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Clergy not ranked high

Published 10:01am Monday, April 8, 2013

Clergy rank not especially well on a recent Gallup survey on the honesty and ethics of several categories of professionals. Clergy need to be especially careful, in light of such perceptions, to be genuinely honest and professionally ethical, and the people to whom they minister must make the effort to understand clergy roles and how clergy minister.

In November the Gallup organization of Princeton conducted another iteration of this annual survey. They asked respondents to rate each of 22 professions as very high, high, average, low and very low in regard to their honesty and overall practice of professional ethics.

At the very top, as they have been most years, are nurses, and they are followed at some distance by pharmacists. Medical doctors lag behind nurses by 15 percentage points. Members of congress come in at the bottom — second only to car salespeople.

(In forming opinions from this survey, we must first accept that these are not objective measures of actual honesty and professional ethics but subjective perceptions of random respondents. I know a number of reasons that some people trust medical professionals beyond reason, and I know a number of reasons some distrust congress members and car salespeople unreasonably. So, too, are people very often wrong in their judgment of clergy.)

Clergy, in this survey, are eighth out of 22 professions and slightly more than half the respondents (52 percent) rate them very high or high. The average is 33 percent, and 9 percent rate them low or very low. I suspect a combination of actual clergy failure and lay people’s misperceptions to cause this disappointing rate.

I should like clergy to be — and think it important they are — at or close to the top, and am curious to learn why they are not. The survey did not inquire into reasons for the perceptions or assess the validity of responses.

I don’t think I can be certain about reasons, but I should like to encourage readers to think about this relative to their own clergy so they understand their own relationships. Perhaps some would be helpful enough to write to the Herald’s editor and give us your opinions.

An effective Michigan pastor impressed me profoundly when he observed to my seminary class that people “will forgive almost anything in their pastor — other than a lack of love or a lack of honesty.” I took this to heart and tried to give such the highest priority in my ministry. I urge this upon those now active in professional ministry.

The survey is itself confused, because it purports to assess professions, but several of the categories are anything but professions, e.g., car salespeople, advertisers, business executives. (Professions, by definition, are characterized by such factors as people-helping more than money-making, discipline by colleagues, licensures.)

Many of the clergy being judged are not at all professional. Anyone can call himself or herself clergy and operate a place of religious practice. The reputation of authentic clergy is seriously compromised by the many untrained, unordained and unsupervised individuals who present themselves as clergy but are not in reality.

Clergy are closer to the people and encountered in the whole range of human contacts than are other professionals. One of the great hazards of the role is that people often demand that their clergyperson does not tell the truth — they want to hear what they want to hear, especially about themselves. When a person tells you what the priest said in confidential conversation you must almost presume upon this breach of confidentiality that this is not what the priest said.

People make almost inhuman demands upon pastors, priests, rabbis and imams (apparently, to be politically correct these days we are obliged to include Islam in every religious reference). When they don’t like what the clergyperson says, they say she lies; when they don’t like what he does, they claim he is unethical. With some people, no clergy is ever going to win.

The great temptation for so many clergy is that they occupy and control the pulpit. It is easy to make wild statements and then pronounce the benediction before anyone has a chance to question. Another temptation is to fall into the commercial attitude of the marketplace where beating the competition has priority over helping people. Let’s face it: there are clergypersons in every religious group that are not only dishonest or unethical but both.

Clergy will rise in this annual survey when they become consistently honest and ethical and when people judge them honestly and with understanding.


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