Want a Beer Pastor?

1280-beer-infographic_0The question is often asked, “Are you comfortable in your own skin?” My answer is, “Sometimes.” As a pastoral leader I am often faced with uncomfortable and challenging situations. My responses require a spiritual approach relying on Biblical principles and Christ -centered wisdom. Just as often, I have to take a worldly pragmatic approach based on administrative and logistical factors. Prioritizing what is the best approach to a given situation causes me to determine what will do the least amount of damage or the greatest amount of good. How I handle those responsibilities will influence the confidence church members have in my ability to respond to emotional and logistical issues. In the introduction of the book “Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach”, editors Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens write, “Professional ethics in ministry pertains to the role of ministerial leader. When one’s call to leadership is publicly affirmed, one is given authority within the community of faith. This authority (whatever the specific role) conveys certain responsibilities. Professional ethics is the intentional practice of reflecting on, deliberating about, and acting on the right use of this power and authority.”[1] While laity may demonstrate and perform the duties of ethical behavior, the ethical quality of a church begins with the pastor.

At its simplest, ethics is knowing what is morally good and bad. Christian ethics suggest that Christ gives us the best means by which to determine what is morally good and what is morally bad.  However, other mainstream religions and secular philosophies share similar ethical values. The “Golden Rule”  is found in ancient religious and philosophical texts predating the Christian era and is included in the Hebrew Torah and the Islamic Koran as well as the New Testament. While humans thrive for ethical behavior, its application is influenced by the culture in which it exists. Culture is not a collection of  components joined together in a mechanical apparatus designed to perform a singular task. It is a symbiotic creature so intractably connected and functioning as one body performing a multitude of tasks. Robin Lovin, writing in “An Introduction to Christian Ethics” states,  “Most human beings have lived their lives as part of a culture, where they learned how to grow their crops, pray to the gods, ward off diseases, deal with their neighbors, and keep track of the seasons, all as part of a unified way of life.” [2]  All the components of a culture are bonded together through history and environment to form an inseparable and unified society, albeit filled with strife, conflict and political dissension but still unified by common beliefs and customs. According to Lovin, “Modern thinkers might divide these practices into agriculture, religion, medicine, magic, science, etiquette, and ethics, but those distinctions probably would not occur to people for whom the whole way of life came as a package.”[3]

Christian ethics are often mingled with cultural ideas. When this occurs it is difficult to separate and manage the ethical dilemmas that face a minster or church. And sub-cultures exist within larger cultures, compounding the choices Christians must make. At the start of my ministry in a new parish, I attended a church function at the local community building. Immediately I was offered a beer by one of the church ladies. Everyone encouraged me to drink, stating it was acceptable in their church.  I am not adverse to consuming an occasional brown brew;  however, I wondered if this was not a test for the new guy. In part I wanted to accept the beer and demonstrate I was one of them. I also struggled to remember what the Book of Discipline said about consuming alcohol.  The consumption of alcohol by the pastor was an acceptable practice in this community. In fact a former minster was known to brew his own beer in the basement of the parsonage. There were in fact three sets of rule in play; those of the congregation, the United Methodist Church and  my own rules for drinking. In the end I was  uncomfortable with drinking beer and politely declined.

Rules are often established to demonstrate and enforce ethical behaviors within a culture. There may have been a justifiable cause for the rules, or social standards of the day mandated that certain behavior be allowed or repressed. Often those rules do not change though the conditions which initiated them have. When a pastor or congregation is faced with an ethical choice the traditional culture can outweigh the moral questions. Thus congregants are unable to differentiate what has traditionally been morally accepted and what is now hurting the vitality of the church.  Framing the ethical argument logically and within sound biblical comprehension doesn’t always mean that the right choices will be made. Long held cultural customs, especially those based on Biblical dogma, can overshadow new insight and interpretation of how the scriptures are applied.  Ethical choices are often made on the basis of cultural application of the scriptures rather than theological application.

Filtering down from the broader societal culture to the congregational culture and eventually to the ethics of individuals within the congregation we see how duties, goals and virtue are both unique and communal in their impact on a church and its members. Each member is a culture within himself, struggling with ethical conflict and core beliefs which dominate their lives. Often the larger culture does not recognize the issues faced by the individual.

In the church where I was offered a beer, there was an individual who had enjoyed 32 years of sobriety. When we had a combined service with the ELCA church wine was served at the communion. I asked this member if the wine bothered him. He replied that his addiction was to beer and not wine so he had no problem with the communal wine. However he confessed that when other members drank beer it was difficult to control his urge, even after 32 years of abstention.

The culture of the community can overcome the duties, goals and virtues of the churches obligation toward its most vulnerable members. Despite the drinking culture of the church my sober friend was a devoted caring member and dedicated much of his resources toward the welfare of the congregation. The other members simply were not aware of the struggle he had with people who freely and innocently drank beer in his presence.[*]

In visiting with local police and working with a group of recovering addicts, I learned there was disproportionally high number of people with addiction issues in our area. Many people were either unaware or chose to ignore this serious crisis. Therefore no goals were set to address the problem and no one had a sense of duty to alter their behavior so that those goals could be met.  The church did not establish a strong ethical commitment toward recognizing the problem or ministering to it. Perhaps if they had been more aware of their own members struggle with addiction, they may have had a greater sense of duty to others in the community.

Maintaining the culture was more important than fulfilling their ethical duties as disciple. In part this may have been due to people sense of their own inadequacies to live by virtuous  example and disciplined duties. Churches, their laity and clergy, are often reluctant to recognize their own failings and address internal ethical issues. This hinders them from outwardly addressing issues as disciples. “Authentically embodying God’s unbounded, indiscriminate, infinite love, however, demands that we recognize and acknowledge our own limitations and boundaries.”[4]

If we are focused on the issues of the wider world we can fail to see the needs of our own church family. Likewise if we  are only attentive to the internal needs of our church we fail as disciples to the world. The goal is to do what is ethically right according to Jesus and as revealed by the Holy Spirit. Virtue defines who we are and what we value as right and wrong. The goals of the church and its members, including the clergy, should be guided by the Holy Spirit. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; “[5] Until goals are defined and established the duties and virtues required to achieve them cannot be enacted.

Since the culture in which a church exists strongly influences its external relationship to the world and internal relationship to its members, the culture also influences our ethical response to each other and the world. “This means we have a moral obligation or commitment to create safe space for all individuals to be free from abuse, violence, and harm as they develop life-giving and life-enhancing relationships with God, themselves, and each other.”[6]  This requires that the spiritual church rather than the corporeal church needs to define its culture according to the will of God rather than be defined by the secular world.

Being aware of the ethical values of each church member helps guide the moral response of the entire church. This in turn gives the foundation for enacting discipleship to the world in which a church functions. By being ethically respectful to the core unit of a church, its unique members, a Body of Christ can become an effective and ethical instrument of discipleship to the world.

The question was asked, “Are you comfortable in your own skin?” We ask this question of ourselves yet it is relevant for an entire congregation as well. Is a church, the Body of Christ, comfortable with its own ethical and moral well-being? Are its members being cared for and supported in their spiritual and emotional needs?  Are the members of a church, including its pastor, succeeding or failing to allow the Holy Spirit to guide its people through the cultural pressures which conflict with scriptural ethics? How the church cares for its own will also determine how a church will display its ethical commitment to the larger world.

[*] I do not want to give the impression that I preached to a group of hung-over parishioners every Sunday morning. Many never had anything more than rum in the Christmas fruitcake. They were simply good decent people who enjoyed an occasional beer with friends. 

[1] Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Editors.  (Kindle Locations 132-135). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Lovin, Robin W.. An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues (p. 4). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Lovin, Robin W.. An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues (p. 4). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Editors. (Kindle Locations 130). Fortress Press Kindle Edition.

[5] Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 62975-62977). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[6] Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Editors.  (Kindle Locations 347-348). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

  1. http://rhchp.regis.edu/hce/ethicsataglance/DeontologicalTeleological/DeontologicalTeleological_01.html
  2. Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens, Editors. Kindle Edition
  3. Harper Bibles. NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha, Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
  4. Lovin, Robin W. An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues, Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Anderson, Ken. Where to Find It In The Bible (A to Z Series) . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
  6. Augustine, Saint. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine: Kindle Edition.
  7. Birch, Bruce C.; Brueggemann, Walter; Fretheim, Terence E.; Petersen, David L.. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: 2nd Edition. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  8. Ferguson, Everett. Church History ,Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context: 1. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.