Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ethical Breeches

What are ethics?  What is an "ethos?"

Ethos has to do with our purpose, the great story that defines us.  It's our worldview, that broad set of assumptions and expectations that we use to ground us and direct us as we try to make sense of existence.

"Being ethical," then, can be defined in many ways.  Following the law is ethical...but what if that law stands in conflict with another, more radically defining purpose?  Then, what is "ethical" becomes what is evil, as Huck Finn so pointedly wrestled with as he went down that river with Jim.

Huck looked at his own behavior...treating Jim like a human being...and realized that this made him, in the eyes of his culture, an unethical person.  He was cool with that, mischief-maker that he was.  To be "good," he had to violate cultural norms, and suffer cultural approbation.

In the little echo chamber of my dwindling, greying denomination, there's been an ethical scandal of sorts thrumming about.  An initiative charged with the immense task of building up one thousand and one new worshiping communities had been achieving some measure of success, with hundreds of new gatherings created, gatherings which the Gospel is proclaimed and Kingdom communities have been created.  I've worked with them, and they knew what they were doing.  It's been a bright spot, in the often grim and sclerotic drabness of our denominational decline.

But now, we hear even that bright spot is tarnished.  Significant actors in that movement have been found to have committed ethical violations, or so we're hearing.  There have been articles, highlighting this violation.  More accurately, there are the minutes of the meeting of an auditing group, in which those violations are detailed.  There was outrage, and calls for heads to roll.  "Oh, crap," I thought, when I first saw the headline.  There's been stealing, or canoodling, or some significant misrepresentation.  It was disheartening.  So I went, and read it.  Things seemed, well, murky.  But there was a link to more detailed stuff, so there I went, to pore through those minutes.  You need to read them, too.  All the way through, drab as they may be.

There were violations of ethics, absolutely.

That is not at question.  The issue: what ethics were violated?  What is the ethos or worldview whose boundaries have been crossed through "...breeches of internal control," as the minutes so entertainingly mis-spoke?

Those are outlined by the minutes, and they are as follows:  The violators created a nonprofit corporation in the state of California, whose sole purpose was to support the growth and development of new churches.  The stated purpose for such a corporation: to protect the initiative from the very real vagaries of PCUSA budget shortfalls.

I read through the minutes, looking for something more.  Where are the "new churches" formed for an evening in Vegas, ones that involved high-priced escorts and copious anointing with oil?  "Worshipping communities" that were a euphemism for "me and my bros worshipping my schweet schwaggy new Lexus?"   Nope.  Nada.

There wasn't a thing.  Man.  Can't we Presbyterians even manage to create interesting scandals?  Jeez.

The violators created a nonprofit organization to help establish and teach gatherings of human beings following Jesus Christ.  Period.  Maybe there was more.  Maybe there are things left unsaid.  Perhaps there was malfeasance, or self-dealing.

But I cannot speculate on that, nor would such whispering gossip be reasonable or Christian.

What, then, is the nature of the primary ethic that has been violated here?  It is the ethic of organizational command and control, a purpose formed around the structures of accountability and oversight that came to define twentieth century Presbyterian life.  Carefully considered church policies, procedures, and protocols were ignored.  The agency responsible no longer had controls in place, or ways to oversee the new organization.   Shortcuts were taken.  There were liability concerns.  There was inordinate risk exposure, which was inappropriately managed.  There was the potential for confusion, the misuse of logos and the potential besmirching of corporate reputation.

From the ethos that views church organizationally, where the values that are primary are systems of accountability and adherence to established procedural protocols, then, this was a significant failure.

What ethics were not violated, not by any observable measure or by any report?

The Great Commandment and Great Commission, that ethic of creating more followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and doing so expeditiously and with good intent.  There's nothing, not a whit of a hint of a trace of anything in the minutes describing this report that would suggest otherwise.  A short cut was taken, and conversations not had, in a system not exactly known "reputationally" for its agility.  People saw a way to make a needed thing happen, and did it.  That's it.

Outside of the PC(USA), in the world of evangelical Christianity, such an action might not even draw a blink.  Create a bona-fide not for profit corporation, to operate in partnership with a church to further a particular end that transcends the church itself?  Heavens forfend.

Again, I will accept that perhaps that may change.  Further investigations may prove that there was malfeasance, or the intent thereof.

But given what is known, the disjuncture between those two ethics hit me, hard.

They can sometimes play well together, as accountability can be a powerful servant the integrity of the Gospel.   Bad things can happen if we are not wise and prudent.

But having been a Presbyterian my whole life, I know all too well that is not always the case.  Bad things can also happen when we are graceless and unwilling to trust one another.  Structures of distrust can become the point and purpose of our lives together.

Has that happened here?  I struggled with it, for a while.

Two scriptures rose up, as I thought on this.  First, that time the disciples came charging up to Jesus, incensed that someone who was not part of their circle was out there preaching and spreading the word.  Who the hell is this guy?  What right does he have!  Stop him!

Jesus, as I recall, did not seem too concerned with misuse of logos or "reputational risk."  He asks: Is that man doing the work of the Gospel, in a way that would be self-evident to any disinterested observer?  If so, fine.  Go team go.

The second scripture had to do with risk.  Right there in the lectionary the week the scandal hit, there it was.  The master, and his talents, and the three servants.  The first two servants go big, and take risks, and bring a return.

Then there's the Presbyterian.

The Presbyterian presents his master with a ten year plan, a risk assessment review cross referenced to the Book of Order, a seventy four page draft investment management protocol, and the minutes for the five committee meetings to develop the aforementioned protocol before the second reading, which has been postponed to the January meeting pending signoff from legal counsel.

And buried under that great orderly stack of paper and procedure, the single talent, unused, ungrown.