Statement of Ethics for Congregations in the Church of the Brethren
1996 Annual Conference Statement
- 1996 Report
- The Nature of the Congregation
- Relationship to the Larger Church
- Relationship to the Community
- Relationships Within the Congregation
- Relationship to Pastor(s) and Other Staff
- The Congregation and Sexual Improprieties
- Accountability to the Congregation
- Ethical Guidelines for Congregations of the Church of the Brethren
As stated in the Ethics in Ministry Relations Statement adopted by Annual Conference in 1992, there was a call for the development of a congregational code of ethics.
The 1992 Annual Conference Minutes, p.478, state:
“C. That a congregational code of ethics and a system whereby congregations may be called into accountability for unethical behavior be developed.”
The 1992 Annual Conference Minutes, p.469, state:
“Ministerial ethics, therefore, are related to congregational ethics. Although spelling out details of congregational ethics in relationship to its ordained leadership goes beyond the scope of this paper, failure to clarify the theological basis for the congregational dimensions of ministerial ethics would be negligent. Scripture is persistent in its expectations for appropriate support of leadership, yet this has not always been true of the church’s support of its ordained leaders.”
Because this is an extremely important issue for this time, Standing Committee recommends the formation of a study committee of five to be elected by Annual Conference.
Standing Committee further recommends that this committee make a progress report to the 1995 Standing Committee and a final report to Annual Conference in 1996.
1994 Annual Conference Officers on behalf of the 1994 Standing Committee
Earl K. Ziegler, Moderator
Judy Mills Reimer, Moderator-elect
Anne M. Myers, Secretary
Action of the 1994 Annual Conference: Myrna Wheeler, a Standing Committee member from the Pacific Southwest District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that this process for the development of congregational ethics be adopted. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee. It then elected Leah Oxley Harness, Paula Eikenberry Langdon, Carroll (Kaydo) Petry, Phillip C. Stone, and Fred Swartz as its study committee.
This paper Ethics for Congregations in the Church of the Brethren, originated from a recommendation in the Ethics in Ministry Relations paper adopted by Annual Conference in 1992, asking for development of “a congregational code of ethics and a system whereby congregations may be called into accountability for unethical behavior.” Standing Committee received strong support for the recommendation to be implemented. A Standing Committee subcommittee on Human Sexuality and Leadership concerns included the development of congregational ethics in its 1994 report to Standing Committee. In discussing congregational ethics at its meeting in Wichita, Kansas, June 28, 1994, Standing Committee recommended that it be an item of business for the 1994 Annual Conference.
Subsequently, the delegate body of the 1994 Annual Conference adopted the recommendation that a congregational code of ethics be developed and a committee of five persons be elected to study the issue and make a progress report to the 1995 Annual Conference and a final report to the 1996 Annual Conference.
As it began its task, the study committee was well aware of several “givens”:
- A paper on congregational ethics should be regarded as a companion piece to the paper on ethics in ministry relations. Therefore, it should be consistent in theology, direction, intensity, and format.
- To be consistent with the Brethren understanding of “voluntaryism” in religion, the paper should guard against imposing upon congregations arbitrary requirements that either are not biblically sound or violate traditional Brethren values.
- While the attempt to pull together in one statement a congregational code of ethics is unique not only in our denomination but, as far as the committee can tell, unique within the family of Protestant denominations, most of the values that are in the paper have precursors in various Annual Conference and denominational statements. The paper will rely heavily upon those references and sources.
- As with the paper on ministry ethics, this statement on congregational ethics is not to be regarded as a legal document. Rather, it is an affirmation of the faith and discipleship to which we, the Body of Christ, have been called if we are to remain obedient followers of Him who is the Head of the Church. As such, it provides for the corporate body a standard of behavior that is agreed upon by the church, an affirmation by which the congregation as a whole can be held accountable.
- This paper attempts to speak to congregational actions, or the collective body of believers gathered at one place and acting as a whole, rather than to individual ethics. The paper on ministry ethics notes that “God calls all members, including those in leadership, to live by the high standards upheld in the scriptures.” That paper recommends the standards of ethical behavior as applicable to all individual members of the church, with the added responsibility for the leaders and ordained ministers to be role models.
A legitimate question can be raised about the appropriateness of Annual Conference suggesting a code of ethics for individual congregations. For some who are accustomed to complete autonomy and to making decisions about congregational life arid management by whatever method or value seems most expedient, such a code may be viewed as a threat or at best as unnecessary. Other congregations, struggling with survival, economic and otherwise, may feel that the suggested standards of behavior impose an impossible demand upon them, which may result in guilt and discredit.
It is not the intention of this paper to setup standards by which congregations may be “graded” and compared. But it is the hope that congregations may know the mind of the whole denomination regarding what the Body of Christ should be and how it should act as Christ’s representative today, and use this paper as a guideline for seriously examining their own procedures and life. We do not recommend that there be any attempt on the part of the district or any other official group outside of the congregation to initiate an investigation of each congregation’s ethics. The district, however, should be prepared to respond at any time it receives an allegation that a congregation has engaged in questionable ethical activity.
In the New Testament the early church sensed its call to be a faithful community in an unfaithful environment, placed there to witness to God’s love in Christ. Those who shared in this mission were charged to live with the same kind of self-abandonment and sacrifice as Christ demonstrated. The support and power for this momentous task came from their participation in a community of persons who together could proclaim their devotion to Christ, exchange understandings of the way of Christ, and put their devotion and understandings into practice.
Several biblical images instruct us in the nature of this basic Christian community, the congregation:
- The Bride of Christ. In Ephesians 5, the relationship between Christ and the church is used as the model for the covenantal relationship that should exist between husband and wife. The image is one of mutual love and accountability. An understanding of the covenantal nature of the church begins with the covenant established between God and Abraham (Gen. 12). There was to be mutual respect and accountability, and so long as Abraham’s descendants were obedient to God’s will, God would favor them with prosperity and long life. It was the first relationship of its kind in the stories of religion–a personal, and ethical, pact between a god and humanity.
In Christ, the covenant between God and God’s people was particularized. The covenant now had an “administrator,” one who could interpret the relationship between the two “parties.” But more than that, the church would form a covenant with Christ…to honor his teaching and example and in turn to be the recipient of his sacrificial love–love that would form the basis for all other human relationships. Neither the individual Christian nor the church acts unilaterally, but in relation to Christ.
- The Body of Christ. The church is more than a collection of individuals who have promised to follow Christ’s way. The church is the extension of the Incarnation; it functions as Christ’s presence in the world; the evidence of his resurrection. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, makes clear how dependent is the function of the body on the health of every part (1 Cor. 12). Each part must work properly, i.e. with the integrity and love of Christ, for the Body to be healthy.
In Ephesians 4, the image is repeated, indicating that the body is whole when each part “speaks the truth in love, and grows up in every way into him who is the head” (4:15).
- Sojourners. The writer of Hebrews describes the faithful as those who are aware that they ultimately belong to an existence that transcends the earthly, and their activity on earth is guided by that hope (11:13-16). They are not then bound by earthly standards or limitations. They do things for one another that astound the pragmatists. They choose to follow convictions of justice and fairness, even though those decisions are unpopular. They accept a personal discipline that puts the welfare of others before their own needs.
- Holy Priesthood. 1 Peter 2:13-17 assigns an awesome responsibility to the church. It is to perform a priestly function for the world. It is the priest’s function to speak to God for the people and to speak to the people for God. Service and not domination is a distinguishing factor of the church’s life and mission. To serve and not to be served is its first priority.
These biblical images provide a lofty portrait of the church–a covenantal community that is just and loving, one that is not bound or given to earthly attitudes and standards, one that transcends those attitudes and standards through service in the world. Traditionally, Brethren have held to some particular values within that overall framework that have guided both our corporate and individual ethics. These values include the following:
- The New Testament is our rule of faith and practice. We covenant to live by its precepts as taught and demonstrated by Jesus and affirmed by the apostles.
- The Brethren word is as good as our bond. We covenant to be truthful in speech and in honoring the commitments we make. Integrity, fairness, and sincerity are requirements.
- All members are ministers. We are called not only to serve one another, but also to model abundant life in Christ to all with whom we come into contact.
- We believe in living in harmony with all persons, in peacefully solving conflict and in not harming or degrading any other person.
- We believe in the corporate judgment of the gathered church in our understanding of God’s will.
- Each member of the church is a valued part of the whole body. God endows each member with spiritual and natural gifts, and the church values each member’s opinion and contributions.
- Brethren shall be known by their fruits, and Christ should be glorified and revealed in all we do.
The Apostle Paul sought to build a close kinship among all the new Christian communities established as a result of his missionary activity. He shared with them the news of what other congregations were doing (2 Cor. 8:1-2). He reported what others thought of them (1 Th. 1:6-7). He took any promising “missionaries” from the various congregations with Him on his journeys (Col. 4:15). He promoted a mission offering among the churches of Asia for the church at Jerusalem. He forged bonds of service and love within and between Christian communities, overcoming seemingly irreconcilable differences and diversity.
The Christian faith is belief and action shared in community. Christians need other Christians in order to live out their faith. A congregation cannot exist in a vacuum. It will soon become ingrown and will eventually die from lack of the stimuli of accountability and mission.
The Church of the Brethren Manual of Organization and Polity underscores this fact:
“The congregation is not sufficient to itself. It is interdependent with other congregations and the larger church. This calls for patterns which allow the congregation to participate in a network of district, national, and ecumenical relationships. By this interaction, both the congregation and the larger church are enriched.”
All Church of the Brethren congregations are encouraged to adopt the model constitution and bylaws for congregations passed by Annual Conference In 1969. That constitution states that “the congregation shall covenant to support faithfully the program of the Church of the Brethren, recognizing Annual Conference enactments of the Church of the Brethren as having governing force in its life, and shall remain a member of the Church of the Brethren or its successor. The congregation shall send delegates to those official conferences of the Church of the Brethren in which it is entitled to have representation…”
The congregation has an ethical responsibility to support the denomination. There may be rare instances in which the congregation may conclude that conscience will not permit participation in a particular aspect of denominational program. A decision not to participate in a denominational program should occur only after the congregation has engaged in a responsible process of study and prayer and open and honest dialog with denominational representatives. Congregations constantly need to examine and renew their covenant with the denomination and to follow the counsel of the church. The prayerful conclusion not to support a denominational position or program should be a manner of anguish, not competitiveness.
Disagreement with particular actions of the denomination does not give a congregation the right to disparage the whole church. Responsible children who disagree with their parents’ counsel do not belittle them in front of other children nor find reason to withhold their love from them. The congregation, as part of the denominational family of Christ, must deal with its family kindly, respectfully, and lovingly.
The same principles apply to the congregation’s relation to the district. Annual Conference has defined several specific responsibilities to the district organization that are directly related to congregational life, such as the authorization, discipline, and placement of ministers; the coordination of outdoor education; and the training of lay and ministerial leadership. The district is solely dependent upon the support and participation of the congregations within its boundaries for the continuation and effectiveness of its program.
Congregations are to help establish, support, and abide by the policies and decisions of the district. They are to welcome and work with the district executive or other appointed representatives of the district. They are to cooperate with and give encouragement to other congregations within the district.
The Church of the Brethren at the denominational and district levels, as in the congregation, permits and encourages a high degree of member participation. The gathered body, such as Annual Conference and District Conference, is the place for discussion and differences to be handled. After that process is employed, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, congregations should seek faithfully to comply with the decisions.
The local church also is part of a larger whole which comprises the body of Christ. The Church of the Brethren has a long and productive history of working with other Christian communions in the interest of Christian solidarity, witness, and service. Brethren congregations endeavor to know and relate to churches of other denominations in their communities. Our one Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, prayed for unity within the Body (John 17) and demonstrated that effective disciples can come from different Christian perspectives (Luke 9:49-50).
Ethical accountability in relation to other communions calls for the congregation to contribute the uniqueness and strength of its particular witness toward a common goal, rather than seeking to impose sectarian bias. It also supersedes a judgmental stance toward persons and groups of a different orientation, and it decries underhanded or self-righteous means of luring members away from other communions for its own cause (proselytizing).
On the other hand, the congregation must guard against promoting or aligning with any interest groups or programs that may disrupt or pull away from the covenantal life and mission of the congregation.
Jesus seemed to make it clear that taxation that was fair is justified (Luke 20:20- 26) and Peter suggested that the mission of civil authorities is a part of God’s plan for society (1 Peter 2:13-17). Congregations should guard against inappropriate use of their tax-exempt status and should honor in letter and spirit laws that clearly are applicable to them, such statutes as relate to copyrights, safety codes, employee rights, discrimination, accommodation of persons with disabilities, et cetera. Even when churches are exempted from the requirements of some of these laws, the church should aspire to compliance, where appropriate.
In regard to neighborliness, the congregation in its programs and activities, as well as in the maintenance of its property, will respect the environmental safety and appearance of the community in which it is located. And it will model peace and justice in its relationship to the community, in its respect for individuals from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, and in the method(s) by which it may publicly oppose or agree with an issue with strong political or emotional overtones.
Already discussed is the congregation’s role in representing the message and the truth of Jesus Christ. Often in its history, the church has not been sensitive to the kind of image it projects in society, or it has demanded privileges and considerations from its environment beyond its reasonable due. It has sometimes expected to be served, rather than to serve.
The congregation must deal ethically with its community. A violation of that duty occurs if the congregation infringes upon the rights of local businesses by repeatedly selling the same or similar products for profit, at a price that undercuts the merchants. Businesses understand, and often assist with, occasional car washes, bake sales, auctions, et cetera. The congregation must be sensitive to the effect its fund-raising activities has on others. The church also must guard against abusing discount privileges and soliciting gifts and gratuities with coercive methods. The church also should examine the ethical implications of expecting or requesting free professional services. It is perfectly appropriate to accept services and products as gifts. Requesting these gifts, however, should be done in a non-coercive way, not an expectation or assumption that they represent no sacrifice. An ethical congregation will seek to make payment for services and products received by the date the bills are due.
The question of litigation in matters in which the congregation may feel its own rights or privileges have been violated is a difficult one. Traditionally, the Brethren considered it not in keeping with biblical counsel to take a dispute into the civil court (Matt. 5:33-37;1 Cor. 6:1-8). While that conviction may not be as strong in the modern era, there is still a clear ethical problem for Brethren resorting to public courts to handle a matter that the congregation ought to be able to handle itself, or to settle by a more amicable means (cf. Matt. 18:15-17). Both in terms of complying with biblical directives and to model the peace of Christ, the Brethren must seek to resolve disputes in love and harmony.
Another ethical issue for the congregation, in relation to both the local and wider community, is its responsibility to preserve the environment and natural resources. The congregation should model good stewardship of the environment through recycling practices, avoiding waste of energy, and making choices that minimize refuse.
There are many New Testament scriptures that admonish congregations to maintain kind and considerate relationships among the members and the leaders of the church. Indeed, the congregation should be the model for relationships that build up one another and that show respect and admiration for each person’s unique gifts. In that regard, the congregation is to strive for harmony and unity in all it does. Any action or statement that does not first seek the best interests of all its members raises the appearance of an ethical breach and requires scrutiny.
This criterion also applies to the congregation’s organizational and decision-making methods. A characteristic of a Brethren congregation is a democratic approach to choices and direction. For nearly two centuries denominational decisions at Annual Conference were made only by consensus. The wisdom of the collective whole is valued as the closest we can get to the best answer on any question. Thus, a congregation shows lack of respect for a majority of its members by allowing decision-making to fail into the hands of a few. Each member of the congregation must guard against written or oral statements that appeal to those persons’ positions or authority or that are based on incomplete or misleading information. This problem arises in calculated attempts to swing or manipulate attitudes and decisions. Full communication and dialog should be encouraged at all times, and complete records and minutes of all meetings, decisions, finances, et cetera, kept and made available to all members.
The constitution for Brethren congregations gives appropriate direction regarding the mutual accountability of members in the congregation:
“On the one hand, the congregation has a covenantal responsibility to care for its members, to encourage growth in freedom and discipleship, to help members discover their gifts and find ways to serve, and to provide ministries which respond to both spiritual and physical needs. On the other hand, each member has a covenantal responsibility to participate regularly in the life of the congregation, to seek the counsel of the church in living out the way of Christ, to challenge the church to greater accountability to its calling. To respond to opportunities to serve in the congregation and beyond, and to contribute to the church’s ministries in every way possible. “
Sensitivity is to be given to the needs of individuals in the church. The congregation shall provide an environment where personal tensions and difficulties can be shared in full confidence of trust, loving response, and confidentiality. There need to be in place such attitudes of concern, forgiveness, and reason as will readily and effectively provide for the settling of disputes and for reconciliation among conflicting parties. Handling disputes through petitioning, letter writing, and anonymous communication is unethical if done to circumvent open dialog and proper decision making.
The church’s facilities are to be available to all persons seeking to participate with the congregation. There are ethical ramifications whenever anyone is denied the privilege to worship or to participate in other opportunities of the church, whether the denial is a neglect to update policies and facilities (such as in the case of accessibility for the disabled) or outright prejudice.
The church is to be conscious of the need for its lay leadership to model Christian lifestyle, just as for its ministers. The congregation is to nurture and encourage a Christian lifestyle for all its members and call to leadership those persons who seek conscientiously to live out a Christian lifestyle. When matters of personal lifestyle arise, in a Christ-like spirit the congregation is to do everything possible to nurture and restore the person to a Christian lifestyle.
The congregation is to be sensitive in respecting the functions to which it has called its leaders and ministers. For example, it is improper to invite former pastors to perform pastoral functions or visitation in the congregation when another pastor is currently employed. Serving in leadership or other highly visible roles by former pastors should be carefully evaluated as to its effect upon the ministry of the current pastor and upon the harmony of the church. It also is unethical for individuals and/or groups in the church to usurp the authority and tasks of officially elected leaders or committees.
In surveys conducted among delegates to Annual Conference and in much correspondence the committee has received, it is evident that often serious ethical issues are raised in the way congregations treat their staff, especially in matters relating to compensation, benefits, and personal support. The committee discovered that the denomination has very clear policies that advocate and define fair and appropriate considerations of pastors, in particular, and we need only to give some brief reminders in this paper.
First, congregations and districts need to give very careful attention to the call and recruitment of ministers. Congregations should treat with utmost seriousness the calling of qualified persons to the ministry and make provisions to support them in receiving adequate education and preparation for the vocation of ministry. The tendency to judge a person’s ability before he or she has had adequate time to learn and demonstrate proficiency for ministry should be guarded against. Similarly, one person’s ability or performance should not be compared with another’s in such a way as to disparage the first.
Issues related to the search for and placement of pastors present several ethical considerations. Denominational polity is to be followed in all searches. Congregations and district executives are to consider the questions of fairness and adequate information to candidates when more than one candidate is being interviewed for a pastoral vacancy at the same time. Confidentiality for the interviewee is very important, especially in cases where the candidate has not resigned from a current position or is not definite about seeking the new position. Pastoral profiles are to be kept in utmost confidentiality by members of search committees.
The congregation needs to establish clear understandings with the new staff members as to performance expectations. Those expectations should be equitable.
Congregations have been slow to recognize the ethical issues relating to adequate compensation and benefits for their employees. In regard to pastors and associate pastors, there is a recommended minimum scale maintained and revised by Annual Conference for providing compensation. The scale is a gauge for congregations to measure ethical responsibility in dealing fairly with their pastors. In most cases, abiding by the scale can be assumed to meet the congregation’s duties to the pastor as to compensation. The guidelines for providing medical and life insurance, pension, and other benefits, as recommended by the Pastoral Compensation and Benefits Committee, are to be followed as nearly as possible. If congregations find it impossible to meet the scale or to provide benefits, there is an ethical obligation to discuss the reasons and their implications with the pastor and to seek in good faith to take steps toward achieving the recommended scale and benefits as soon as possible.
Another, even more critical issue relates to the emotional and spiritual support of the pastors and other church staff. There should be in place a committee or group that regularly relates to the staff regarding their spiritual, physical, and emotional health and well being. There should also be a regular evaluation of the pastor and the church program that will cite weaknesses and strengths of both staff and congregation. The congregation is to encourage the staff to take adequate vacation and leave time. Sometimes the congregation is too dependent on the staff for functions that members of the congregation could do. Congregations need to work with staff to see that physical and emotional health are not jeopardized by the staff member’s load.
Sometimes congregations are not considerate of the families of their pastors. For example, often a pastor’s spouse is expected to take certain responsibilities in the church, or it is expected that the parsonage is a public meeting place. The privacy of the pastoral family should be respected.
The maintenance of the parsonage is a responsibility that the church sometimes neglects. The congregation needs to have a strategy by which repairs to the parsonage are made swiftly and competently when breakdowns or problems occur. The appropriate congregational committee should develop clear understandings with the pastoral family regarding the monitoring and administration of the parsonage maintenance.
A further consideration of the pastor and family relates to their need for an extended family. Pastors’ families often are geographically separated from their relatives. As holidays are busy times in the life of a congregation, these pastors and their families are often prevented from visiting their own relatives. The congregation has a unique opportunity to become the extended family, providing them with support and friendship that will help them find fulfillment and acceptance. Each of us needs the support of family, or others; the congregation should seek to provide this nurture to the pastor and his/her family.
When it appears that criticisms or other observations of the pastor might adversely affect his or her effectiveness in the church, the executive committee or other appropriate group needs to communicate these concerns to the pastor and provide opportunity for response. Clearly, before conversations are conducted