A Response to Five Ethical Case Studies

Dane’s Place © 2005

Case 1: Pastoral IdentityThe Pastor made himself accessible with a beeper to a very large congregation, and became overwhelmed by the demands placed on him.  He felt harassed, and reacted negatively to the pressures.  He eventually left the pastorship, and the ordained ministry.

(1) How would I respond as Pastor and moral leader?  The Pastor was probably driven by very noble ideals.  He likely wanted to show the congregation that he cared for them, and was a hard worker.  It is also likely that when he gave his beeper number out, he did not anticipate how demanding the congregation would become of him.

The problem, however, does not seem to lie with the Pastor’s goals, work ethic, or lack of foresight.  Rather, the core of the difficulty seems to be centered in the fact that when the Pastor was pulled away from various tasks by the congregation’s demands, he was “unable to understand why he felt harassed.”  This causes me to question how well the Pastor really knew himself, and why he was unable to evaluate his feelings, or the source of the problem.  For the Pastor to be continually distracted by the beeper going off, and then wonder why he is feeling distracted strongly suggests to me a type of emotional disconnect.  The disconnection is also evident by the fact that he isolated himself from those who could have helped him.

If I were dialoguing with this Pastor, I would focus on his apparent inability to recognize his feelings, and his retreat from helpful sources.  I think it would be important to explore why the Pastor was unable to understand why he felt like he did.  I would want to know if this characteristic is evident in other areas of his life, and if there is a pattern of it in his personal relationships.  If the Pastor could have recognized why he felt harassed, he may have been able to implement changes to alleviate some of the anxiety that he experienced.  I believe, then, that it would have been entirely possible for the Pastor to make the appropriate adjustments in his ministerial approach, and be better focused and able to handle the tasks at hand.

Another area that I would want to explore with the Pastor is how he views his personal limits, or boundaries, which he keeps in place as he relates to others.  Are they healthy boundaries?  Or, is there a pattern of allowing others to manipulate him, and trespass his personhood?  Although his quandary does not initially seem a question of morality, the standard by which he implements healthy boundaries about himself is directly related to his discipline of ethics.  How he cares for himself, and the disciplines he implements to maintain a relationship with Christ will direct the construction and management of proper relational boundaries.

(2) Identify Biblical references and theological affirmations that inform my responses.  Mark 10:35-40 describes an encounter that Jesus had with James and John.  They came to him asking that he grant a request of theirs (to sit at his right and left hand).  Although Jesus most certainly loved James and John, he did not allow them to manipulate that love.  He refused to consent to their request until He knew what it was.  The solid boundaries that Jesus kept in place about Himself show us how to interact in healthy ways with others – without being controlled by them.

In John 6:26, Jesus said that He was being sought by the multitude, not because they were convinced of who He was with His miracle of feeding them, but because they wanted fed again.  He did not repeat the miracle, for He refused to allow Himself to be misused by the many people who came to Him.  The boundaries He established about Himself prevented this from happening.

(3) Identify the Social and Ethical Principles from the Book of Resolutions that influence my response.  The United Methodist Church recognizes through our understanding of the gospel that all “persons are important1,” and that communities should encourage the “fullest potential in individuals2.”  A caring community should be nurturing its own.  If the nurture is not occurring, then both the community and individual should reexamine their roles, and how they are fulfilling God’s calling.

(4) My understanding of the possibilities and limitations of my moral leadership as Pastor.  In this case study I believe the Pastor had a moral obligation to remain a healthy person.  His commendable attempts at becoming an accessible pastor should have been tempered by healthy personal limits that would have kept him from overextending himself.  By not enforcing his own boundaries he allowed himself to be manipulated until his mental and emotional health was overwhelmed, and he became an ineffective pastor.  The case study reminds me that my efficacy as a pastor is limited by my ability to maintain healthy relationships.

(5) Personal experiences that inform my response.  In 1997 my then-wife began the process of leaving me.  Feeling threatened by the thought of losing my marriage I began to respond in unhealthy ways – allowing her demands and moods to control how I felt, and how I acted.  Like the pastor in the case study, I gave control of myself to another and, for a season, became totally overwhelmed by fear and anxiety.  I did not begin to experience healing from this very traumatic event until I first reinforced the boundaries that I had regretfully relaxed.

(6) Textual resources.  In discussing relationships, Charles L. Kammer III describes some distortions that arise out of our need for relational security.  One of these distortions is defined as subservience, which is the “temptation to surrender our power and self-development in order to be provided for and to gain a place in society3.”  The end result, as described by Kammer, is that the subservient partner in the relationship loses autonomy and becomes just an object to meet the needs of the other.  In this case study, the pastor’s deep frustration was likely due to his loss of autonomy, and the sense of feeling like an object simply meeting the needs of another.

Case 3: Ministerial Accountability: The minister is a chain smoker.  Parishioners do not feel they can approach the minister about this because of his arrogance, and domineering personality.

(1) How would I respond as Pastor and moral leader?  As unhealthy that smoking is to the smoker, and offensive to those in close proximity, the real problem in this case study seems to lie in the Pastor’s attitude.  But, with the understanding that a nicotine addiction can be compared to a cocaine or heroine habit4, it is not hard to understand why the Pastor might be so defensive.  The guilt of doing something that many find offensive, and the shame of not being able to stop it could easily make one irritable and defensive.  Therefore, I believe that by understanding the power of the addiction, and by appreciating the Pastor’s feelings toward the habit, I am placed in a better position to provide pastoral care.

I believe it is important to approach this Pastor in a non-judgmental, unthreatening manner.  It is always important to keep in mind that it is only by the grace of God that our roles were not reversed (Rom. 9:20-21).  It is also important to understand that his smoking habit is in no way worse than the practice of many Christians who choose not to control their appetites or who fail to exercise regularly.  That being said, I believe it is still important to offer assistance to improve the Pastor’s relationship with the congregation, and to explore the Pastor’s willingness in breaking the smoking habit.

(2) Identify Biblical references and theological affirmations that inform my responses.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath.”  This passage calls me to approach with an attitude of tenderness and understanding, rather than one of condemnation.

Matthew 18:15-19 gives me an understanding of how Christ commands us to interact with others while confronting a difficulty in their lives: to first speak privately with the person, then, if necessary, with a few witnesses, and finally with the full body of the church involved if the person still resists (the difficulty being confronted here is the defensive, arrogant attitude – I believe the smoking issue is secondary in importance)

(3) Identify the Social and Ethical Principles from the Book of Resolutions that influence my response.  As United Methodists we “recommend total abstinence5” of all forms of tobacco.

(4) My understanding of the possibilities and limitations of my moral leadership as Pastor.  We who are called to moral leadership must remember that we are not immune to the ability of being blinded to our own faults and failures.  Therefore, we must remain accountable to those who genuinely care for us, so that if we divagate, we can be gently directed back to a place of right standing.

By accepting the office of a pastor, a person must accept the responsibilities that come with being recognized as a moral fixture before others.  We are subject to the same frailties as those we serve, and must remember that the greatest way to guide our communities through their moral quandaries is to live rightly through our own.

(5) Personal experiences that inform my response.  When I was 19-20 years old I worked with a friend in an auto repair shop.  The mechanics recognized that I did not use profane language and were always trying to persuade me to curse.  On one occasion they had me cornered and were teasing me, trying to get me to swear.  My friend was watching, and later admitted that he hoped I would swear just to stop the teasing.  I do not respond well to mockery and so I did not surrender my values.

Years later my friend confided that at that time he had been involved in an extra-marital affair.  He said the event with the mechanics caused him to reevaluate his life, and eventually his contemplation led him to end the adulterous lifestyle.  I was amazed that God would use a simple thing like clean language to heal a family.  Since he shared this with me I have been impressed with how closely people watch one another, and how much influence our lives have on those around us.  The pastor in this case study should recognize that his habits and attitude will not go unnoticed by his congregation, and will certainly have a significant impact in their lives and homes.

(6) Textual resources.  Kammer writes that ethics has a “critical function6.”  This function is to cause us to examine the consistency of our life by the norms and values that we profess.  An arrogant pastor who tries to encourage his/her congregation to live with humble attitudes should be prodded by her/his own ethical code.  The case-study pastor, and his caregiver, could use the critical function of ethics as they attempt to correct both his attitude and the nicotine addiction.

Case 4: Confidentiality and Truth-TellingThe Pastor has been asked to write a letter of recommendation for an unmarried parishioner who has admitted to engaging in “sexual affairs from time to time.”  The parishioner and pastor have not come to an agreement on their differences.

(1) How would I respond as Pastor and moral leader?  The difficulty in this case study is that the parishioner has requested a moral recommendation from someone with whom he knowingly has a moral disagreement.  Therefore, since the parishioner has initiated the problem, I believe the parishioner should be involved in its resolution.

The situation should not be viewed as a moral dilemma for the pastor, but as a wonderful, God-given opportunity to be a gentle influence in the life of one of God’s beloved.

Since the interviewing facility might fire the parishioner should his liaisons be later discovered, I would use that knowledge as a way of pointing out that his private life, no matter how discreetly lived, is not always a personal matter.  It is, however, connected to who he is, and the community around him.  Money does not buy these kinds of ethical lessons!

Perhaps this very vivid example would bring about a real change in the heart of the parishioner, and cause him to reconsider his future activities (God be praised).  Or, it may have no affect at all on his decisions or attitude.  Regardless of his reaction, the parishioner’s history will remain unchanged.  And since the letter of recommendation must be based on the pastor’s understanding of the person’s past record and performance, a decision must still be made on how the letter is to be written.

I would invite the parishioner to sit down with me and walk together through the letter of recommendation.  Regarding my description of his past character I would show that there are some things I cannot say while still maintaining my own personal integrity.  I would then ask him to help me write the letter.  If the letter turned out to be a less-than stellar recommendation, then the parishioner would have been provided with yet another wonderful opportunity to see his actions with a different perspective.  The end result would be that the parishioner would have had a superb opportunity to experience an important lesson in morality; a truthful letter would still have been written; and my integrity as a pastor would have remained intact.

(2) Identify Biblical references and theological affirmations that inform my responses.  I view this situation as being less on the morality issues of the parishioner’s “sexual affairs,” and more about being able to help someone continually find God’s best for their life.  My desire would be to help the parishioner find the tools needed to make, not just a good choice now, but good choices in the future.

In John Chapter 4 Jesus approached a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands, and was living with a man who was not her husband.  Interestingly, Jesus showed no personal concern for being in connection with the woman, nor did He fret over what others would say about his involvement with her.  As he engaged her in conversation he did not focus on her illicit relationships.  Rather, he graciously probed her with tender conversation, and by her responses, led her to a deeper understanding of God’s truth and love.

(3) Identify the Social and Ethical Principles from the Book of Resolutions that influence my response.  The United Methodist Church believes that “all persons are sexual beings7,” but views sexuality as something only “clearly affirmed8” within the bonds of marriage.

(4) My understanding of the possibilities and limitations of my moral leadership as Pastor.  The possibilities of providing solid moral leadership to this parishioner are staggering to consider.  It would be my prayer that he would walk away from the experience understanding more clearly that God calls us to personal holiness – not just for our own sake – but for the sake of the communities in which we are called live.  This, in turn, would help build the community into a better living thing.

The limitations of my leadership would be confined by the parishioner’s attitude and response.  Even Jesus was not always successful in bringing people into closer relationship with God (Mark 10:21-22).

(5) Personal experiences that inform my response.  I once had the sacred opportunity to dialogue with a young man who was active in a homosexual lifestyle.  Initially he was very defensive – which is not difficult to comprehend in light of the responses he often received from people.  However, as he discovered that I was able to listen to his story without being judgmental, he became less resistant to my care.  My focus was not on his homosexuality, but on his relationship with God.  I did not compromise my convictions on homosexuality by listening and caring.  I firmly believe that my non-judgmental approach was key to his acceptance of me, and hopefully, the message I shared.  Although he is still engaged in that lifestyle, I hope to believe that my pastoral care made an impact in his life.

(6) Textual resources.  Kammer reminds us that ethics is not just about trying to decide what to do in a particular circumstance.  Instead, he writes, ethics is “like turning on a light in a dark room” as it provides us “with clearer information about the predicament in which we find ourselves and so provides us some guidance for responding.”  With this insight I believe the case-study pastor can walk the parishioner through the situation and provide the necessary guidance for proper ethical understanding.

Case 5: The Pastor’s Social WitnessA staunch, pro-life, retired minister preached in the Pastor’s absence.  He asked that all women come forward, and then he prayed aloud God’s forgiveness for any who may have had an abortion.  Some women left the service.

(1) How would I respond as Pastor and moral leader?  To be perfectly honest, my initial response to this case study was disgust at what the guest preacher did.  However, I am prompted by something deep within that reminds me that someone else’s approach to ministry is not wrong simply because I do not like it.  There are forms of worship, expressions of faith, and liturgies that I do not understand or appreciate. Does that make them wrong?  Absolutely not.  Truly, the Spirit of God moves in ways that are peculiar to humankind (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Was the preacher heeding the Spirit of God, or was he acting on his own initiative, and from his own agendas?  Just because some women left the service does not mean that the pastor was inappropriate.  Even Jesus’ radical preaching caused some of His disciples to leave and never return (John 6:66).

To evaluate this problem I must appeal to something beyond my feelings to determine right from wrong, and inappropriate from proper.

It is impossible for me to adequately address this situation in detail without knowing the personality, credentials, and history of the guest pastor.  I would also want to discuss the matter with trusted lay leaders of the church (both male and female), and if possible, the women who left the service.  Furthermore, I would need to have a better understanding of the church’s worship style, personality, and expectations.  Is the church routinely comfortable with people being called forward for prayer, or was the guest pastor’s request clearly beyond their lines of customary worship?  It would be important for me to approach this very sensitive situation with great caution, and not base my response on undocumented hearsay.

(2) Identify Biblical references and theological affirmations that inform my responses.  According to The Book of Discipline, “the heart of Christian ministry is Christ’s ministry of outreaching love9.”  Should it be determined that the pastor acted outside of that theological affirmation, then appropriate action must be taken to promote healing to all who were injured.

(3) Identify the Social and Ethical Principles from the Book of Resolutions that influence my response.  Regarding abortion The United Methodist Church opposes it as a method of birth control, and for gender selection.  However, we recognize the well-being of the mother, “for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy10.”  We stress that a decision regarding abortion should only be made after thoughtful and prayerful counsel.

(4) My understanding of the possibilities and limitations of my moral leadership as Pastor.  There are fewer topics more hotly debated than abortion.  Its emotional inlays must be considered as this issue is addressed.  However, it must be remembered that the issue in this case study is not abortion: it is whether the guest pastor used his power and position incorrectly.  I believe that it would be helpful to keep everyone focused on the real issue at hand, and try to avoid the ceaseless abortion debates.

(5) Personal experiences that inform my response.  In 1999 an unwed woman whom I knew socially confided in me that she was pregnant.  She quickly scheduled an abortion, and began looking for comfort and reassurance from me.  With no one else to turn to, she even asked whether I might be available to drive her home from the procedure.

For the first time in my life, abortion had a face: a tear-streamed, frightened face.  My best pro-life arguments seemed like silly prattle in light of her desperation and grief.  Yet, at the same time, I knew that my voice might be the only voice ever sounded for her unborn child, and so I made a prayerful effort to sound that voice and be a vessel of Christ unto her.

Trying to be sensitive to her fears and needs, I shared what I understood to be the truth of the life carried inside of her, the alternatives that she had, and how the abortion might impact her later.  Sadly, she still chose to end the child’s life.  But for me the experience changed the issue from being an intellectual debate, to one with a very human component.

Because of that experience I have sensed a call to remain focused on people, rather than issues.

(6) Textual resources.  Kammer certainly recognizes the possibility of certain Christians using their faith as a way to oppress others11.  I would hasten to add that it is not only Christians who have used their faith to be cruel.  Sept. 11, 2001 gave us an unforgettable example of how some Muslims can use their belief system to be a threat to the world’s safety.  In that example we responded by holding those religious zealots to a standard that we felt would be universally accepted.  In fact, most of the world responded by denouncing their religious act as an act of terrorism.

In the case study, the pastor’s actions must be held to an accepted standard in order to determine if he overstepped his boundaries.  That standard must be recognized by the church community, and accepted as a good and proper gauge for the response to be suitable for the congregation.

1 The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004, The United Methodist Publishing House

© 2004, 46


3 Charles L. Kammer III, Ethics and Liberation, Wipf and Stock Publishers © 1988, page 110.

4 http://my.webmd.com/content/article/4/1680_50831.htm

5 The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004, The United Methodist Publishing House © 2004, page 51.

6 Charles L. Kammer III, Ethics and Liberation, Wipf and Stock Publishers © 1988, page 13.

7 The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004, The United Methodist Publishing House © 2004, page 42,


9 The Book of Discipline 2000, The United Methodist Publishing House, © 2000, page 89.

10 The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2004, The United Methodist Publishing

House © 2004, page 44.

11 Charles L. Kammer III, Ethics and Liberation, Wipf and Stock Publishers © 1988, see pages 38-41.