Ethics Standards for Pastoral Candidates

By Pastor Earl Brubaker

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Ethics is defined as: “A system of moral principles.”

As pastors we insist that our system of moral principles must be firmly fixed upon the truth of the Word of God. Contending with ardor for such qualities as honesty, truth, and Christ- likeness will not be effective, however, unless we practice ethical behavior. That practice of ethical behavior needs to begin at the onset of the pastor/church relationship— the time of candidating. Yet observation raises serious questions about the ethics practiced by many pastors in the candidating process.


Before one pastor candidated at a church, he examined the church‟s organizational structure. His conclusion, which he carefully shared with the search committee and the church board, was that the many overlapping committees would make effective administration difficult. As he considered the church and ministry, he said he was willing to work within the organization as it existed, and eventually accepted a call to that church. God blessed the ministry, and the church added many new people and a number of new ministries. After several years this pastor asked the board to consider changing the church constitution. “As the church grows,” he said, “the overlapping committees have made oversight of the church‟s ministries more and more difficult. I know I said I could work with it, but now I feel we need to consider a change.” Was he acting ethically?

In a different situation, another pastor was called to a church that had a solid doctrinal position, a great deal of potential, and dedicated leaders. Before a full year had passed, he began to urge the board to change the church constitution. Though he had made no mention of the matter earlier, he said he did not agree with their form of multiple elder leadership. “The pastoral staff members are the elders,” he said, “and the laymen on the board should be deacons and trustees who need not be held to the same high standards as elders.” Was he acting ethically?


Here are some more very real examples to consider regarding the candidating process in a number of churches.

A pastoral candidate preaches his “best ever” sermon, even though he knows it is not his usual style and it highlights his preaching in an uncharacteristically favorable way.

During the interview process, a pastor does not share his major ministry questions or concerns about the potential church because he really hopes they call him.

As he reviews their church‟s official documents, a pastoral candidate realizes he has significant doctrinal differences with the potential church. But he does not reveal these differences because the church is a good opportunity and an attractive challenge, and he is confident that his faithful teaching of the Bible will bring a change in the church‟s doctrinal perspective.

A pastor accepts a call to a church for which he has great vision, but his vision is not shared by the church or its leadership. This is apparent during the interview process, but he is sure he can win them over eventually, so he does not raise the issue.

In an IFCA-specific case, the pastoral candidate has no personal appreciation for fellowship with IFCA International but keeps his reservations quiet and still accepts the call to an IFCA church. Within months he begins to quietly undermine among the church leaders the church‟s association with IFCA International. And unknown to all, he simply discards IFCA-related mailings when they arrive at the church. Then in a couple years, he leads the church to officially sever their organizational ties with IFCA International, a move he anticipated silently during the candidating process.

Those are just several examples of the kinds of ethical questions involved when a pastoral candidate interviews with a church looking for a new pastor. They highlight the many examples of ethical questions which are involved in the candidating process.


A pastoral candidate considering a church looks for areas of need coinciding with his strengths of ministry. He looks for people who need to grow through consistent ministry of the Word of God. He looks at the potential of the community. He sees in a prospective church a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. He will naturally desire to build upon the church‟s strengths and minister to their weaknesses. He will not accept a call to pastor the church unless he has a sense of vision. That vision will include some areas that need to be changed. How can he maintain this sense of vision, and a desire to be God‟s servant in life-changing ministry, while maintaining ethical standards?

Scripture provides a clearly stated example of effective and ethical entrance into a new ministry. The beginning of Paul‟s ministry at Thessalonica is specifically addressed in 1 Thessalonians 2:1: “For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain.” In the next verses, Paul describes four great ethical standards he followed in the beginning of his ministry at the church in Thessalonica.


“For our exhortation did not come from error” (v. 3). Paul claims with- out apology that he came to preach the truth of God. There was no evasion of the truth in order to make his message more palatable for the Thessalonians. There is no evidence that he used deliberately harsh and offensive rhetoric. The hallmark of all his preaching, teaching, and writing was his commitment to the truth. In his farewell to the Ephesian elders He boldly stated that in his ministry he declared “the whole counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27) The pastor‟s first commitment must be to a frank, thorough, and systematic ministry of the truth of the Word of God.


“For our exhortation did not come from uncleanness” (v. 3). Paul boldly declared that he lived what he preached. From the first moment of introduction he was willing to be judged by the quality of his practice. He walked with and served God whose truth he proclaimed. One‟s godliness is not judged by what he preaches, but by the way in which he practices what he preaches. An ethical pastor/church relationship is built upon consistency of preaching and practice.


“Nor was it in deceit” (v. 3). Paul confidently asserted that he was not deceptive in the way he entered Thessalonica to establish a church. He came with a theological difference, but he went boldly into the synagogue and publically proclaimed those differences. He did not start the church on false pretenses and then reveal the differences that were there all along. He did not lure people into his confidence with enticing statements of half truth. He was always straight forward, never speaking out of both sides of his mouth or with ulterior motives.


“But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts” (v. 4). Perhaps the greatest personal test of ethics for the minister of the gospel, whether in candidating or in ministering at the church, is whether he is pleasing God in all he does. This demands a commitment to the truth, but such commitment must be with Christ- likeness and openness. The servant of God must never use the ministry to gain his own ends or the favor of men. He must serve the church in order to please God.


How can the principles of 1 Thessalonians 2:3-4 be applied as an ethical standard for pastoral candidating? Here are some practical suggestions.

The pastoral candidate should begin with a résumé that honestly describes his ministry rather than hypes his achievements.

The pastoral candidate should make a clear, concise statement of his beliefs and not merely give general consent to a vaguely worded statement of faith. It may be impossible to cover every nuance, but it is not ethical to hide nuance for the sake of acceptance.

The pastoral candidate should include a statement of practice in such areas as marriage and divorce, baptism, leadership qualifications, personal and ecclesiastical separation, missionary emphasis and mission board preferences, and his level of tolerance for other theological positions.

The pastoral candidate should be honest in furnishing references. His close friends and avid supporters constitute a good cheering section, but they do not help a church know the kind of person he is.

The pastoral candidate should clearly reveal his family‟s lifestyle, including community involvement, hobbies, entertainment preferences, and musical tastes (especially as it relates to worship).

The pastoral candidate should share, especially with the church board, his sense of where he fits or does not fit in the church, and seek the board‟s assessment of the same issues. He should also communicate his initial vision for the church and the community in which it ministers and frankly compare that with the vision of the church leaders. The two will seldom be identical, but open and honest discussion at this point will facilitate jointly held vision later on.

The candidate should be open, but not harsh and judgmental about problem areas he perceives in the church, such as constitutional inadequacies, ineffective programs, leadership needs, etc.

The pastoral candidate should preach and teach in such a way that his sermon covers the themes which convey his ministry concerns, style, and methods. He should avoid that “best ever” sermon he has tucked away. That sermon would be better used as his last message when departing from the church.

The pastoral candidate should be fiscally honest. He should not pretend to be willing to live on a small salary when he knows he cannot. He should reveal his debt load, including his housing and transportation needs.

The pastoral candidate should be honest about his family. A pastor cannot have the perfect family. But if he hides family struggles during the candidating process, his honesty will be questioned later.

The plain exhortation of Scripture is, “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: „Who committed no sin, nor was deceit found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:21- 22). To follow His steps without sin and without deceit necessitates a steadfast commitment to unquestionably ethical behavior. To forsake such a commitment because one is concerned about his own prosperity is selfishness. To forsake that commitment because it seems a good way to have an effective ministry is to practice situation ethics rather than Christian ethics.


It needs to be carefully noted that the matter of ethics is not solely the concern of the pastoral candidate. The same kinds of ethical issues must be conscientiously considered and followed by the board and congregation of the calling church. Many of the principles above could be conversely applied to the congregation‟s leaders during the pastoral search process. Please see the IFCA International Standard of Ethics for Churches for ethical standards for congregations, including by application, the ethics of the congregation during the candidating process.

It is probable that there is as much unethical behavior on the side of potential pastors as on the side of congregations. However, if a pastor is to lead a congregation in spiritual growth, and that includes a commitment to ethical behavior, he must begin that leadership with his own commitment to and practice of clearly defined ethical standards. He needs to take the lead in ethics, especially during the candidating process.