With her new book, "Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving Faithfully," Dr. Sondra Wheeler, Wesley’s Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics, gets to the root of ethical behavior in ministry and provides clear guidelines for avoiding the small missteps that can lead to large transgressions.
“There have been a lot of books in the last 30 years about the ethics of ministry,” she said. “Most of them focus on why ethics is important and the rules that one has to follow.”
Wheeler wanted to go deeper. “It’s not my belief that pastors violate their ethical responsibilities because they forgot the rules,” she said. “In themselves, codes of professional ethics will not prevent pastors from crossing the lines, whether sexual boundaries or less dramatic, more subtle ones.”
In the early chapters of the book, Wheeler draws on the history of the word “professional,” and its moral implications for such positions as doctor, lawyer, or minister.
“Professionals have power based on special knowledge and skills in connection to fundamental goods and needs,” she said. “But they are oriented toward the good of the person they serve, not themselves, not the person exercising power.”
Being a professional, Wheeler concludes, is a moral enterprise. “You must be a certain kind of person to sustain this,” she said. “It means that you can be unfit for a profession even if you have all the skills and knowledge required.”
For Wheeler, it is a lifelong endeavor. “You must, over the course of time, cultivate the knowledge, fears, skills, and virtues to abide by the rules,” she said. “You must be able to follow the rules when it’s hard to do so.”
Simple rule following, however, isn’t enough. A habit of self-questioning is also required. “Instead of asking if there’s a specific rule about being truthful, or considering the consequences of lying, we might ask a question, ‘Who am I if I lie? Who am I becoming?’” she said.
Research suggests that ministers are more likely to violate professional boundaries than are doctors, lawyers, or those in other professions. “That’s counterintuitive to most of us,” Wheeler said. “But the work of ministry takes you into deep waters. Who you are, what you fear, who you love are all in play.”
The key she proposes in "Sustaining Ministry" is to keep the work itself always in mind. “The person who means well begins to turn from using their office to meet the needs of those they serve to using their office to meet their own needs,” Wheeler said.
The shift is often unnoticeable. “There are subtle forms of corrosion,” she said. “You might begin preaching what you think will bring you popularity. You might structure the church’s life so you’re at the center of attention. There are lots of ways to corrupt a ministry.”
Wheeler stresses that ministers have basic human needs that must be met. “Ordination doesn’t remove the need for love or humor or play or friends,” she said. “That’s why it’s so vitally important that you establish and maintain ways to get those needs met, and not through your professional work.”
That separation of personal and professional is of vital importance. “As soon as your office meets your needs rather than the needs of your community, you’re already getting corrupt,” she said. “That’s the dangerous path and you can find yourself on it without noticing.”
Wheeler concludes the book with spiritual practices that can sustain an ethical ministry and a virtuous life. “You need a rich and disciplined and honest prayer life,” she said as one example. “No one is strong enough without that daily support.”
The book also emphasizes the idea of spiritual accountability, a practice Wheeler described as specifically Wesleyan. “There have to be people to whom you tell the truth all the time, and from whom you will hear the truth when you don’t want to tell it and you don’t want to hear it,” she said.
In addition to exploring these ideas in print, Wheeler will cover these and related issues in a course at Wesley this Spring entitled “Ethical Dimensions of Ministry.”
Whether on the page or in the classroom, she offers the deep thinking and practical solutions that make ethical standards sustainable.
“Rules create space for a certain kind of life and for the people you serve,” Wheeler said. “They make your service possible, but they are not freestanding. They require a deeper set of ethical tools.”
Wheeler's book, “Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving Faithfully," can be pre-ordered now at amazon.com. The book will be released on Nov. 7.
Editor's Note: In addition, Dr. Wheeler will be teaching ethics in the local church setting, offering an introduction to moral thought this spring. “Ethical Dilemmas in Everyday Life” will be held at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va. For more information, contact Jonathan Fuller at firstname.lastname@example.org.