Ministerial Ethics | Joe E. Trull & James E. Carter

The cover of Trull and Carter's Ministerial Ethics

The world today is marked by an “ethical uncertainty” (13) which makes it difficult for people, let alone professionals, to know what they ought to do in any given situation. This problem is magnified for Christian ministers since their unique role is more ethically demanding than other professions (14–15). Recognizing a lack of information on this topic, Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter wrote Ministerial Ethics with two purposes in mind. First, the book “intends to teach Christian ministry students the unique moral role of the minister and the ethical responsibilities of that vocation” (11). Second, the book was written “to provide new and established ministers with a clear statement of the ethical obligations contemporary clergy should assume in their personal and professional lives” (11). This book is intended to contribute to the character formation of ministers in training and to be pulled off the shelves by those same students years into their vocation in order to hone their ethical acuity.

Ministerial Ethics can be grouped into three sections (160). The first two chapters are foundational, exploring the minister’s vocation and underscoring the importance of moral vision. The following four chapters explore the various moral situations that the minister will encounter in the four spheres of life: personal, congregational, collegial, and community. The final two chapters focus on one particular ethical issue, clergy sexual abuse, then provide a code of ethics primer to aid the minister in responding to this crisis. It is worth noting the substantial appendices which include example codes of ethics from various eras and organizations. This valuable resource gives practical examples for the theoretical content of the final chapter.

Foundational Issues

“Clergy ‘burnout,’ so publicized, results more from blurred pastoral identity than from overwork” (Noyce in Trull and Carter 24). This blurred identity is due in part to the overlapping concepts of vocation and profession. As noted in almost every code of ethics, every minister should have a “sense of calling” (191). This calling is not to a career but to a vocation, “a commitment to God and neighbor”(25). In this vocation, the minister is a professional, “a broadly educated person with highly developed skills and knowledge who works autonomously under the discipline of an ethic developed and enforced by peers, who renders a social service that is essential and unique, and who makes complex judgments involving potentially dangerous consequences” (36). Trull and Carter claim that although the title does not completely fit, “there is more to be gained than lost by a minister assuming the designation of a professional” (39). I am not convinced.

Trull and Carter presuppose a reasonably affluent Western version of a minister. “They cite “university educated, full-time, resident, tenured, and salaried” (39) as the ideal that if not attained should at least be strived toward. Despite my obvious bias towards higher education, I recognize that the Pentecostal tradition was launched by people who would be considered unprofessional by Trull and Carter’s description. The Pentecostal tradition emphasizes the empowerment of the Spirit to overcome human lack. I also question how this definition of professional would be received in immigrant communities where many pastors are bi-vocational, or in the majority world where higher education is more difficult to access. Furthermore, the attempt to fit ministers into the professional mold may in fact contribute to the blurred identity Trull and Carter warn against. Ministers who view themselves as professionals face an increased temptation to seek more influential or higher-paying positions at the potential expense of their vocation.

The concept of professional is used by Trull and Carter to underscore the importance of professional ethics since one of the defining marks of a professional is to live under the ethical standards of that profession. However, this status is not required for a minister to live “a life of ethical wholeness and moral maturity” (22). Trull and Carter correctly note that “[t]he character of a Christian minister is foundational; being precedes doing” (63). This formation transcends the profession. Character formation begins prior to ordination and continues as the minister identifies as part of a historic Christian community with its stories and traditions.

Four Spheres of Ministry

Chapters three through six explore the moral responsibilities of the minister in the various spheres of life: personal, congregational, collegial, and community. These chapters form the heart of Ministerial Ethics and are a compendium of wisdom on a variety of issues.

The organization of ethical issues into separate spheres led to some interesting choices since many of the issues treated in one sphere also belong in another. For example, Trull and Carter discuss sexual ethics in the personal sphere, but it is just as much an issue in the congregational sphere (as chapter seven will amply demonstrate). Power is discussed in relationship to the congregation, but it also plays a significant role in the minister’s relationship to colleagues. The political views of the minister were rightly discussed in the chapter on community, but they are just as thorny an issue in the local congregation. A different organizational schema that focused on themes rather than spheres may have produced a more holistic understanding of the various issues under discussion.

The compendium-style of this section is a weakness as well as a strength. Many issues are treated quickly and with no discernable rationale. This is particularly noticeable in the bullet lists which frequent the chapters. An example of this is the advice given to pastors designing a funeral service: “Make it positive. / Make it Christian. / Make it helpful, strengthening. / Make it brief” (109). These “basic guidelines” seem random and would be better suited to more sustained treatment in a volume on pastoral theology. Despite the above structural critique, these chapters are filled with immensely valuable discussions for developing and established ministers.

Sexual Abuse and Ethical Codes

The 2002 Roman Catholic clergy sexual misconduct and cover-up scandal prompted Trull and Carter to add a new chapter to the second edition of Ministerial Ethics. “A Major Ethical Issue” is a welcome addition to the book, expanding on the “In Relation to Sex” (78–88) section of chapter three. This chapter illustrates the need for a code of ethics which is treated next and illustrated in the second edition appendices. Appendices B and C provide the resources necessary to contrast early and contemporary congregational codes. One of the obvious changes between early and contemporary codes is the addition of explicit statements about sexual misconduct. In this respect, Trull and Carter have updated their book to follow the trends of updated codes of conduct.

The statistics are staggering. “1 in 4 members of the clergy reported having some kind of sexual contact with someone other than their spouse” (Zelizer in Trull and Carter 165) Trull and Carter provide a helpful threefold way to understand and categorize abusive ministers (167–8). Predators actively seek to abuse women sexually. Wanderers are not violent or premeditated, but have difficulty maintaining boundaries. Lovers become infatuated with someone in the congregation and allow their passion to override their morality. Establishing a code of ethics would help these three types of people to various degrees. A code would be meaningless to a predator and easily overlooked by a lover. A wanderer, however, may respond well to the reinforced boundaries a code provides. These three types of people have different motives and rationale for their abusive actions. Trull and Carter state that “[c]lergy sexual exploitation is not primarily about sex. It is an abuse of power expressed in a highly destructive sexual manner” (166). While this is true for the predator and potentially true for the wanderer, it is not true for the lover. Although the abusive actions of the lover are is still a categorical abuse of power, power is not the motivating factor.

“Ours is an age of ethical uncertainty,” state Trull and Carter in the introduction. This analysis is perhaps more true today than it was in 1993 or 2004. In this uncertain milieu, Ministerial Ethics succeeds in its twofold purpose of teaching ministry students the unique ethical responsibilities of the profession and providing established ministers a resource to help them reevaluate their moral vision. In the areas in which I disagreed with Trull and Carter, the authors were not dogmatic but noted that various views were possible. A third edition reflecting a more diverse and global perspective on ministry would be a welcome update to this venerable volume.


Trull, Joe E. and James E. Carter. Ministerial Ethics: Moral Formation for Church Leaders. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2004.

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