“Through pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.” — Carl Jung
Personal and ethical boundaries are necessary for daily interaction. They guide us during difficult or tempting situations and help keep us on course. Boundaries can also be hard to maintain at the best of times. Setting and sticking to our boundaries requires energy.
Boundaries consist of all sorts of grey areas and controversies. When things are going wrong in our lives, it can change how we perceive boundaries. Different people also require different limits: what is an appropriate boundary for me may not work for you at all, yet you and I still have to find a way to work together. This is the reality of the messiness found in real relationships.
In our workplaces, we often have sets of rules about these boundaries such as a code of conduct or code of ethics. These can help by providing overarching principles and addressing hypothetical situations. The Bible contains some guidelines for moral behavior, but while some churches do have a code of ethics, no such comprehensive document exists across the broader Church. As such, it is easy for us to disagree about what boundaries in church ministry may or may not be ethical.
Some ethics are clear-cut. It would be unethical, for example, for a person in church leadership to use that leadership position for their own personal gain. If someone in a church leadership position happens to own a business which they run the rest of the week, they cannot advertise that business in church. They cannot promote their business products or services using church time or resources, and they cannot make money through church networks.
There are a few reasons for this. First, there is the issue of conflict of interest. This person with their own business clearly stands to gain something from advertising at church: more business and more profits. That makes the behavior ethically questionable.
Second, there is the issue of a power differential, which is an imbalance of power in a relationship. There are power differentials between a teacher and their student, a boss and their employee, a minister and their parishioner. In each of these relationships, one person clearly has more power than the other.
There is no issue with power differentials per se; many situations, including school, work and church, require some form of power differential in order to operate efficiently. However, issues can arise when those with more power use that power to their advantage. This can result in hurting others on the other side of the power differential, as well as damaging any trust that previously existed between them.
It goes without saying that a breach of ethics, such as an abuse of power or conflict of interest, can have serious relational consequences. Beyond causing hurt and mistrust, it can damage the reputation of the individual and the church involved. Without addressing a breach of ethics early, the impact can be profound and lasting.
As the quote from Carl Jung points out, our conscience often tells us when we are going astray. Like an in-built alarm system, our conscience sends us signals – gut instincts, if you will – to alert us that something is amiss. Having trust in our own consciences can help us sort through difficult ethical situations.
We cannot always predict or foresee ethical dilemmas. This is why I believe it is important to have accountability of some kind, beyond the guidance of the conscience. Accountability means leaving yourself open to someone you trust who can tell you when you’re heading down the wrong track. That someone can guide you through ethical quandaries and bring that much-valued external perspective to your situation.
We need to be alert to these potential dangers that lurk unseen within us. Let us be ever-watchful of our hearts, lest they get carried away with power, greed, pride, or whatever it may be. The Holy Spirit can help us, correcting us when we are misguided and imparting wisdom where we lack.
May God’s wisdom ever be our guide in ethical and boundary matters, freeing rather than constraining us to love one another.