Book notes: Is your integrity intact?

Book notes: Is your integrity intact?

Maintaining boundaries is one practice that helps ensure a professional and ethical ministry.

In vocation ministry, there are books we read that are inspirational, filled with phrases and paragraphs we bookmark for discernment weekends and prayer services. Then there are books we read that are informative, complete with lists and quotes that can be used for reports at community gatherings and presentations at regional meetings. Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers, a 271 page book by renowned ethicist, Father Richard Gula, SS, is both inspirational and informative. It is a comprehensive, relevant resource for vocation teams that desire to minister with integrity and credibility. Gula focuses on the ministerial practice of responsibility and accountability by integrating interesting case studies and concrete strategies to be proactive as an ethical pastoral minister.

This book is a prudent reminder of the seriousness of professional ministerial leadership and the need to be both compassionate and competent pastoral ministers. The author affirms the need for professional ministerial organizations to have a code of ethics, and he also addresses the limits codes have in covering all circumstances. For this reason it helps vocation ministers to stay updated on ethical issues, trends and best practices while ministering with inquirers in discernment. They can easily become consumed with the varied obligations of vocation ministry and neglect on-going education. This book is an ideal way to revisit the issues raised in NRVC’s workshops on this topic. Furthermore the author’s approach is consistent with the Code of Ethics published in 2008 by the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC). (Online at

Father Richard Gula’s intended audience is those who are involved in pastoral ministry or in training programs to become ordained clergy, religious or lay ministers. Naturally new and seasoned vocation ministers are part of this audience. In just eight chapters, Gula addresses topics such as: ministry as vocation, ministry as profession, the minister’s character, the virtuous minister, the dynamics of power, confidentiality and pastoral care. Gula admonishes those who rely on the slippery slope of pastoral identity to exempt themselves from professional standards, expectations and conduct.

Healthy understanding of vocation

Gula defines vocation as being called by God, thus distinguishing a vocation from a job or career by referring to the broader understanding found in Lumen Gentium (Chapter 5 “Universal Call to Holiness”). Vocation ministers will relate to Gula’s lighthearted explanation that despite the extravagant stories of call that we read about in Scripture, God is not always so direct or specific in vocation discernment. Gula opposes a view of vocation that sees it as a predetermined “Post-it note” mandate. He is to be commended for his contemporary approach to vocation discernment, which echoes the sentiments of most vocation ministers. He goes beyond the “What’s best for me?” mentality and challenges those in discernment to ask, “What does the world need?” Gula convinces his readers that an authentic vocation is more than personal gain; it is a radical response to God to give our very selves for the life of the world. Vocation as a disciple in the 21st century can be defined as responding to the needs of the powerless and the suffering with radical availability, abundant generosity and boundless compassion.

In Chapter 3 of Just Ministry I was delightfully surprised to read an endorsement from Gula of the seminal work in behavioral assessment presented by Father Raymond P. Carey, of the Archdiocese of Portland, OR. For over 20 years, Father Ray Carey has been presenting NRVC workshops on behavioral assessment, ethics in vocation ministry, and contemporary issues of younger inquirers and older candidates. Attending a workshop given by Father Ray is best described as a rite a passage for new vocation ministers. I would also like to extend gratitude to Gula for including the NRVC contact information as a footnote for those who would like more information about these workshops.

Although it is best to read this book in its entirety, I particularly recommend two significant chapters to vocation ministers: “The Dynamics of Power” and “Confidentiality.” Both of these topics are excellent themes for discussion when vocation ministers and their teams gather and for peer supervision consultations. I suggest using Gula’s book simultaneously with the NRVC Code of Ethics to look at the topics of dual relationships and confidentiality.

Any inquiry into those two areas will quickly move to an examination of boundaries. When we negate the inequality of power between inquirer and vocation director, and when we dismiss unintended yet manipulative actions, we inevitably find ourselves on slippery slopes. Gula holds pastoral ministers accountable for dual relationships that mix personal and professional relationships, as well as ambiguous boundaries that confuse inquirers. Up-to-date release and consent forms are imperative for responsible vocation ministry and to protect the rights of discerners. Gula writes insightfully that abuses in confidentiality occur more often than sexual abuse because of carelessness and conflicts over power. Vocation ministers know the feeling of loneliness exacerbated by frequent travel, time away from community and the lack of validation. When community members inquire about our ministry, it can be difficult to avoid cynicism, sarcasm and pessimism, whether talking about discerners or apathetic members in our religious institutes. Gula wisely favors silence in ambiguous situations and offers effective strategies to maintain ethical behavior in regard to confidentiality.

This book on professional ethics for pastoral ministers, then, is a must-read. Inspiring and informative, it deserves to be on the bookshelf of every vocation minister. Its contents are not revolutionary; if anything, each category could serve as a well-written summary of what a trained vocation minister has already learned at NRVC workshops. However that’s not to say it will be redundant; rather this book is a rich opportunity for reflection and growth—a solid reminder of the characteristics necessary to be a virtuous minister in the 21st century. 

Sister Deborah Borneman, SSCM is a Sister of Saint Cyril and Methodius. She has been the associate director of National Religious Vocation Conference since 2011. Prior to that, she was a certified Catholic Campus Ministry Association campus minister and served as vocation director for her religious institute for 10 years.

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