Is the Gospel Being Hindered by Unethical Clergy?

Gallup reports that a growing number of people think clergy are unethical. This year marks the lowest rating to date, with 42 percent saying the clergy has “very high” or “high” honesty and ethical standards. The historical high of 67 percent occurred in 1985. Overall, clergy ranked ninth on the list behind judges and just ahead of auto mechanics.

Gallup has measured Americans’ views on the honesty and ethics of the clergy 33 times dating back to 1977. Although the overall average positive rating is 55 percent, it has fallen below that level since 2009.

WHAT IS SHAPING PUBLIC SENTIMENT?

Reasons for the decline are hard to pin down, but the research shows the clergy as a profession lost much of its luster in 2002 amid the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Gallup reports, “While positive ratings of the clergy’s honesty and integrity rebounded somewhat in the next few years, they fell to 50 percent in 2009 and have been steadily declining since then.”

Many who have left the church, referred to as nones by researchers, indicate that their perception of the ethical standards of pastors and Christians as a whole influenced their decision.  

A 2016 Pew Study reported that the reasons nones left the faith included “Too many Christians doing un-Christian things,” “The clergy sex abuse scandal,” and “Because I think religion is not religion anymore. It’s a business…it’s all about money.”

Robert J. Young, the masters of divinity program director at Oklahoma Christian University, identifies three factors that he believes have contributed to the ethics crisis in the clergy:

Lack of Spiritual Focus

Ministry interviews seldom ask about personal spiritual health and growth. Few ministerial training programs require a spiritual-formation component. The significant requirement of spiritual reflection and formation in ministerial training is the exception not the rule. Have we forgotten that spiritual leaders must be spiritual? Are we so busy pursuing God’s work by methods proven in the marketplace that we have forgotten God’s kingdom work is spiritual? How will unspiritual people minister God’s presence effectively in the church when God is barely present in their lives? Without spiritual focus, spiritual famine will come. Genuine ministry is fraught with frailty, frustration and even failure. The greatest failure, however, may be seeking power for ministry in the physical rather than the spiritual realm.

Misguided Evaluation

How should ministry be measured? There are two opposite extremes. On one hand, worldly standards of success often replace spiritual evaluation. Some churches fail to appreciate effective ministry in their demand for numerical results. God’s Old Testament prophets would not have fared well in many modern churches. On the other hand, some churches and ministers fail to understand the power and potential of effective ministry and suffer because of their low expectations. The ultimate measurement of ministry is faithfulness to God. Ministry that is faithful to God never fails. Faithful ministry brings God’s power to bear in this world, and God promises increase. His Word never returns empty.

Worldly Expectations

Our society and churches often buy into the worldly mindset more than we like to admit. We frequently have expectations that do not appreciate the elastic, flexible nature of ministry. We do not know with certainty whether ministers work for God or for churches. We affirm the former, but often practice the latter. We are more apt to clone preachers than allow valid ministry consistent with the minister’s personality.

H.B. London, Jr., vice president of ministry outreach/pastoral ministries for Focus on the Family, identified similar problems. He told the Enrichment Journal:

“In my work as a pastor to pastors, I see ethical mistakes, financial integrity mistakes, and men and women disregarding one another and their families because success is so important to them. Sometimes I think we use God as J.B. Phillips describes in Your God Is Too Small. When we put God in a box and only pull Him out whenever we need Him, it presents ethical problems. When we speak, teach and think for God, it is really not for God at all. It is for our convenience. We are simply using God as a crutch.”

“Another critical issue I see frequently is the church mirroring the world rather than the world mirroring the church. The church is not impacting society like society is impacting the church. The world is in our congregations. If we are not careful, we will downplay the problems of homosexuality, divorce, abortion, euthanasia or easy believism. If we do not guard the church in the next five to 10 years, it will become more of a social institution than a deeply spiritual, moral institution.”

IS A CODE OF ETHICS NEEDED?

Could the declining numbers be resurrected by a shared code of ethics? The National Association of Evangelicals has one. It calls on clergy to:

Pursue integrity; in personal character, in personal care, in preaching and teaching

Be trustworthy; in leadership, with information, with resources

Seek purity; in maintaining sexual purity, in spiritual formation, in theology, in professional practice

Embrace accountability; in finances, in ministry responsibilities, in a denomination or a ministry organization

Facilitate fairness; with staff, with parishioners, with the community, with a prior congregation

Robert Young believes the church bears responsibility for improving the numbers too. He has seven suggestions to help them accomplish that.

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.

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