A Higher Standard?

Should clergy be held to a higher ethical standard than the population at large? It’s a question that has been debated at least as long as there have been clergy. Of course, in an ideal world everyone would hold themselves to impeccable standards of behavior at all times. Perfection, however, can only be a goal (as opposed to a reality) in the lives of human beings.

As we evaluate questions of clergy behavior, it’s important that I say at the outset that the areas of behavior that a good number of people get excited about when it comes to clergy are aspects of behavior that don’t concern me at all. I don’t care if an ordained person drinks, smokes, plays cards, swears, dances, or any other of those bizarre “holiness code” obsessions. The reason I don’t care is that none of those behaviors hurts anyone – though clearly smoking isn’t good for anybody – or betray the trust of reasonable individuals. My point is that, except for people with some rather unrealistic standards of behavior, nobody is traumatized by those kinds of behaviors. The same is true for divorce. Relationships are very difficult, and unfortunately sometimes relationships don’t work out.

On the other hand, a promiscuous ordained person reflects through their behavior some issues they have not yet worked though, as well as some questionable judgment – and it’s also true that promiscuous behavior is more often than not destructive or at least harmful to the individuals involved. There are times when promiscuous behavior is symptomatic of underlying unresolved issues, and when those issues are addressed the individual feels less compelled to act out sexually. Were a member of the clergy to find themselves acting out, I would encourage them to seek treatment and as long as they complied I don’t believe any further action would be necessary – assuming, of course, that they were being sexual in a mutually consenting context with people of legal age.

The truth is that, in most areas of human behavior, I don’t believe there should be a different standard among the ordained and those who are not ordained. That having been said, there are some behaviors that might not be a huge deal for the average person but which impact the credibility of a clergy person profoundly. Let’s examine just a few:

1. Loss of Focus on Being a Servant Minister. This can happen for any number of reasons and can manifest in many different ways. Some religious systems have historically understood ordained ministry to automatically make a person closer to God, and some members of religious traditions treat their clergy as if they actually were God whether or not that is the official understanding of the tradition. Other times a minister receives a lot of accolades or recognition for their talents and starts to take on something of a rock star persona – and sometimes that persona is encouraged by the culture in which the minister serves. Whatever the cause, when a minister loses sight of their commonality with the people they serve, a distance is created that limits that minister’s effectiveness.

2. The Problem of Kindness. Somewhere along the line quite a few religious types started believing that it was more important to be “kind” – in the sense of telling people what they want to hear – than it is to speak the truth. The problem is that it is never kind to be less than truthful. Truth may hurt, but deceit destroys. More insidious than being less than truthful out of concern for the feelings of another is the decision clergy sometimes make to be less than truthful to protect colleagues who are behaving poorly. Cover-ups are never appropriate, and inappropriate behavior must be named as such – no matter who engages in it. Naming behavior isn’t the same thing as trying to destroy a person’s life. We need to recognize that clergy who get caught in scandalous, unethical behavior damage the ability of the  public at large to trust clergy. When other clergy remain silent about the behavior, it only makes the problem worse. Most damaging of all, failing to name inappropriate behavior for what it is belies the belief that many high profile clergy seem to have that they are somehow above the law, above standards of decency and morality, and can step on whomever they please with impunity.

3. Undue Concern About Reputation or Image. Clergy should be concerned about their reputation to the extent that it impacts their ability to maintain the trust of those they serve. That’s very different, however, than buying into values and behaviors that the culture holds dear when they conflict with spiritual values. Again, I am not referring to silly notions of holiness but rather positions or stances that one is called to take because they believe in the principles of their tradition. For example, Jesus clearly taught that God has what is called “a preferential option for the poor,” which means that God loves and values the poor and oppressed. As servants of God, we are called to be politically active in ways to see that the lot of the marginalized is improved. It also means that, no matter how much we may be tempted or told by our friends that we  deserve a Rolls Royce or a mansion, we are called by God to reject those values and temptations. Make no mistake about it, when a so-called pastor is making several million dollars a year and has luxurious homes around the country or even the world, they have lost their calling and the legitimacy of their ministry. Ego rules the day, not spirituality

The sad truth is that one doesn’t have to think very long or very hard to come up with several high profile – and some not so high profile – clergy who regularly engage in the inappropriate practices I have listed above and believe they are entitled to do so! While the institutional Church faces its share of problems, and while most of them are due to the intransigence of the Church and its tendency to stifle creativity and reward conformity, these kinds of behaviors on the part of clergy represent death blows not just to the institution but also to the hearts and souls of the very people clergy are called to serve. Sadly, it won’t change until the masses stop allowing these behaviors to continue unchallenged. We can start today, and I will stand beside you.

3 thoughts on “A Higher Standard?

  1. Excellent clarification of ‘what’ the clergy should/shouldn’t do. I agree with all your points, however, this phrase is unsettling to my ‘mind’ of God: This comes across (to me) that God cares (?) MORE for the poor, or pays more attention to the poor(?) My God loves ALL unconditionally, regardless of rich or poor…..altho I believe true ‘clergy members’ and spiritual seekers are ones who ‘serve the poor and oppressed’. Clarification please? Oh, and lets not forget- I have been the very poor, never the rich, but lower middle class is where I’m at now. Almost prefer the poor myself-none of these material ‘things’ to watch household members stress over. Except my dogs of course. If I could take them with me some day-well…that’s another story for another time.

    1. Thank you for bringing this up – I didn’t explain the idea of a preferential option very well. It doesn’t mean that God loves any group more than any other. It refers to the 3000 odd verses in the Bible that are about caring for the poor, the widowed (who were consigned to either poverty or prostitution) and the orphaned (ditto). The take away is that God is heavily concerned about the fate of the less fortunate, and – regardless of how you understand the inspiration of the Bible – the biblical authors spent a lot of time and energy trying to communicate that sense to their readers. It’s why people like Sen. Paul Ryan who believe that Catholic teaching says that government shouldn’t care for the poor just don’t understand their own Church’s teachings. It’s why people who believe that wealth is a sign of God’s favor are dead wrong. It’s not a difference in terms of God’s love, it’s more an emphasis on God’s concern for those unable to care for themselves. Clergy and Churches that pile up wealth for themselves do so at the expense of those 3000 verses – and, since there are so many of them, it can’t be the case that they aren’t aware of them!

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