Caught on the Ethical Horns of A Moral Dilemma

PinocchioWhat’s the difference between “ethics” and “morals” and what does the distinction have to do with the modern-day church of Jesus Christ?  Both have to do with “right” conduct — how should we live, think, act, and behave in community?  Interestingly, moralizing is often viewed as a negative, while being ethical is almost universally viewed as being positive.  Both come from a root meaning of judging “customs,” the right way people should act in civilized society.  So, how should we live together as Christians?  This was the main question explored at a seminar I taught at Vanderbilt University almost twelve years ago, but it is a question that I especially believe is critically relevant to leadership in The United Methodist Church as we live more deeply into the 21st century and a planet-wide community.  It came to mind recently when I was having a discussion with a table of pastors, and the question was raised, “When is it necessary for pastors to lie to people?”  I immediately commented that it is never “necessary” to lie to people, and the entire table with one voice disagreed with me.

You can’t tell people in the church the truth.  They can’t handle it.  We are there to protect them.

Yeah, the church I serve has some really dark skeletons in its closet.  There is nothing good that would come of letting people know what really happened.

And you know for a fact that we can’t tell people in our churches a lot of what we learn at seminary.  They don’t want to hear it, so we tell the same old stories the same old ways to keep everyone happy.

Mostly it isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the truth.

I find such comments troubling, yet the other pastors at the table (mostly male, mostly 45 or older) defended the need to lie as a function of their leadership.  Many felt they had to protect people from the truth.  Others believe that it is impossible to maintain confidentiality without lying.  Still others say they are ” forced to lie” due to circumstances beyond their control.  A few say it is simply easier to lie than deal with the fallout over controversial issues.

So, what do these pastors think we should lie about?  (The rationale for each of the following are the arguments pastors made in favor of lying.)

Misconduct — if a clergy or laity leader engages in misconduct (sexual, fiscal, legal, etc.) it should be kept secret.  Only those directly involved should be aware of what goes on.  People might leave the church if they knew their leaders weren’t trustworthy.  (Obviously, lying is an important characteristic of trustworthiness…)  People who come to church shouldn’t be burdened with the church’s problems.  We need to protect people from unpleasantness.  Misconduct makes us look like hypocrites, and people don’t need any more ammunition to discredit the church.  What happens here should stay here — just like Vegas.

Decision-making — the church isn’t a democracy, but it never hurts to let people think that their opinions matter.  There is nothing wrong with asking people for input, even though a decision has been made.  It makes people feel better.   Pastors should give only enough information for people to make the “right” decision.  If a decision could go the wrong way, it never hurts to “pad the truth” a little to make sure it goes the right way.  The ends justify the means.  It is even okay to “make things up,” if it helps the church “do the right thing.”

Money– more money equals more ministry, therefore pastors need to do what it takes to get the money the church needs.  Church leaders need to be as slick and professional as they can be in soliciting funds.  It is important to “frame” appeals in the best light possible.  And the members of the church do not need to know how the money is spent, especially if they wouldn’t “understand” why the money was spent as it was, or might disagree.  Sometimes on large projects, costs need to be “underprojected” so that people won’t be scared away.  People who don’t work with large sums of money don’t understand high finance, so it is just as well if they are kept in the dark.

Theology– people love their Sunday school stories, and we don’t want to disrupt the status quo.  There is absolutely no advantage to sharing the brightest and best scholarship when it comes to the creation story, the nativity, or the resurrection.  What most pastors “know,” most laity aren’t interested in — in fact, they actively DON’T want to know.  Serious Bible study threatens beloved stories, so we should perpetuate the myths, even when we know there are other interpretations.  It is much better to keep people happy and not upset them.

General — tell people what they want to hear.  Say whatever you must to avoid conflict.  Don’t give people anything they can use as a weapon against you.  If asked a direct question, it is better to “fabricate an answer” (lie) than  to stir things up.  Confidentiality makes lying imperative, because saying something is confidential is the same as admitting the worst.  There are times when lying is the only sure way to get people off your back.  Sometimes lying is the only way to get people to do what you want them to.  Staying upbeat and positive requires us to lie from time to time.  There is no way to tell the truth all the time that won’t end up hurting people, so we have a duty to tell the truth only when it serves the greater good (and by implication, lie whenever it serves the greater good…)

These are just some of the topics we discussed and the reasons given to defend pastoral lying.  Yet, to me the whole discussion is a bit surreal.  What happened to let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no” be “no?”  What happened to speaking the truth in love?  What happened to just about everything Jesus and Paul ever said?  When did lying become a spiritual gift?  Like Jesus before Pilate, the question is raised once more, “What is truth?”  Certainly there are times for discretion.  Truly, there are sensitive issues.  Indeed, we need confidentiality.  But none of these demands that we lie.

What does it say about the nature of Christian community when trust, honesty, transparency, and integrity are not considered reasonably possible?  What does it say about our call and vocation when pastoral leaders count deception and disingenuousness among their skill-set?  What does it say about a system that honors dishonesty as a normal function?  What does it say about the influence of our culture when leaders decide what people can handle and what they can’t, and when truth becomes malleable and elastic to serve the needs of those in power?  What does it say about our future when we can no longer believe in our leaders?

We love to moralize in the church — pointing fingers at other people’s behaviors.  I am appalled at this idea of widespread lying by pastoral leaders (I feel it is unethical), but want to be careful about casting the first stone.  I am not attacking lying liars who lie (thanks Al Franken) but am concerned about a situation the whole church finds itself in.  I cannot believe that lying can be long tolerated in a healthy, sustainable church structure.  (However, I know people who will say the entire history of the Christian church is founded on lies, deceptions, and misinformation…)

As I tried to raise these questions, those around the table smirked and taunted my naivete.  They thought I was being a little prudish and quaint.  I was the one who was being foolish and gullible.  They patiently explained to me again and again how complex these issues are, and that we don’t live in a perfect world.  They lamented the need for dishonesty, but declared its necessity nonetheless.  They made a strong case for the application of misinformation, fabrication, and deception, and made it sound like there was no other choice.  It made me sad to think we have come to a place in our church where honesty is simply one option among many.  But maybe it’s not so bad; maybe they were just lying to me.

This topic continues in two more posts: Daniel in the Liar’s Den and 1,001 Ways to Break Trust (and One to Fix It)

Morals: right and wrong behaviors defined by the cultural mores and customs of the dominant society.

Ethics: the application of morals to strengthen and structure society for the common good.

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37 replies

  1. would it have been inappropriate, if i were at that meeting (as a 28 year old clergy) and yelled “bullshit!” to their responses about lying to the congregation… or withholding truth?

  2. “They made a strong case for the application of misinformation, fabrication, and deception, and made it sound like there was no other choice. It made me sad to think we have come to a place in our church where honesty is simply one option among many. But maybe it’s not so bad; maybe they were just lying to me.”

    I am sure that is true UNTIL they find out they have been lied too or mis-led.
    Lies and cover-up make for bad decisions distrust and when the masses find out they want accountability and start “throwing the bum out’.

    Recent examples. The Roman Catholic Coverup.
    Baptist cover-up of rape.
    The CC needs to start including the lay persons not protecting them “for their own good” of course.

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