by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., Church Revitalizer Magazine, 4/26/18.
What exactly makes a decision ethical?
It is best to think of ethical decisions as those that honor the “the spirit behind the law.”
Definition: “Ethics” means operating in the “spirit behind the law” and not just the letter of the law. Example: Something can be lawful (a loophole for instance) but not ethical and thus does not honor the “spirit” behind the law.
The “character” of an ethical leader requires a 3-pronged approach, as popularized by former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and ethics professor Alexander Hill (“Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997].)
Ethical leaders have a “character that embraces” three principles…
1. Right actions
2. Just actions
3. Acting in love
Let’s briefly explore each.
RIGHT ACTIONS are actions in harmony with God’s Word, sometimes described as “holiness” or Biblical godliness. Here are two examples:
a. Being physically and emotionally separate from impure or or ungodly principles, practices and actions. Peter reminds us that as Christians we are to “be Holy without blemish” 2 Peter 3:11-12. EXAMPLE: the ethical leader spends time in Bible study, theology and history to be able to distinguish between actions that go against Christ and His Word.
b. Right actions are rooted in humbly serving others as exemplified in the servant leadership of Jesus. EXAMPLE: “If someone claims, “I know him well!” but doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s obviously a liar. His life doesn’t match his words. But the one who keeps God’s word is the person in whom we see God’s mature love. This is the only way to be sure we’re in God. Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.” 1 John 2: 4-6.
JUST ACTIONS characterize leaders who practice equal procedures, fair reward for merit, and protection of rights.
a. Equal procedures mean that regardless of where the person is in the company hierarchy or their cultural background, they are treated equally. EXAMPLE: The apostle Paul living in a highly bigoted and hierarchical culture said that in Christ said that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” Galatians 3:28. Ponder for a second how revolutionary this was in Paul’s day. Embracing equal procedures means treating people the same regardless of gender, ethnicity and/or socioeconomic culture.
b. Fair reward means that a person is paid fairly based upon their performance (merit) when balanced with what the congregation can afford. EXAMPLE: Exorbitant salaries for church leaders cannot be justified by saying that: “We’ve always paid this much for that position.” Sometimes in church turnarounds, the pastoral salary was set at a time when the chruch could afford a larger salary. Fair reward means negotiating salaries that are equally fair to the organization and the individual.
c. Probably the most important aspect is to protect the inalienable rights that God has bestowed upon his creation, including bodily safety, freedom from harassment.
ACTING IN LOVE is what sets apart the character of a Christian, because it means our ethical framework demonstrates supernatural love. Here are two areas where Christians often fail in their ethical behavior.
a. Shouldering others pain: This means when one person in the organization suffers, we all suffer and therefore everyone does something to address their pain. Luke tells us in Acts 2:42-45 that in reaction to Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.” EXAMPLE: When a church is undertaking a turnaround, one of the most powerful examples occurs when leaders give up something to help others. A notable secular example occurred when Malden Mills, a textile factory was destroyed by fire. Their CEO refused to lay off his workers. Instead he paid the worker’s salaries out of his own pocket. He told the news media that the workers were, “part of the enterprise, not a cost center to be cut. They’ve been with me for a long time. We’ve been good to each other, and there’s a deep realization of that.” (Manuel G. Velasquez, Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 5th ed. [Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Publishers, 2003], p. 122-124, 491-92.)
b. Taking action on others behalf: This means working and coaching others to help them improve rather than firing them to find someone else. EXAMPLE: In many churches in need of revitalization, there is often an unhealthy and historical “Burn and Churn” style of leadership. “Burn and Churn” means that leaders “burnout” the volunteers/staff and then leaders recruit more volunteers/staff to replace them, creating an endless “churning” cycle of: recruitment-leavings-recruitment-leavings-recruitment-leavings-etc. However, “taking actions on others behalf” means noticing when people are struggling and coaching them to improve, rather than dismissing them. By taking more time to mentor volunteers/staff rather than firing them, builds upon the strengths of the volunteers’ experience, the volunteers network of friends and the volunteer’s feelings of self worth.
Below is an example case study. Can you spot what could have been done differently utilizing “right actions, just actions and acting in love?”
Sarah doesn’t know very much about her new job as the Director of Discipleship. The previous director suddenly left because of burn out. And though he had no more prior experience than Sarah, the church paid him more because he was a man and was perceived to be the sole provider for his family.
A little more than year into the job Sarah felt she was starting to understand her responsibilities. For most of that year Sarah was on the verge of burning out because she felt the mission of the church was so important that she often worked 60 to 70 hour weeks taking time away from her two young children.
Her boss the administrative pastor came in to her office and explained to her that she wasn’t developing into what the church needed. Sarah felt blindsided, because the administrator had not worked with her to help her learn her job or improve on doing it better.
The end result was that in this church turnaround situation Sarah was fired with little consideration for her financial and emotional fallout. In the 18 months she had developed many friends among the staff and they empathized with Sarah, perceiving the leaders’ actions to have had failed to exemplify Christlike actions. The end result was that the church went into further decline. Instead of a turnaround church … the lack of ethical character in the leader resulted in at downward church.