Lying for the Greater Good

n79895086864_9356Okay, I know I am sounding like a broken record, but no other subject has garnered the kind of response this one has.  The subject of truth-telling in leadership is volatile.  As I have said before, what is most amazing to me is how strongly some pastors and lay people feel that there are times when lying is justified.  I share (with permission) two brief stories that push this topic one more step for me, and make me want to present them for consideration with two questions:

  1. Do these stories truly justify lying?
  2. What other options are there?

A single mom with four kids needed to find a job.  In her past she had multiple problems with the law, including stealing some money from a previous employer.  I became her pastor and counseled her for over two years before she got the job offer.  She was not the same woman she had been before.  Her faith had deepened and was strong.  She was redeemed — a new person in Christ.  She asked me to be a reference for her new job and I agreed.  We prayed together and I assured her that her past had been completely wiped clean by Christ — which I truly believe.  I was contacted for a reference for this wonderful, forgiven woman.  I was asked if I was aware of any problems in her past, if I believed her to be trustworthy and honest, and if I knew of anything that might make her a bad risk handling large amounts of money.  I said I wasn’t aware of any problems in her past, that indeed I would trust her completely, and that I thought she could be trusted with large amounts of money.  None of those things were lies because they were all true.  There would have been nothing to be gained by sharing the “facts” of her history.  That was how I handled the situation then, and it is how I would handle it today.

I no longer go to church because I don’t trust the people in charge.  I left my home church in 2001 because the pastor there lied to us about our financial situation, committing us to a building project we couldn’t afford then lying to us when we were about to default on our loan.  The he left us with insurmountable debt to go start another church.  The stress and despair of that church became so toxic that I found a smaller church with a young pastor dedicated to children, youth and young adults.  I volunteered to work with these ministries and became part of a team. <Here I (Dan) substitute letters for the names in her email>  J is this cool, handsome 26-year-old who everyone, especially the girls, loves.  T is this really happy, friendly girl just out of college who makes friends with everyone.  S is the musician.  He can play anything on the guitar.  I’m the practical one who takes care of details and organization.  We all work together to lead programs and are a very close team.  We are very good at what we do, and one of the things we do for each other is watch each others backs.  S is gay and T is a real party animal — she drinks quite a lot and does some recreational drugs, but NEVER with or around the kids.  J has occasionally crossed some lines, going out with women from the church, but none of us ever do anything inappropriate when we are doing church work with the kids.  We keep our private lives out of our church work.  The pastor knows all about us and she has, from time to time, had to calm people down who got upset about rumors.  We all talked together and decided it was best to deny any and all rumors so that we can protect a really successful ministry.  Some people would say what we do is lying, but I think that is too simple.  Telling people that S isn’t gay or that T doesn’t drink isn’t actually true, but it does a whole lot less damage than admitting either one.  Lives could be ruined or at least seriously damaged.  And our pastor is ministering to us by protecting us and helping us stay in ministry with the kids.  None of us are bad people and none of us are doing anything wrong, but other people have other opinions and it is just easier and healthier to keep a lid on everything.

I have strong opinions about both of these emails and have responded directly to the people who write them.  Let’s just say we disagree…  But I am interested in what others think — do either of these stories justify lying?  Are there other options in dealing with either one?  And maybe there is a third question for consideration — are we becoming a church where the ends always justify the means?

12 replies

  1. Both situations are unsettling IMO, especially the second. I’m interested in the options that others might offer! To me, one of the things that goes into the mix is possible consequences. What makes some sense to the person(s) involved might prove very difficult to support if the woman being recommended in the first instance goes back to previous behavior or if the team members or pastor in the second instance set aside behavior that does in fact have a bearing on congregational life. Legal or ethical matters ISTM ought to be part of the decision-making process.

    This discussion about lying brings up a matter that has been troubling for me. What are the options for a pastor (and family) in that time-in-between: the time between appointment to another place and the time that appt. is made public? And what about options for the members of the SPRC? How might one respond to the faithful church member who asks after worship near the start of the appointment season, “You aren’t leaving us, are you, Pastor?” Somehow, saying something like “Well, as you know, the appointment process is a confidential matter” just doesn’t cut it….

  2. My responses.

    In general, the move here is an ends justifies the means one. In every case, the question is whether more good is done by lying than telling the truth. In the analysis, the damage of lying itself – to the people who lie and their relationships, for instance – is not considered.

    On the phone reference, two out of the three statements are true. The pastor does trust her and would let her handle money for him, but he absolutely does know of something in her past that would give any reasonable person a cause for concern.

    If this fact comes out, what will the employer think? How will the pastor’s lie testify about Christ?

    The pastor could have used the reference as an opportunity to witness to the power of Christ in this woman’s life. That may not have gotten her the job. But it would have been the truth.

    The youth band is interesting because the author of that e-mail is outraged by the dishonesty of a pastor at a former church, yet sees the decision to deny true rumors as justified. I bet the lying pastor at the old church could justify it as well.

    The more honest response would be to say what appears to be true. These young people do not believe that a little drugs and drinking and recreational sex are at odds with Christian witness and living. If that is what they believe, why not admit it? Yes, it will cause problems with the church – because they do not believe the same thing.

    As for Dave’s question, it seems that honesty from day one that Methodist pastors get moved and request to be moved from time to time would help at the awkward transition time. If the pastor does not spend three years pretending that he will be there forever, then when it comes time to move there is more room for honesty about that.

    None of my suggestions eliminate awkwardness or pain. But since when is avoiding pain and awkwardness the point of Christian life?

    I’m not a fan of utilitarian arguments for lying – which all of these attempt to be. We tend to not count all the pain and damage that lying does because we presume it will not be found out – and that lying is not damaging to us our relationship with God.

    My confession, I have fallen short. I do not do as I know to be right. I have lied and do lie. But I am not going to justify my weakness and sin here by saying it is better for everyone else if I lie. When I walk in darkness, the light is not with me.

  3. Questions from one who is not a pastor and not young about the first note: When is it appropriate for anyone who acts in a counseling role (in this case, for 2 years) to act as a reference for a job or anything else (like obtaining a loan)? Where is the line between information that can be shared and that which is confidential? If asked by the potential employer, would this pastor sign personally and for the church as a guarantor on a bond insuring the fidelity of one handling large amounts of money?

  4. Do you think there is never a time to lie? Doesn’t a commitment to keep confiedntiality mean we might have to lie from time to time? If we are aksed a direct question about a senstive issue, might we not have to stretch the truth. When the church matriarch asks what you think of her new hat, won’t discretion force us to lie? When we are sworn to secrecy, should we not honor the vow? Plus, aren’t you being just a little holier-than-thou holding yourself up as an arbiter of truth?

    • Last things first: I have been up front to admit that I have handled things poorly and in the heat of a particular moment told a lie. However, I’m not proud of it, and I find no value in trying to defend what I did as “right.” I understand that situations may dictate that lying is the most appealing option. This doesn’t make dishonesty a good thing, and I believe more often than not it can do more damage than good. My gripe is that lying and dishonesty are viewed as “normal,” and not a problem. The slippery-slope of dishonesty and equivocation is distressing to me. I don’t like what it says to the world when spiritual leaders have no reservations about lying. I do not think lying is a good thing, even though we find ourselves “needing” to do it. I don’t advocate lying, I don’t advise lying, and I don’t condone lying… but at the same time you NEVER tell the church matriarch that her hat is ugly, that she is fat, or that she is wrong. NEVER. (Just kidding, unless I’m lying to you.)

  5. The holier-than-thou comment raises an important issue here.

    We are all sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. So, when any of us says something like, “Lying should not be condoned in the church,” we do not make a claim about our own purity. We establish a standard that we believe our claims about Christ and God warrant.

    When we fail to live up to that standard, the proper response is not to justify and argue why we “had no choice.” The proper response is penitence and confession.

    The first and greatest truth we tell is that there is no justification for our own sins.

  6. The first scenario raises a number of issues, not the least of which is the 2-year counseling relationship. I understand there may be regional differences in the availability of trained counselors, but since I’m not one myself, I always refer long before two years have passed. And it’s unacceptable, IMHO, to tailor the content of a personal or employment refernce based on our personal assessment of whether the person really needs the job.

    In the second scenario, it’s the pastor’s behavior that stands out to me. Agreeing in confidence to deny any and all rumors sounds like a very bad idea indeed. Denial in a situation where rumors are already flyng will ony make the rumor-mongering worse. It’s also problematic to conflate the issues involved. Homosexuality, heavy social drinking, and boundary-ccrossing within the church community are not the same things. Plus, this is a youth ministry. In my experiece, youth are exquisitely sensitive to lying. This may not be a successful ministry for long.

  7. i would respond ditto to what pastor barbara said. Especially related to the fact that we can’t conflate the issues involved.

    In all cases, I think we need to build ministries based on honesty, trust and confidentiality. What I’m hearing is that confidentiality and honesty are mutually exclusive – but I’m not sure that is the case. I also would not claim refusing to give an answer is the same as telling a lie.

    In the instance of the pastor being asked whether or not they will move before anything has been officially announced – it is entirely appropriate to cite confidentiality and not answer the question with a yes or no answer. In the instance of the counseling relationship and the intervew reference, I also might recuse myself from being a reference if I held information about her past that she might not want to make public – no matter how bad she needed the job. Or I might be upfront with the interviewer before they ask any questions that this person is not only a parishoner, but that I am also counseling them and personal history that she has shared with me is confidential. Or if we had talked about the fact that she had a new life in Christ, I would ask her (when she invited me to be the reference) if she felt comfortable with me sharing that information with the interviewer if/when they called. Knowing it might cost her the job, she might not want me to be her reference.

    In the instance of the youth leaders, there are a number of other questions I might raise before thinking about denying rumors. For instance, is the drinking a problem? Is it simply social drinking or does the volunteer need to seriously consider their role in the ministry based on their activity? As a volunteer or even part time worker, is it a problem to date other women in the church – does the congregation have a policy about this? I have my own opinions about the youth worker who is gay and for me it is a complete non-issue. But if the person is not out, then it would be a matter of confidentiality if they do not want others to know. I would hope and pray with them that there would be a time and or people in the congregation that they could eventually come out to – including the youth that they work with.

    There are always so many other more faithful and creative possibilities than lying.

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