Thursday, February 16, 2006

Are PSW Pastors Guilty of Ethical Violations?

This email came from the PSW office today and addresses the concern about the ethics of separation in view of the Code of Ethics. Dale Salico handles it, as usual, with grace and wisdom.

Questions & Answers About ABCPSW and ABCUSA, #10
Dale V. Salico

Question: If the ABCPSW withdraws from the Covenant of Relationships of the ABCUSA, will its pastors be in violation of The Covenant and the Code of Ethics for Professional Church Leaders of The American Baptist Churches in the U.S. A.?

For many years the ABCPSW has required pastors to sign the Covenant and the Code of Ethics for Professional Church Leaders of The American Baptist Churches in the U.S. A. as a requirement for recognized ordination in our Region. Why? Because the ABCPSW has taken its commitment to the Covenant of Relationships seriously. As long as we remain in covenant, we will faithfully carry out the requirements of the Covenant.

The portion of the Code of Ethics that is in question states:

I Will ... hold in trust the traditions and practices of our American Baptist Churches; I will not accept a position in the American Baptist family unless I am in accord with those traditions and practices; nor will I use my influence to alienate my congregational/constituents or any part thereof from its relationship and support of the denomination. If my convictions change, I will resign my position.

Those who allege that the withdrawal by a Region from the Covenant of Relationships places pastors in the position of violating the Code of Ethics are confusing two very different documents written with different intentions. The Code of Ethics speaks of a pastor’s responsibilities as a leader in a church that, through its Region, is a member of the ABCUSA. It is saying that in becoming a pastor of an American Baptist Church one must not intend to use one’s influence to alienate the church or cause it to withdraw from the denomination. The Code of Ethics is also saying that if the pastor’s convictions change, so that he or she can no longer in good conscience cooperate with the ABC, the pastor should resign rather than try to convince the church to leave the denomination.

The situation in the ABCPSW is NOT addressed in the Code of Ethics. It is addressed by a document entitled, The Covenant of Relationships and Agreements Among the General, National, and Regional Boards of the American Baptist Churches, published in 1984. Article VI, entitled, The Process for Withdrawing from the Covenant states:

Any covenanting party, at a scheduled or duly called board meeting, may withdraw from the corporation and its board from its covenantal relationship with the other parties of the Covenant, as of the time of the next ABC Biennial meeting.

The decision to withdraw from the Covenant shall be communicated to the General Board, with a request that the General Board notify all covenanting parties.

Note that the Covenant of Relationships does not state or imply that withdrawal by a Region would be a violation of the Ministers’ Code of Ethics. If Regions are free at any time to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships, it follows that the churches of that Region are also free to withdraw from the ABCUSA. The Region, it must be remembered, is a mission agency created by its churches.

The Board of Directors of the ABCPSW decided that while they have authority to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships, they would not exercise it without a clear _expression by delegates elected by the churches that withdrawal is indeed the desire of the churches. The fact that each church is entitled to at least five delegates plus its pastor, means that the vote will be an _expression of the churches, not just pastors. Therefore, if the Region withdraws from the covenant of Relationships it will be because the churches of the Region have called on the Board of Directors to do so.

If the ABCPSW withdraws from the Covenant of Relationships, each congregation will need to make a decision about its continued membership in the ABCPSW. Here the question must be asked, Is it possible for a congregation to decide to withdraw from membership in the ABCUSA without undue or unethical influence by the pastor to do so? Obviously the answer is yes. Lay church leadership is capable of such action. Therefore, the fact that a church withdraws from the ABCUSA does not indicate that the pastor violated his or her commitment not to “use [his/her] influence to alienate [his/her] congregational/constituents or any part thereof from its relationship and support of the denomination.” Whether the pastor stepped over that line would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Studying, discussing the issues, and seeking God’s guidance together as pastor and people does not constitute undue influence.

The Region Board, by unanimous vote, using secret ballot on December 8, 2005, recommended withdrawal from the Covenant of Relationships. The Board is asking pastors and church leaders to study this recommendation, study the Word of God with members and leaders, and pray for God’s guidance regarding how the Lord would have them vote on this important issue. Churches, following their own bylaws should then instruct their delegates to represent the discernment of each church.

If the ABCPSW withdraws from the Covenant of Relationships it will not be because a local pastor used his or her influence to alienate the congregation. It will be because the delegates from the churches affirmed the recommendation of the Region Board. The process in which we are engaged between now and April 29 is designed to include as many people in our churches as possible, as together we discern what the Lord of the Church is saying to us. On April 29, the vote of the delegates will either confirm or correct the discernment of the Region Board of Directors.

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