Editor’s Introduction, February/March 2022: Pastoral Ethics

[1] In this season of Epiphany, North Americans experience the continued darkness of winter but can see the faint glimmer of light on the Eastern sky a little earlier each morning.  This winter, we are all trying to mitigate the forces that keep us separated from each other: the highly transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19 that keeps us physically apart, the gnostic political rhetoric that preaches that we cannot trust dialogue with each other that keeps us psychologically apart, and the erosion of voting rights that threaten to prevent true democratic collaboration.

[2] The Journal of Lutheran Ethics continues to work to be a space that draws people together, to talk about difficult issues, to share insights about constructive solutions, to promote practical actions that help us serve our neighbors more kindly and more justly.

[3] This issue of JLE focuses on the topic of pastoral ethics. Importantly, the essays do not simply speak of the virtues pastors ought to cultivate but also of the structures in the Church itself that need to be reformed to better care for the pastors and the community at large.

[4] As such, it is much more than an issue about the former “Vision and Expectations.” Of course, that document is frequently referenced in the articles and a brief history of this document will be helpful to the reader. Such a history is provided here by Phil Hirsch, Executive Director, Christian Community and Leadership at the ELCA Chuchwide Office:

  • In 1990 the ELCA Church Council approved a document called “Vision and Expectations” that was to be used by Candidacy Committees to identify “the high expectations the Church has for its rostered ministers.”   Whatever the intent, the document had the effect of excluding LGBTQIA candidates from considering rostered ministry and became a source of great pain for many.  Though it was non-juridical, the document was often conflated with “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline and was used as an additional behavioral guideline for rostered ministers and candidates.”
  • Vision and Expectations was updated over the years to reflect the changes related to the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust and the legal recognition of same gender marriages but it remained a painful and problematic document for many.  In March of 2020, the ELCA Church Council voted to remove the document from all use in the ELCA and give the church a season to live without such a document as to get clarity on what, if anything, is needed.    In the spring of 2021 the ELCA Church Council updated “Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline.
  • The Church Council gets regular updates from the ELCA’s Christian Community and Leadership about the need for some sort of document.  To date, while there is desire in the Conference of Bishops to create something new, no clear purpose has yet been identified for its use.

[5] The essays in this issue will explain some of the difficulties with Vision and Expectations while also noting the importance of having some guidelines and expectations for both pastoral leaders and for the churches (and Church) they serve.

[6] The first essay, by Kevin Vandiver, examines the question:  “What if the church’s work was not just an outward expression, but also was responsible for condemning injustice within its own ranks?”  He asks the “powers that be” to consider creating a new document that speaks explicitly of “two-way support, wherein the church would witness to God’s call for justice in the life of its ministers, and would use its resources to curb injustice both within and without.”  Using resources from his own lived experience as well as the history of philosophical and theological ethics, Vandiver’s essay helps the reader think more fully about the ethical issues of debt and integrity.  This deep dive into these questions is well worth the reader’s time and attention as the issue of economic righteousness and Christian righteousness is at the heart of history and theology of the Lutheran tradition.  His work is important not only for church councils and bishops but for all of us who in working in the economy create the structures and values that all too often imprison us and our neighbors.  As Vandiver says, echoing Luther’s own tower moment, “If this indebtedness problem were only my narrative, it would be considered a ‘personal problem.’ But as it is a nationwide issue, my experience provides a window-view into a much deeper issue.”

[7] The topic of debt and work righteousness frames the second essay as well.   Cory Driver’s “Sacrilege: Side-Hustles and Non-Living-Wage Work” examines the practice of taking on second jobs in order to sustain a livable life. Speaking about both pastors and other workers in today’s economy, Driver examines biblical sources to find imperatives that remind us of the need of fair pay for all workers, especially as we come to recognize the essential nature of so much low paid work.

[8] The third and fourth essays turn more specifically to the ethical imperatives for pastors.  The third essay by Tim Larson considers the role of social media in contemporary society.  Acknowledging the practical reality that social media spaces are spaces of gathering, he creates a framework for ethical habits on social media that can guide both clergy and laity who wish to work lovingly towards better dialogue.

[9] The fourth essay by Janet Peterman discusses the importance of boundaries for pastors as they minister to their congregation.  Using both her lived experience as a long term pastor and an interim pastor, she speaks of the intimacy of the pastoral role and the need for both the pastor and the church to change and grow in new directions as called by the Spirit, a call that can only be followed by asking for the grace to honor boundaries at the end of the call.

[10]  These four essays are remarkably rich.  All four require the reader to re-consider deeply held and culturally sanctioned beliefs about the value of wealth, work, media, and relationship.  I thank the four authors for offering such rich examinations of these issues.  These articles challenge the church and its people to talk, to listen, to think, and to move forward.






Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.