I ran across a Gallup Poll recently that has nagged me into blogging my thoughts. According to News.Gallop.com, nurses, medical doctors and pharmacists earn the highest ratings from Americans for their honesty and ethical standards. What is wrong with this? After all, we want to trust those who advise, treat, prescribe, and care for our health needs. Of course! But what bothered me was my expectation to see Ministers (clergy) in the highest-ranking spot. Ouch! I was hurt that we who wear the uniform of Minister could only muster up a 37% response for being highly honest and ethical. In fact, this was the lowest score since 1985 when we hit the high-water mark of 67%. What!? We surely can’t be proud of this? Now I know you are probably thinking like a true evangelical, such as I. The blame for this poor “trust score” falls at the feet of the Scandalous Catholic Church. Yes, it was those Catholics who brought us down with all the pedophile scandals surrounding their priests and cover ups. Has the Catholic disgrace hurt American’s view of the church overall? Sure, but we non-Catholics can’t pat ourselves on the back that easily. The survey indicates that all those who identify as Christian (I know, most Americans who believe in God think they are Christian) returned only a score of 43% positive for high honesty and ethical standards. Those who identify as protestant rank ministers at just 48%. I might not be concerned if we could have come in at, say . . . 79%. I could have written off the extreme-never-happy respondents whose feelings were hurt 15 years ago and responded negatively to the survey as pay-back. Then, I might could have moved on and forget about it. But, 48% is just not going to do. How can we Gospelize the world if those we live among, work with, and serve alongside view us as exercising average ethics and honesty? If we don’t change our ways, we may be pairing off with the likes of Congress 8%, Lawyers 19%, or telemarketers 9%. Am I wrong for thinking we ought to rank about 92%? I could delight in that stat. I could feel honored to wear a (92% club) uniform even if I knew in my heart that I was just an 85 percenter – close enough.
It bothers me, and I can’t help but put my thoughts down as to why we find ourselves in this declining trend of ministry honesty and ethics. What is going on?
My thoughts on this trend:
MEDIA MATTERS: No doubt the sensational stories of unethical behavior among church and denominational leaders always make great headlines, like a detective who is a secret night-time vigilante or a doctor who delivers comfort to patients in the morning, but enjoys inflicting great pain on them in the afternoon. Anytime there is a chasm between what a person stands for and what they actually do it makes for increased follow-ship, readership, and controversy. This is true every day, but when scandal hits the church, they make national news like a wildfire skipping across the dry western plains. Why? Mostly because we have high expectations for those who are charged with leading people out of sin. When someone of moral religious standing finds themselves in the same sin-pit they advocate against, it seems more infamous. I could post a litany of minsters who have fallen from their thrones due to sexual scandal, but that would not cover the spectrum of financial, personal, and other shameful misdeeds held in secret until exposed.
ONE SIZE FITS MOST: This tag line not only applies to ear buds, toothbrushes, and beanies, but culture as well. Christians hear about a ministry failure of one or two and assume most are that way. Non-Christians hear ministry moral failure stories and conclude that we are probably all the same. The view of the few, extends to the many. I remember taking youth on visitation to follow up with middle and high school students who had visited a youth event or church service. It was a weekly occurrence and we were nearly always greeted with courtesy and invited inside, but in the mid 80s two scandals brought down the prominent Assemblies of God televangelist Jim Bakker. His sexual misconduct with his secretary, Jessica Hahn led to his resignation, while his illegal misuse of ministry funds eventually led to his imprisonment. By 1987 it was a very different and difficult landscape for making “at home” visits to young people and adults alike. These type incidents make people more skeptical, suspicious, or cynical towards minsters and ministry. The Bakker, Swaggart, Haggard, (what is it with these double letter scandalizers?) and Tilton scandals changed the evangelical practice of visitation forever.
SOME VERSION OF THE TRUTH: My final observation in understanding our low honesty and ethics ranking is the loose grip a growing number of minsters seem to have on truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now, I am not really talking about the Sunday message, because I believe, for the most part, the truth from the pulpit is still the high aim of most minsters who propagate biblical truth. However, when it comes to ministry leadership and management, we must ask ourselves if we qualify for a reputation of being completely trustworthy. In other words, are we more prone to share some version of the truth, that version which advances our agenda, image, or relational capital?
When ministry leaders shade the truth, to whatever level, for whatever reason, the trust level among those observing is reduced. Even if it seems very incidental, people take notice and adjust their filter, and along with it, their level of trust.
When my boys were in their formative years, my wife and I imposed two major principals in the ethics department.
- Daily ask yourself: “What do I need to do before I do what I want to do?” This principal was intended to promote the idea that your time is not 100% personal or discretionary. Ministers certainly know that serving God as a vocational calling requires one to relinquish a portion of time to do what is required over that which is optional. This value also encourages one to be personally responsible for time management and actions. Being honest and ethical with one’s time can reflect well or poorly upon ministry.
- Understand there are THREE types of lies.
1. Telling something you know to be utterly false.
2. Telling only part of the truth as a substitute for the whole truth, leading others to believe something less than the complete truth.
3. Leading someone to believe something to be false by saying nothing at all.
When a ministry leader holds the Ace Card, it becomes tempting to excuse or exempt oneself from the truth in exchange for what might be considered as “for the greater good”. Often this is simply code for – getting something done, having something undone, or preventing something from ever being done. Since the Ace Card eclipses ever other card in the deck, it can only be played a few times before no one wants to play anymore. So, it must be used sparingly or rarely, and only on serious issues where the name of Christ and His Kingdom are at stake.
The problem arises when a ministry leader feels more comfortable with some VERSION of the truth rather than the complete truth. Often, applying pressure for the sake of manipulating the outcome eventually leads down a dark road.
If you are interested in a truth checkup, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you share only favorable information to nudge your team in a particular direction? That is certainly easier than the hard work of prayer.
- Do you overemphasize negative information to sway your team towards a particular decision? That certainly is easier than trusting them with processing facts.
- Do you omit tidbits of information to advance your agenda or point of view?
Ministry leaders often meet with individuals under implied confidentiality or work with teams who are sworn to secrecy. This can inadvertently lend itself into succumbing to the temptation of truth tampering.
So, when it comes to the TRUTH, the whole TRUTH, and nothing but the TRUTH, let’s be deliberate to apply the following scriptures.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Ephesians 4:25
Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. Proverbs 12:22
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, . . . Ephesians 4:15
Remember, God is not inclined to bless the ministry where there are fifty shades of the truth.