The Need for Congregational Ethics Policies in The Episcopal Church and Other Progressive Faith Communities

My bet is that, when you saw the title of this post, you thought, “Why would we need that? This is a church, after all.” Or, you said to yourself, “Doesn’t the Bible provide the guidance we need?”

Natural reactions, for sure. But consider this: A December 2014 poll about perceptions of honesty and integrity among professions ranked clergy right in the middle of the pack when it comes to ethics. Nurses took the top spot, while pharmacists, police officers, and physicians all beat out clergy. (The good news, if that’s what you want to call it, is that clergy did manage to come in ahead of business executives, lawyers, and bankers. Small consolation, that.)

What’s really troubling, though, is that public perceptions of clergy integrity have fallen by almost 25% since 1977.The upshot is that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have a lot of work to do in this area, and being a church is no guarantee of ethical conduct. Or, put in other words, if we are ever going to turn the situation around, we need to set clear expectations and establish standards of behavior, then strive to live up to those expectations.

Consider: How often do children live up, or down, to the expectations that adults set? Church is no different.

What I find particularly troubling is that progressive faith traditions, like The Episcopal Church of which I am a member, by and large ignore these issues. Yet other denominations, both progressive and conservative, have implemented such policies. For example, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has published codes of ethics, with one set for pastors and another for congregations and their leadership teams. Apropos pastors, the NAE policy asks them to:

• Pursue integrity
• Be trustworthy
• Seek purity
• Embrace accountability
• Facilitate fairness

Congregations and their leaders are encouraged to:
• Honor and support the gifts Christ gives to the churches
• Promote the unity of Christ’s body
• Practice accountability
• Practice good stewardship
• Practice hospitality
• Seek the welfare of the community where God has placed it

Pretty straightforward, but I have been in plenty of churches where these would be useful reminders.The progressive Disciples of Christ has a similar code of ethics. Called the “Ethical Guidelines for Congregational Conduct,” it contains important reminders such as “we treat each other with courtesy and kindness,” and “Our personal conduct reflects the Body of Christ and our Christian values.” And the one that I really like: “We will select our officers intentionally and impartially on the basis of their commitment, competence, compassion and maturity in the faith. ” Unfortunately, I have far too often seen clergy either appoint members of their executive committee, ignoring canons that require them to be elected, or steering and manipulating the process from behind the scenes. Moreover, in far too many churches bad behavior is not an impediment to serving in leadership positions.

It also is worth noting that, in the wake of the sexual abuse cases, the Roman Catholic Church has done tremendous work in creating and implementing codes of conduct in many dioceses. These go far beyond the vague provisions of The Episcopal Church’s disciplinary canons, both in providing specific guidance as to acceptable and unacceptable conduct, and in addressing abusive conduct that is not sexual in nature. Moreover, these policies include both clergy, lay employees, and volunteers. This stands in stark contrast to The Episcopal Church, which got off to an excellent start with implementing model sexual misconduct prevention policies, but has not moved much past that. As a result, we have no denomination-wide policies on harassment, bullying, conflicts of interest, or other behaviors that could cause grave harm to the church.

On a personal note, I am reminded of my experience with an abusive member of the clergy–a situation that was not helped by fellow parishioners who, among other things, sent messages saying I should “go kill myself,” and threatening the employment of family members. The fact that anyone would think this was appropriate behavior under any circumstances is deeply troubling, and downright appalling coming from a fellow church member. It also underscores the fact that there are serious gaps in personal and organizational integrity in our churches. This view is reinforced by several recent high-profile cases of egregious clergy misconduct within The Episcopal Church, all of which have caused lasting reputational harm to the church.

So, given that ethics policies have been adopted by Roman Catholics, evangelicals progressives alike, why haven’t The Episcopal Church and other mainstream progressive denominations stepped up to the plate and done the same? I believe there is much we could learn from our evangelical sisters and brothers and others who have taken steps to bolster church ethics.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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