Bad Choices

Recently I’ve been doing some reading in one of my preferred areas of study: Ethics. Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, is an interesting study on the choices we make that do not line up with our ethical views and why these choices happen.

I found it most interesting that many individuals if asked to predict how they would behave when faced with a certain choice would pick the option lining up with their ethics (what they should do), but when facing the actual choice they will often choose the opposite (what they want to do). Then, after the choice and the situation has passed, that same individual realizing the dissonance between their ethics and their actions will reinterpret the situation to justify their action.  In this way they follow what they know to be unethical, then remake it to look ethical.

One problem the authors point out is that when simply discussing scenarios most people quickly realize they are facing an ethical question, but when facing an actual life scenario they fail to recognize the ethical dimension of their choices. It is easier to weigh the ethics when not faced with the actual choice—when the ethical determination is simply a theoretical exercise with no actual cost.

This got me thinking about the choices churches make, never realizing what they have actually chosen. Often we justify our choices as wise, as stewardship, as honoring God, when they are actually abusive, uncaring, and divisive.

I’ve spent years as a pastor (usually going into a church after the previous pastor made a horrible choice). I have also counseled many of my fellow pastors when facing bad choices being made by themselves or their congregations.  As I mention these, understand I am not going to say what church or pastor did what. Please don’t assume I am speaking about my church or about any particular church. Also understand that I write this, not to condemn or judge, but to get people to dig a bit deeper under the surface, step back and look at choices with fresh eyes. If a congregation or pastor could foresee what choices they could face in the future, and what could tempt them to make the wrong choice, then they can be better prepared to recognize both the ethical dimension of the choices, and see the choices for what they truly are.

I know of one church where the pastor worked multiple jobs to take some stress off the church finances. He did this because the church had a mortgage that it really couldn’t afford, but by supplementing his salary, the pastor enabled the church to pay it down sooner. He felt strongly that the church was worth it and wanted to enable them to do more with the resources God gave them. At one meeting where the church board was speaking about the growing income and the decreasing mortgage balance, the pastor in passing said, “Let me know when you think the church can afford for me to go full-time and I’ll quit my other jobs.” One of the elders responded, “Well, you should be able to be full-time on what we pay you now, depending on how you live.” This pastor felt stung. It was his sacrifice that permitted the church to do what they were doing. He used his jobs for outreach and the church was growing. By having those jobs the church did not have to pay the pastor enough to support his family on the local economy. Yet, the elder was saying the pastor should be happy with a standard of living that the elder himself would have found unlivable. Churches often make choices on pastoral compensation based on the idea: “Well. It is a calling. If you serve God, then he will provide for you.” They then see it as an excuse to not support the pastor sufficiently—to abdicate their responsibilities in that area. They forget that the Lord does promise to provide for his servants. He promises to support the pastor/teacher/elder, but he promises to do it from the giving of the local church—from the wealth with which he blesses that congregation. Using “calling” and an unscriptural view of “providence” to justify forcing those who serve the church the most to raise their families on the least is at best an affront to the God who called the pastor.

I know another church where the board constantly fought the pastor. One day, an elder got some strange ideas about the pastor and put a chain and padlock on the church doors so that no one (especially the pastor) could get into the building without the elder being there. The elder believed he was protecting the church from a pastor he did not trust. In reality he was protecting his own power and from then on the church was known as “the church with the chain on the door.” In discussions with this elder he gave many justifications to support his choice to lock the pastor out of his own church.

Many churches are divided into factions. Each group seeks to have authority and exercise it over the others. They will be rife with party spirit and each make decisions not on what will glorify the Lord, and fulfill his will for the church. They make decisions based on what will keep them and their party in authority and then, after the fact, twist their reasoning to justify their behavior. I’ve seen such in operation in worship format, in building improvements, in benevolence giving, in outreach strategy.  Even the most holy of activities, as worshipping the Lord, become ammunition for these people. Let me ask you a question. Do you think God listens to the worship of his people and actually says, “I prefer when they worship me with that type of song and don’t really like when they worship me with the others.” Many will say, “But I don’t get anything out of (insert type of music) and get much more from (insert other type of music).” That is the problem. You falsely imagine that worship is intended for you to “get something from it.” Worship is intended as an opportunity to worship and bless God. He could not care less if you chant to him or rap to him. Before you think I am beating up on the traditional music folks with this, I have seen worship leaders, pastors, congregants, on both sides using music to beat up their opposition. This is not honoring to God, when you dishonor those Jesus died to save. Doing this is unethical regardless of the style of worship you are defending.

We’ve all been in churches where any noise from anyone—especially a child—receives stern looks from others. When you choose to glower at a young mother who is struggling to keep her toddler quiet, you do it with the hope they will see your face and choose to keep their child quiet. Do you really want to send the message: “Your child is not welcome here”?  In one church, I had a couple elderly women come to me to complain, “Don’t their children know how to behave in church?” I knew the family and responded, “They’ve never been in a church before so how are they to know?” I told them to give them time and be patient because the parents were seeking and we didn’t want to make their children unwelcome just because they didn’t act like these two elderly women imagined their own children did. It is funny just how much of our own children’s behavior we forget. We imagine that our own children never made any noise or never misbehaved in church and then judge parents because their children do not act like the perfect examples we imagine our own children to have been. When we do this we are choosing to send a message that children are not welcome—at least not those who act like children. We would never say it outright, but that is because we are more comfortable with a politely silent lie, than a spoken one.

Years ago, I heard about a church served lovingly by a pastor and his wife for over thirty years. They had always lived in a parsonage and lived on low income to sacrifice for the service of the church. One day the pastor died, rather suddenly. The church board notified the widow, shortly before the funeral, that she had thirty days to vacate the parsonage. In their mind, this was just good stewardship. They only had one parsonage and couldn’t pay enough for the next pastor to rent a home, so they needed her out. The problem is that the pastor and his wife were probably in that situation because of the church’s twisted view of stewardship. We are to be stewards of what is truly important to God—the people he redeemed. We are to use the world’s wealth to care for people. This is an example of a church who thought it was the money in the bank account that mattered most to God. Such a twisted view is not as uncommon as you might hope.

One bad choice people and churches make is often found in memorials. One day a friend was showing me around his church facility. It appeared everything had little brass plaques attached showing in whose name they had been given. When a person gives such things they are giving with strings attached. Heaven help the pastor who tries to remove grandma’s memorial organ, or grandpa’s memorial pew from a small country church. The thing takes the place of the beloved person and must then be treated with the same respect as the person. I told him that I felt sorry for him because if he ever decided to remodel he would be deemed guilty of throwing out Grandma or Grandpa rather than an outdated piece of furniture. Are you giving to your church to bless the kingdom or to trumpet your generosity?

There is one other type of church choice that is too common. It too can be rooted in bad stewardship concepts or in any other number of areas. This happens when a church makes a decision that will hurt another person—often the pastor. When a church knows they can have A or B, but not both, choosing either means preferring it over the other. If the church chooses A, then that means they value it more than B. If they choose B, then they prefer B to A. I’ve seen churches take actions that will require the pastor to leave—one example is a choice that favors the building over the pastor. When they do this the church is showing the pastor that they prefer the building to the pastor.

If your choice or action is unethical, it doesn’t honor God to twist the facts afterwards to make up for it. The only thing that can be done is repent, as forgiveness and make amends.

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Ken Cluck
Senior Pastor at Resurgent
Ken has served in various cultures and settings, including two Native American reservations, rural communities, Korean churches, and has worked with Asian refugees living in the US.

Ken's passions are Theology, Philosophy (especially Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Logic), History and Politics.

Ken has been married to his wife, Yong, since 1987. She is the center of his world and the greatest joy of his life.