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4 Levels of Ethics to Strive For

We must lead our church organizations to be very intentional in structuring the church's conduct.

In a previous article, I described 5 questions that church leaders need to ask in terms of making a decision that would result in the church being called ethical. In reality, no one church leader makes all the decisions that result in an organization's actions. The Senior Pastor, staff, key lay leaders, other leaders, and volunteers all act in a manner that reflects on the church itself.  These actions are the actions of the church as much or more than they are the actions of one person.  How then do we restrain the conduct of the organization?  In short, a strategic ethics program.

Many would say that the church of all places needs an ethics program the least. Churches don't need policies and procedures because no volunteer would intentionally harm the church or have the authority to do anything that would. Churches don't need to worry about violating obscure laws because churches are "small fish" compared to big corporations. Churches don't need codes of conduct for volunteers because we all follow Christ and will do the right thing.  

These statements simply could not be further from the truth. More and more lay counseling programs are popping up that are poorly supervised and trained. Volunteers are operating chainsaws, heavy equipment, and automobiles full of children. Churches aren't so small any more. Mega churches and multisite churches are growing in number, and many times in size.  As churches grow, budgets grow.  Volunteers will always do the right thing?  Tell that to the churches and charities that will lose $5 billion this year alone to fraud and theft.  We must lead our churches to be very intentional in structuring the church's conduct.  Here are four levels of ethics to strive for, each building on the one before it.

Level 1 Church - Compliance Driven Ethics
At this level, your church's method of ethical behavior is driven by a need to protect the organization. You have policies and procedures in place designed to meet the government's requirements of the church. You have rules and disciplinary procedures for staff members to enforce compliance with your code of conduct. The focus of your ethics program is all about "following the rules."

In some regards, most churches find themselves in this area of the spectrum or below. Far too many churches do not have any policies and procedures. Too many church leaders are completely unaware that their church is violating several laws that could result in serious harm to the church.  This state of blissful ignorance has been tolerated and ignored for a long time, but we are starting to see that tolerance end.  Churches have control over staff by threats of being fired, but they do not have the same "control" over their volunteers.  Most have such a volunteer shortage that they will not fire a volunteer at any cost.  In order to fully meet the requirements of even a compliance driven ethics programs, these are areas that the church must address.

Level 2 Church - Risk Driven Ethics
At this level, your church has developed a more sophisticated system for measuring risks and mitigating them.  You have resources assigned to tackle them.  You have begun to create an ethical culture at the church among staff and volunteers, but your efforts are still very inward focused.  The church is more concerned with the effect of the conduct of its employees and volunteers on the church than the effect of that conduct on the outside world.  In other words, you're still acting to protect the church.

Very few churches exist at this level.  Even those with well developed policy manuals usually do not have a great system of measuring what risk is out there and how to ethically mitigate that risk.  Very few churches have an employee with the responsibility of doing so.  Very few churches are employing quality risk assumptions and liability waivers that one would expect at this level.  Most churches are comfortable either ignoring the issue or simply ensuring staff comply with the rules.

Level 3 Church - Reputation Driven Ethics
At first glance the name of this level sounds prideful and self-centered, but it isn't.  We want the church to look good to the outside world.  We want what Jesus offers to be attractive without the church making it less attractive. 

At this level, the church is paying attention to the ramifications of its decisions on the world around it - those directly impacted by its actions.  Instead of a tyrant enforcing policy on staff, the church pays attention to what would make their lives better.  The church focuses on how it can make its members and guests lives better.  When the church is concerned about its reputation - not pridefully but for the cause of Christ - its relationships with employees, volunteers, members, and guests grow stronger.  Employees and volunteers are more productive.  More members volunteer.  

I can hear you already - "we are focused on a lot of these things."  There are many churches who do very well meeting ethical obligations at this level.  But statistics show that most church staff are still severely under paid.  We are concerned with providing a great worship experience and spiritual growth for our members and guests, but people are coming less frequently.  These are our goals, there is just no ethics program attached to them.  There is nothing that governs the church's conduct to make sure this happens.  There are no policies and procedures governing parking lot greeters or the process by which a guest speaker is vetted and approved.  Furthermore, all of this is built on a foundation that is crumbling at best.  Each level builds on the previous one, so if we do not fix those problems, we could very easily find the comfy chair of our laurels that we are resting in get kicked out from underneath us by a litigious, hostile world.

Level 4 Church - Culture Driven Ethics
At this level, your church is adding value to its community and to other churches.  Your church is considering future generations and people who have not yet been born who will worship at your church decades from now.  Some believe that to reach this level your church must be concerned with its environment through recycling programs, clean energy usage, carbon footprints and more. None of these concerns are bad or unbiblical, even if you do not believe in global warming (I offer no opinion on the subject).  Your community not only benefits from your church, it trusts your church.  As a result, your church's conduct optimally achieves its mission.

Here you have policies and procedures for the entire church.  Every operation is performed within the same parameters every time.  As such, the community begins to rely on and trust those operations.  The chances of variable conduct derailing the train and causing a legal disaster are minimized.  You have a code of ethics that is part of your DNA.  You talk about it, teach it, publish it, and live it.  Your church's conduct is intentionally designed to bring value to the Kingdom of God, to do everything it is obliged to do, to take care and shepherd those God has entrusted to it, to fulfill the Great Commission, and to be a trusted and valuable member of society.  This is the kind of church ethics program we should strive for.

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