What are the Standards of Ethical Conduct?

In response to Overture 95-68 from the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, the General Assembly resolved that a special committee of twelve persons be formed "for the purpose of study, reflection, and preparation of recommendations to the General Assembly for a professional code of ethics to guide and direct the labors of church leaders" (Minutes, 1995, Part I, pp. 80-81). The work of the task force has included reflection on Scripture, The Book of Confessions, the Book of Order, and other resources in our tradition. The committee reviewed literature on business, professional, and clergy ethics and studied codes of ethics of various professions, denominations, and presbyteries. General Assembly policy statements were also reviewed. Committee members brought diverse perspectives: local pastor, presbytery and synod staff, pastoral counselor, seminary and law school faculty, medical school administrator, advocate for abused women, persons engaged in legal and business ethics.

The committee met May 14, 1996, in Cleveland, Ohio; September 8-10, 1996, in Louisville, Kentucky; November 17-19, 1996 in Chicago, Illinois; February 20-22, 1997, in Atlanta, Georgia; August 22-24, 1997, in San Francisco, California; October 3-5, 1997, in Louisville, Kentucky; and January 15-17, 1998, in San Antonio, Texas. Hearings were held during the 208th and 209th General Assemblies (1996 and 1997) and at the spring 1997 Churchwide Staff meeting and the 1997 Annual Stated Clerks Conference. Feedback was also obtained from the Committee on Theological Education. Focus groups were formed around the country and the Standards were widely circulated with feedback invited.

The committee developed Standards of Ethical Conduct for ordained officers, members, and employees/volunteers with illustrative references and examples. The committee offers specific recommendations for implementation and education.

Purpose of These Standards of Ethical Conduct

Professionals in many fields of endeavor operate within mutually agreed upon standards of ethical conduct that guide their practice and express publicly the standards to which they hold themselves accountable. The issues and challenges of church leaders are in some ways similar to and in some ways different from those of professionals in other areas. At present, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has neither the clarity of shared expectations nor the mechanisms of public accountability that a set of standards would provide. Nor do we have consensus regarding the characterization of a "professional" within the church.

The General Assembly directed the committee to develop materials "to guide and direct the labors of church leaders" (Minutes, 1995, Part I, p. 81) Church leaders live out their lives and exercise their ministries in the covenant community, some as ministers of Word and Sacrament, others as elders or deacons, still others as church members. The committee thus proposes standards for all ordained officers, members, and employees/volunteers in an attempt to clarify expectations for all groups and to build public accountability across the church.

Church leaders across the denomination are asking for help amid the complexities and ambiguities of ministry in the contemporary world. While Scripture, The Book of Confessions, and the Book of Order provide guidance, it is sometimes unclear how to make the connections between their general guidance and the particular ethical dilemmas that confront persons in the conduct of life and ministry. The Standards of Ethical Conduct are intended as a bridge between these guiding resources and the specific issues that persons in ministry face on a day-to-day basis.

Format for Standards of Ethical Conduct

The committee sought to articulate a positive vision, lifting up the values, actions, and behaviors that characterize relationships at their best, instead of a list of dos and don'ts. The Standards articulate commitments that persons in all roles in the church can readily recognize as fitting and enthusiastically adopt as their own. The Standards are simple and brief in their construction, making them accessible and usable across the denomination in local churches, committees on preparation for ministry, and committees on ministry. The format lends itself to use in many contexts (i.e., officer training, seminary course work, presbytery leadership workshops). The committee anticipates that introduction of the Standards will have the additional benefit of promoting theological inquiry and ethical reflection essential for the integrity of our common life.

The committee proposes Standards of Ethical Conduct for ordained officers, church members, and employees, and volunteers. Though the Standards vary according to the roles and functions of the persons to whom they apply, the manner of life to which all Christians are called is especially incumbent upon ordained officers. In addition, while some employees or volunteers may not be adherents of the Christian faith, it is nonetheless appropriate to hold them accountable to these standards of conduct in their work within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Accompanying the Standards is a set of references, providing texts from Scripture, The Book of Confessions, and the Book of Order, together with examples of situations drawn from the life of the church to which the Standards seek to be responsive. This collection is by no means exhaustive, but is intended to be illustrative and to provide a beginning for further reflection. This companion document is intended to accompany the Standards of Ethical Conduct whenever they are used or distributed.

Authority of the Standards

The Standards of Ethical Conduct summarizes and calls attention to authoritative standards already found in Scripture, and those in The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. Although the committee does not recommend the addition of these Standards to the Book of Order, the Standards will have authority insofar as adopted and implemented by specific governing bodies or other entities.

Return to What Presbyterians Believe