Practicing Pastoral Courtesy

A real sheep-stealer.
A real sheep-stealer.

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.

10 thoughts on “Practicing Pastoral Courtesy”

  1. To inform a fellow pastor of contact with one of his or her people is a matter of courtesy, not ethics. We should not have to justify and explain our contact with the many people in our civic communities. Ethics comes into play when commitments are threatened or manipulated. Our Code of Ethics begins with expecting some form of “membership commitment” from our people and assuming a similar commitment from others to their church fellowships. This commitment may or may not be formal, but it needs to be recognized. Our Code ends with requiring any transferring “members” to obtain a letter from their pastor releasing them from their former congregation to ours. The “letter” can be a couple of telephone calls –the person to their former pastor, then me to their former pastor. Every case is somewhat unique, so I handle each one with the goal of encouraging all of us to honor our commitments, to arrive and depart gracefully. Anyone who has ever left our fellowship, yet had the grace and courage to inform me personally, I have always blessed despite any standing disagreement between us. In my experience, one can expect such honorable behavior from about one in every ten who depart. On the other side, when I require this “ethical” response of those who intend to join us, the result is about the same –about nine of every ten become convinced that God is not leading them to join our community. This Code of Ethics was once an ecumenical standard, but today it is archaic, embarrassingly straight-forward, and works against everybody’s self-interest. The ethics of godly arrivals and departures is important enough that if our church was large, I would assign an associate to deal with each case. But our church is not large, perhaps in part due to our policy, therefore although I think the policy is right, I admit it is a Lost Cause.

  2. Chuck,

    I think this issue is especially difficult in the smaller communities. I pastor in a town of about 6,000 and there is a close connection among the people. There is even a closer connection among the Protestant & Evangelical Christians. It seems like community lines are crossed every day. Someone goes to one church event in town and our members run into their members and vice-versa.

    Having said that I think it’s incumbent upon pastors to build a strong clergy fellowship. This way there are open lines of communication that are established which will hopefully encourage courtesy contact to one another when another member visits their church or a pastoral visit is made by a different pastor.

    Ultimately I know that it’s about the Kingdom of God. There will always be people who feel the need to change churches and most likely will decide another church is better for them. I don’t wish them ill but rather rejoice that they have found the place where the Lord is leading them.

    My thoughts…

  3. Our church split a couple of years ago before I came. The former minister established another congregation here in town (pop. 800) and continues to call on at least one of our families that I am aware of. The family made me aware that he continues to invite them to his church but they told him they don’t want to change. I don’t worry too much about it, but it’s a bit awkward as we both serve in the local ministerial association.

  4. I serve as pastor in a town of about 5000. There is a very strong fellowship among the churches in the town; between 12-18 of us meet every Tuesday for breakfast at Big Boy and half of those then go to one of the churches afterwards for a time of prayer together. This connection helps with many of these issues.

    I would agree that these situations are not so much ethics as courtesy. Whenever I see someone from another congregation attending I will notify the other pastor. When people coming from another congregation ask to become members I ask them if they have talked with the pastor of the other church. I also make sure that they know that I will call the other pastor as courtesy.

    For the situations you describe, many are not breaches of ethics so much as not thinking through consequences and appearances. #1 was well-handled. For #2, a call from the other pastor would have been appropriate. #3 is kind of unique, but again a little bit of conversation would have gone a long ways.

    In my mind, we might see these as opportunities to build the kingdom mindset, where a visit from another pastor is not “competition” but working together. For example, we have a hospital in our community but heart patients go to a hospital about 40 miles away. So, maybe if I am going to visit someone from my congregation and I visit someone from another congregation because that pastor can’t make the 2 hour round trip. I’m not saying that’s the normal way of doing things, but the once in a great while cross-visiting (?) might be the time to demonstrate kingdom mindset and be a teaching opportunity.

  5. I think there is a missing element. There are times when God simply calls a family to one body or another and it has nothing to do with the Pastoral solicitations.

    A large issue with our current congregation was (for a while) people not feeling like they “fit in.” We were a church plant and all the planters beside myself the senior pastor returned to the “mother church” because they didn’t have friends in the church and the people that started attending were a generation older (more inline with our senior pastors age). The reality was that these folks would rather drive an hour away to get coffee and hear a almost professional worship team, as opposed to build something.

    Frankly, I think that you will always have those who are more entertainment driven than willing to submit to God’s will. It has very little to do with someone “stealing” your sheep. There is no one church that meets everyone’s needs.

    As our church grows, we’ve found that there are folks (most are postmodern) who prefer it when I preach and many (mostly grandparents) who prefer when the senior pastor shares.

  6. My experience tells me that communication is the key and over communication if necessary. Like others I try to maintain good relationships with as many of the pastors in our town as I can. I think I would talk to the other pastors in any of the incidents you mention it seems to me to be good manners I am not sure whether I would call it “ethics” I had one pastor in my town tell me it was “part of the accepted code of ethics” that I should send anyone back to the church they came from. He was a good friend (and still is although we disagree on this) but I said I believed adults were free to choose where they go to church. So long as they are not “running away” for some reason or avoiding dealing with an important issue or relationship its not our job to attempt to “control” them.
    If I have a visitor from another church I will mention it to the pastor concerned. If they start to come more often I will ask them if their pastor knows and if there is any “tension” between them.If not I leave it to the individual.
    Recently I was challenged by a family who visited from another church in the area as they have friends in our church family. I decided not to send our normal welcome materials believing that they should be able to come with their friends without being “recruited”. I heard through the grapevine that they thought I was not interested in having them come to our church! By God’s grace that was repaired and they are now fully connected. So what ever you do or don’t do you are in danger of being misunderstood by someone!

  7. Great comments from everyone, and thanks. I learned a lot from your experiences and this conversation. I appreciate your responses, some of which were much clearer and more to the point than my original post. As you can see, you guys covered a lot of ground, so I won’t try to reply to each of you, but I do appreciate the very thoughtful answers and suggestions.

  8. The problem starts with thinking that any member of your “church” owes you anything, including a commitment.
    Paul said that it was acceptable for pastors to live on the support of those that he ministered to but he personally passed on that so that he might not hinder the gospel .
    Maybe pastors should stop worrying so much about membership and should start worrying more about preaching the gospel. This is why I left seminary. Too much focus on the organization, not enough on the Creator and his people. The American “church” is becoming increasingly too similar to the religious leaders of the time of Christ. Back to basics…

  9. It is always a good idea to contact the pastor if there is any communication with one of the members of the church they oversee. Generally most visits are because there is a close friendship relationship with the families of that local church. It is un-ethical to proselyte and to work people into your church from the other congregation. As a pastor, I have no problem with another pastor visiting the sheep in my care. The problem arises when the other pastor is proselytizing and attempting to grow his congregation with your sheep.

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