occasion rituals.
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About the Author
Nolan B. Harmon, a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church, has served the church in many capacities since 1920. He is the author of Understanding the United Methodist Church, also published by Abingdon.
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Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette
By Nolan B. Harmon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 1928 Lamar and Whitmore
All rights reserved.
THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
By common consent, the Christian ministry is esteemed the noblest of the professions. Some may object to this classification, and some may wish it qualified by affirming that by the Christian ministry is meant a real ministry and not a counterfeit one. General consent, however, does give to the ministry primacy among the noble callings. Many ministers believe it to be higher in kind as well as degree, but they never press this upon others. They take the recognition of their "high calling," not as a mark of personal honor to themselves, but as an honor to that One who first called them. Like the Apostle, the best minister strives to apprehend that for which he was himself apprehended.
From the acknowledged truth that the ministry is the highest form of professional service spring several principles that form the axioms on which any consideration of the minister's conduct must be based:
1. The minister must keep the nobility of the calling uppermost in his or her own mind. Should the minister fail to do this, he or she had better take up some other form of work. If for any cause the pastor begins to look down upon the profession or to feel that its glory has departed, then the calling is lost. The temptation may come, for instance, to measure the ministry by some of the standards that apply to the work of other professions—by temporal influence, by cultural values, by that ubiquitous and omnipresent measure of all things in our day and time, money. But should the minister attempt to use any of these things as a measure, failure will surely follow. The Christian ministry can no more be measured by these values than time can be measured by the mile or space by the pound. The professional standards of the ministry belong to another category, a spiritual one, nevertheless a very real one. Any effort to force a comparison to other professions will fail. The Christian minister must know this. The pastor who deprecates the calling in his or her own mind or who doubts its value is in a bad way. Let the story of Sir Lancelot and the lions be recalled. When, as Tennyson gives the story to us, the beasts rose up and each grasped the knight by a shoulder, a voice came, saying:
Doubt not, go forward; if thou doubt, the beasts Will tear thee piecemeal.
So the minister who doubts the mission and work of the calling is in a fair way to be torn piecemeal between the twin lions of hopelessness and despair. The person who doubts not, but goes forward believing, will find the world believing also.
2. The minister must hold high in outward acts the established reputation of the Christian ministry. There is a degree of popular esteem in which the ministry is held, a popular regard, estimation, and measure, that is not the making of one generation, but of all generations. It is entirely possible for one minister to lower or injure this popular estimation. When this happens, a person's excuse may be that prevalent conceptions as to ministerial rights and privileges are wrong, and, therefore, he or she is engaged in an attempt to set them right. Or one may say that new occasions teach new duties, and so on. But every minister should weigh very carefully his or her own thought and intent against the practice of the ages. Just as no reputable lawyer ever breaks the traditions of the ancient and honorable calling, just as no physician departs from, but holds in the highest respect, professional ethics and methods, so also the ministry should preserve and guard those traits which, by a common consent, belong to the highest type of ministerial service.
It would be impossible to list all the various ways ministers may lower the popular estimation in which their profession is held, but all know that it can be lowered. Perhaps ministers should have a custom such as prevails among Army officers. There is an old charge for which military and naval officers are court-martialed, known as conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. What this conduct is cannot be specified beforehand—each case is brought to trial on its own merits. Sometimes it is for one thing, sometimes for another, occasionally even for unprecedented breaches in official bearing. On all such occasions, the officers themselves act as judges of this vague, intangible, but all-embracing law. Cannot the same standard be applied to the conduct of ministers?
For instance, in the name of "pulpit freedom" or of "necessary showmanship," some ministers have, frankly, become publicity seekers. The minister who thus breaks a thousand years of pulpit tradition (and this can be done in a thousand ways) may receive "two columns" notice in all the papers and be flattered as one "free from ancient shackles"; but wisdom tells us to await the final fruits of this person's life and acts. This is not to plead for a narrow-grooved ministry, nor for conformity to traditionalism as such. One may be suspicious though of the minister who is so anxious to show himself "free" that he wears the clothes of a clown in order not to be taken for a "person of the cloth," or who turns the pulpit into a vaudeville stage to show that no bondage of pulpit is formal binding. Such ministers more often than not give the impression that they are lovers of publicity more than lovers of God, more anxious to proclaim themselves than their Lord. Buffoonery has no place in the pulpit of God. Care should be taken by each minister that public and private conduct not be unbecoming of the best traditions of the profession.
Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman is always conduct unbecoming a minister, but sometimes conduct not unbecoming in others may be so in the minister. Henry Wilder Foote, in his book, now long out of print, The Minister and His Parish, observed that the community expects a closer adherence to moral standards on the part of the minister than from the ordinary man; there are "courses of conduct which, while all right for others, are unbecoming in him." This is quite true. A different ethical sense governs the minister from that which the ordinary person recognizes. A minister may rebel, and with good logic, too, at the implications of this statement. He or she may affirm that ministers have a perfect right to do what any other Christian has the right to do— theoretically they have. Practically, however, as Lloyd C. Douglas expressed it, people will make a priest out of a minister whether he or she likes it. The minister will discover that he or she is bound not only by the law of the officer and the gentleman, but also by something more, which may be called by various names.
The scriptural term expediency probably best describes this principle, which, while not always binding on others, must always be considered by the minister. Paul expressed this concerning his own Christian right: "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful" (I Cor. 6:12). We need not push into the Apostle's deeper meaning here, but the successful pastor is going to learn that while certain customs, habits, manners, and viewpoints may be logical, sane, and correct, it will not always be expedient to thrust them forward as such. Not that principles must be toned down, or that expediency itself may not sometimes be made an excuse for moral cowardice and compromise, but it is true that things that for others may be lawful, may for the minister not be expedient.
For instance, a certain minister was a great smoker of tobacco. After service one Sunday evening, he walked home with one of his elders. As the pair approached the house, the layman turned to his pastor and said: "Reverend N——, if you will not be offended at my request, I am going to ask that you do not let my boys see you smoking. They admire you very much, and I do not wish them to be influenced by your example and, while they are young, learn the use of tobacco." Now the pastor might have entered upon a strong argument in defense of his right to smoke and might perhaps have proved his case. He might have gone into a dissertation upon tobacco as something lawful, if lawfully used. He might even have made a matter of principle of it and said that he felt it right to stand fast in the liberty in which he had been made free and that he could not afford to give away his Christian liberty and that of others by yielding in this regard. As a matter of fact, he said nothing, but did as he was asked. He threw away his cigar and "quit" from then on. He said later that if he had any habit that prevented him from exerting the best sort of influence over the young people of his church, that habit was wrong—and his statement was right.
So it is with many points of conduct. It is perfectly lawful for a minister to associate with a social group that has nothing in common with the congregation, but the time may come when he or she will find that it was not expedient. It is, perhaps, lawful for the minister to tell the loudest and best jokes at the Sunday dinner table, but when that person again stands in the pulpit and reads the "watch and be sober" phrases that were written, not at a Roman banquet, but in the lurid glow of fiery persecution, throwing its shadows against an eternal background, the pastor is going to find that it was not quite expedient to tell those jokes.
In the attempt to be good mixers some ministers have used expressions and even told off-color stories that they hoped would prove them to be "like others." They little realize what they lose by doing this even in the estimation of those whom they would impress. Dr. Foote had it right: Whether we like it or not, the people demand a higher standard from the minister than from the ordinary person.
3. The minister must never forget that he or she is one who serves and must be on guard against any temptation the profession presents. The minister occupies a position in the local church and congregation and is placed on a pedestal in the minds of the people. Everything serves to dramatize the centrality of pastor, preacher, and executive; long continued and unchallenged leadership often intensifies this pre-eminence. The pastor's opinions in the official church meetings are quite often listened to by able business leaders as though an oracle were pronounced, and the smallest wish is sometimes regarded as something divinely ordered. It is no wonder that persons in the ministry, if they are not careful, will tend to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (and there have been instances in which successful ministers delivered their personal opinions and judgments with an assurance of complete infallibility). Ministers' spouses often perceive this magisterial attitude on the part of their spouses before the persons are aware of it. Every minister ought, of course, to lead, but this leadership should be tempered with a deep-seated awareness of his or her own fallibility. The minister should never forget what manner of person he or she is. A sense of humor and a plainspoken friend or two in the church will act as a saving remedy here, and while a minister should take the work seriously, he or she should never take the self seriously. Every minister should be on guard against "pre-eminence setting in."
4. The minister must never for reasons of personal safety desert the parish and people when some great, universal danger impends, such as a hostile invasion, an epidemic, or a natural disaster. Happily, this situation seldom arises—has arisen only a few times in our own land—but the unanimous voice of ministers of all the ages has declared that the pastor may not leave the people and fly to safety when the people themselves are in danger. The minister may send his or her family to safety or protection when possible; indeed, in visiting those with contagious diseases, the pastor must be extraordinarily careful to protect his or her home, but for the pastor there must be faithfulness unto death. It is in times of natural disaster, floods, epidemics, earthquakes, and bloodshed that the pastor may prove a tower of strength to the flock. If the captain of the ship is the last person to step into the lifeboat; if the airline pilot makes it the first consideration to save the plane, surely ministers of Christ can stay at their posts during times that try their people's souls, giving comfort and help and rescue.
This question was discussed at great length in Possidius' Life of Saint Augustine. It seems that the barbarians were laying waste all North Africa and were advancing to besiege Hippo. The ministers, with others, were deserting the churches and fleeing before them. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was asked by many priests what course they should pursue. They were not cowards, but doubted the wisdom of remaining and giving their lives for a problematical good. Many persons had fled, though some refused to leave. Augustine, the great church father, sat down and wrote a letter about it. It is solid Latin (and Augustine could write some of the most involved, as well as some of the clearest, Latin ever composed by mortal man), but out of the language of a bygone age a mighty spirit and a great man makes himself entirely clear. It is not right, said Augustine, to close the churches; it is not right for the shepherd to flee when the flock is to be left—the priest of God must stay! Today the universal voice of the Christian ministry says Augustine was right.
One of the distinguished authorities relied upon by this book insists that the rule against the pastor's deserting the people in time of peril or emergency applies also to a minister's leaving a local church in what may be for it a time of crisis. When some large building enterprise or heavy financial plan has been undertaken (especially at the request of the pastor), or when a fire or other disaster has struck heavily at a congregation's resources, no pastor should at such a time pack up and take a pulpit elsewhere. That there is validity in this assertion is, of course, granted; but it would be difficult to maintain that no pastor should ever leave a church or accept a call to another pulpit as long as the church is in difficulties. Most churches have problems of various sorts arising continually, and the church without difficulties has yet to be discovered. Circumstances here as elsewhere would seem to govern in this matter—the degree of involvement or the progress made in some pending plan as well as the pastor's responsibility for leading the church into it. No minister worthy of the name, after persuading parishioners to undertake some heavy financial burden or leading them to commit themselves to some momentous plan, would then feel free to leave these parishioners immediately upon receiving a call to greener, and less oppressive, pastures. Such moves have been made, of course, and may be made again, in the working out of the ministerial system. But many a minister has spoiled his or her record in a place by the manner of leaving it, and the minister who must follow such a person will have a much heavier task, thanks (or no thanks) to the predecessor.
5. The minister must utilize time properly. Like other professions, the ministry is not a matter of eight working hours with pay-and-a-half for overtime, but of life service. The minister, therefore, gives completely to the profession. Of course, this does not preclude days off, vacation periods, and so on, which belong to all professional people, but the minister should feel that the profession demands the very best. To engage for a certain part of time in other remunerative work would break into the usefulness of the calling. One would consider it a lowering of a legal profession should one learn that a certain lawyer acted as a security guard during part of the time or a letting down of the medical profession if one found that a physician in off hours acted as an accountant for a manufacturing concern. Not that these other occupations are not eminently worthy and fully as estimable as are the professions mentioned above, if engaged in honorably, as they should be—but professional people universally hold that their profession demands their all.
The ministry is often tempted to depart from this professional role. Salaries are sometimes inadequate, and in some places it becomes almost a necessity for the minister to help supplement the salary by engaging in other occupations. This is bad—bad for the minister, bad for the calling, and bad for the people. Where there is any other choice, this should not be done. However, the hard but unanswerable fact is that sometimes it must be done. But consequences take no thought of excuses. The preacher who is compelled to buy and sell on the side or to teach school for a remuneration will find that his or her ministerial standing suffers, no matter how good the reason. The minister will do well to avoid any work outside the ministry if at all possible.
Excerpted from Ministerial Ethics and Etiquette by Nolan B. Harmon. Copyright © 1928 Lamar and Whitmore. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Christian Ministry,
2. The Minister as a Person,
3. The Minister as a Citizen,
4. Relationships with Other Ministers,
5. The Pastoral Ministry,
6. The Minister and the Church,
7. Conducting Public Worship,