by James E. Carter, ret.
Director, Church-Minister Relations, Louisiana Baptist Convention
Practice What You Preach: Virtue, Ethics, and Power in the Lives of Pastoral Ministers and Their Congregations
By James F. Kennan, S. J. and Joseph Kotva, Jr. eds.,
Franklin, Wisconsin: Sheed and Ward, 1999. 337 pp. $19.95
"In many ways, theologians who ask whether church leaders and members treat one another ethically often feel like people asking a terribly rude question" is the opening sentence in a book of essays on ministerial ethics. But it is a question that must be asked.
After years of relative silence, ministerial ethics has become a topic of discussion, interest, and study. That disciplined, ethical study is needed in church policy and proceedings is seen by at least three examples according to the editors of this book. These examples are clergy sexual abuse and the attempts at cover-ups, the salaries of those in pastoral ministries, and the role of women in church leadership. These and other related topics demonstrate how disciplined ethical study is an important resource for church life.
The editors of the book are a Roman Catholic seminary professor and a Mennonite pastor. Sheed and Ward, a Roman Catholic press, published the volume. Twenty-two persons contributed to the study. The contributors are both male and female, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Both the inclusiveness of Christian traditions and the broadness of the ethical issues involved are indicated by the choice of contributors. The contributors are about equally divided between Roman Catholics and others, Protestant with one exception, with the edge going toward the Protestant writers. The division between male and female contributors is again somewhat equally divided, with the male contributors outnumbering the female. Practically all of the contributors are seminary teachers in the field of Christian ethics or moral theology. A pastor and a counselor round out the field of writers.
The case study method is followed in the book. Each essay begins with a case study followed by a discussion of the ethical principles based on virtue ethics that apply to the case. A variety of concerns are addressed, many of them dealing with sensitive issues such as questions relating to women, Hispanics, African Americans, and homosexuals in church leadership. Each group of people is addressed with sensitivity. The key question revolves around how Christians treat one another; the groups are never stereotyped as "them." Different types of church governance are also recognized in the discussions.
As the subtitle indicates, the book is concerned with virtue or character ethics. The writers focus on the ethics of being over the ethics of doing-the ethics of character over the ethics of action-- the basic assumption is that what one "is" guides what one "does." While each writer is concerned with character, some approach virtue from an Aristotelian perspective, others a Thomistic one, and others from a Calvinistic standpoint.
The editors ask the readers to keep three sets of questions in mind as the essays are read and the issues addressed: Do you agree with the way the author describes a particular virtue? Are these the virtues you would have invoked to address the case? Do you rank the virtues in the same order or do you give greater priority to one over another?
The book is divided into two parts: Pastoral Ministers and Power, and Congregations and Power. Each part is divided into two sections: Part One-The Way Churches Train Their Pastors and The Way Pastors Live; Part Two-The Way Communities Worship and The Way Communities Behave. Each section contains from two to three chapters. The editors wrote an introduction to the book, " Why a Course on Virtue Ethics in Church Ministry?", as well as an introduction to each of the two sections. The introductions are done well.
The essays range in subject from ministerial selection and the candidacy process to ministerial collegiality. They deal with such issues as self-understanding, relationships, power, and justice.
The book does not purport to deal with the total range of ministerial ethics. The editors state, "[T]his book is not meant to cover every issue in ministerial ethics. Rather, it seeks to break open a variety of cases that concern the way pastors lead and congregations live. It attempts to offer a first word, not a last word." In this aim, it fulfills its purpose.
As with all books with multiple authorship, some of the chapters are stronger and of more help than others. Each is about the same length. Each chapter follows the same format of case studies and discussions of the issue based on that particular case study with an emphasis on the ethical virtues involved.
One of the strengths of the book is also its greatest weakness: the inclusiveness of authorship and the broadness of the topics discussed. Since it is weighted toward Roman Catholic readers, other Christians may not find some of the issues or arguments of great value, although the principles can be applied to other religious traditions. The book is not an apology for Roman Catholicism and is very well balanced between Catholic and Protestant perspectives.
Persons familiar with the field of Christian ethics will recognize many of the authors. Those who are familiar with ministerial ethics will quickly recognize some names of persons who have already written in the field. Although the writers approach the issues from a pastoral perspective, more pastors or persons with more of a pastoral perspective contributing to it would have strengthened the book. The Mennonite pastor who is a co-editor of the book is the only pastor who contributed to this treatment of ministerial ethics.
While it is not the last word on ministerial ethics-and does not attempt to be, both by design and by the selection of topics-it is a helpful addition in a field often neglected. The book does introduce some common themes and some significant issues related to contemporary ethical thought ﾖ gender equality, sexuality issues, and power policies, for instance. It probably would not serve as a basic text for a course in ministerial ethics, but it would be a good supplementary text. Ministers, those who work and have an interest in Christian ethics, and those who are involved in ministerial ethics especially, will find the book profitable.