The accusation of sheep-stealing has been made by pastors for as long as there have been at least two pastors in existence. And, the standard reply from the accused to accuser is, “If you were feeding your sheep, I couldn’t steal ‘em!” But, that silly exchange raises the serious question of ministerial ethics. Is anyone “fair game” in the business of attracting new members? Do pastors have any ethical boundaries when dealing with another church’s members? And, what would a code of pastoral ethics look like, if there was one?
Here are three situations from my own experience to illustrate the need for a ministerial code of ethics:
Situation One: I received a request to visit an elderly couple who are members of another church in our town. The request came from a family member. The mother was hospitalized, and the father was in ill-health. The couple had been members of our church over 30 years ago, but a disagreement within our congregation led them to join another church.
I assured the caller that I would be happy to visit this couple. After our conversation ended, I phoned my fellow pastor at the couple’s current church to alert him to the request, and tell him I had agreed to visit with this elderly couple. He thanked me for my “collegiality” and appreciated my taking time to give him a heads up on the couple’s situation.
Situation Two: Last year a leader of my church informed me that a fellow pastor (not the same one) had visited one of our members in the rehabilitation center where my member was a patient. “You’ve got some competition,” this church leader told me. Needless to say, I felt defensive and a little annoyed that my several visits to this person had gone unreported, while one visit from a neighboring pastor had been. I am sure this pastor would have been deeply embarassed to know their well-intentioned visit caused me distress.
Situation Three: Another local church “honored” one of our members a couple of years ago during a special Sunday morning service. Several of our church families attended the other church to support our member who was “honored” that day. The honoree is a respected member of the community, but with no ties to the church who “honored” him. But, this church promoted the day as a community-wide event. Our congregation was neither informed of this special event, nor invited to participate.
In all three instances, pastors crossed membership lines to minister in ways that seemed harmless, and that benefited the persons who received their ministry. But in all three cases, the potential for misinterpretation and accusations of “sheep stealing” existed.
What would your response have been to each situation? Am I overly sensitive, or should ministers practice some ethical behavior when dealing with another church’s members? If so, what guidelines would you suggest as a Ministerial Code of Ethics? Let’s get a conversation going, because I can’t be the only pastor who has experienced this. Thanks.