I’ve been thinking about a dilemma that many believers who work in church and ministry outreaches often face: Where do we draw ethical boundaries? How do we know when the pastor or ministry leader is hiding something or making a bad decision? When does a ministry become exploitative? What if we see another employee doing wrong? And if we respond, how and when should we do it?
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of churches and ministries out there are solid and are doing great work. But the few that are doing questionable stuff damage the perception of everyone else. That’s why we need to always be on guard to discern when people cross moral, financial, theological, or ethical lines.
If you’re feeling conflicted about something going on in your church, ministry, or nonprofit, here are some thoughts that might help:
First – You can’t know everything. Few employees of major churches and ministries are privy to the inner workings of the organization. You may not have access to detailed financial reports, or know the motivations for certain decisions. There should be a responsible and effective board in place that does, but too often, they’ve been proven ineffective – as we’ve seen so many times in the past. So the truth is, you can’t be responsible for everything, but once something is made public, you should act.
Second – Always start by giving the organization the benefit of the doubt. There have been many times I questioned a decision by a pastor or ministry leader, but because I couldn’t see the bigger picture, I was limited. When it comes to book royalties, salaries, and many other areas, I start with grace and assume they’re doing the right thing. We don’t want to jump to conclusions, because we’re not talking about a witch hunt – we’re talking about responsible ministry.
Third – Moral issues are pretty clear. Adultery, sexual abuse, embezzlement, use of pornography, and other sin is pretty easy to understand and can’t be explained away easily. Especially in larger churches and ministries, where a great deal of money is involved, there’s often tremendous pressure to sweep it under the rug or consider it just a “minor” problem. Some pastors who are caught in sexual sin stay on television or in the pulpit because to leave for a time of restoration would cost them potentially millions of dollars. The pressure is enormous, but the call to action is clear.
Fourth – Question casual decisions that enter gray areas. Most situations you’ll face are not so huge. They won’t be neon lights flashing sexual issues or massive embezzlement. Most will be tiny decisions made in simple meetings about a variety of subjects. It’s been said that you don’t lose your integrity all at once, but you give it away in little bits and pieces. You’ll be at a fundraising meeting and someone will suggest a technique just a bit outside the ethical norm. Or a statement on TV that isn’t quite accurate, but will “help build the audience’s faith.” Or a claim in a direct mail letter that pushes the truth “just a little bit.” In cases like this, it’s easy to just go along. After all, it will help the ministry, or increase our income, or expand our audience. I was in a meeting once where the pastor started joking with young women on the staff and trying to guess the color of their bras and panties. It was so weird I pulled the executive pastor outside and asked what in the world just happened. He said, “Everybody knows the pastor is a joker. It’s no big deal.” But it was a big deal, and six months later he resigned because of an affair. Tiny mistakes that start in gray areas lead to major problems down the road. Red flags matter.
Fifth – When you speak out, you don’t have to be a jerk. I’m not suggesting that anyone become the theology cop or morality policeman at your organization. In most cases, these aren’t bad people, they’re just trying to do their best in a difficult and competitive culture. I’ve discovered that a friendly “reminder” is all that is usually needed. In many cases, I’ve simply made a joke, or reminded them of the implications of their idea, and what could happen should it get to the next level or take a wrong turn. In most cases, that’s all it takes.
Finally – If things do get bad, know when to leave. The time to decide where you personally draw these lines in your own life is right now – not when you’re in a high-pressure meeting or in the studio during an important filming session. It’s far too easy to just “go along” when others are waiting for your decision, or a radio or TV crew is standing by. Make those ethical decisions now, so that if the time comes, you can act with integrity and grace.
Leaving a church or ministry is tough, and too many employees are treated as traitors when they leave. But Truth is Truth, and when your church, ministry, or other organization crosses a significant moral, financial, theological, or ethical line – and they won’t make changes – you should feel confident walking away.
I love the old saying: “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”