Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 11-1-18

Notes from my Knapsack 11-1-18

Jeff Gill


Shared responsibility, shared benefits



Over the last couple months, I've shared with you all some stories from the earliest days of formal education on the Ohio frontier.


From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 on to statehood in 1803, public education was a priority for American settlement. The mechanisms for providing this in a newly pioneered area ranged from set-aside tracts of land in the first surveys for the placement and support of schools, to a planned process of mutual aid through community construction of the buildings, and the support of what were in the earliest days seasonal teachers.


Caleb Atwater led an investigation into what it would take to provide a general, statewide system of free public education in 1822; the effort stumbled in part because the committee assembled by the governor couldn't agree on . . . how to pay for it. Some thought the costs of education could best be borne by the sale or lease of public lands, others argued that a property tax would be the most sustainable method.


"Common schools" weren't organized under Ohio law until 1825, and the final decision was to mandate a statewide half-mil property tax. However, the implementation of common schools (mostly just from what we'd call first grade to about seventh grade) was uneven across the state until around 1850 when the legislature started requiring superintendents and school district structures. Attendance, in fact, wasn't mandatory until 1921, which was the first year that state law required that all children from age six to age eighteen attend school. There were still provisions allowing some to leave school at sixteen, mostly for farming, and it included a requirement that a youth had to be at least sixteen to work in industry.


So the expectations and funding of public education has been a work in progress over two centuries. I am constantly pointing out to people that as recently as 1970, if 50 percent of all youth in a school district graduated with a high school diploma, that was considered quite good. Those online "look at what it took graduate high school in 1893" memes don't mention that three to four percent graduated twelfth grade back then.


And special education, which we take for granted today, was not mandated until 1973. Some areas and districts provided it, but it was not required. Now it's an absolute obligation, and one we'd not want to retreat from.


Ohio has been wrestling, in the courts, in the Statehouse, and at the ballot box since 1991 around the formulas and funding of public education. We laid down a marker in the Ohio Constitution of 1851, and we're still trying to figure out how to pay for it. And we've expanded education from being a privilege for some to a necessity for all, with legal requirements pushing school districts and families into sometimes costly mandates.


Which brings us to school levies, and the deferred responsibility to the local voter to make sense of the whole. Even in a series of columns, it's hard to figure out what to focus on, and where to gloss over before a reader's eyes glaze over.


What I'm certain of is this: schools are like roads and bridges and safe water and street lighting.  You may never cross a certain bridge in a township, but we all benefit from free and open transportation in the economy. I may not walk under a lamppost in one end of the village, but we all benefit from increased safety and security.


And having excellent schools, whether I have a child in those buildings or not, is part of building a community that benefits me and blesses us all.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about how you'd like to see public benefits paid for at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Faith Works 10-27-18

Faith Works 10-27-18

Jeff Gill


Ministerial ethics in a modern age



For an assortment of reasons, people have been asking me about ministerial ethics recently. What they are, what they should be, how people apply them to certain situations. Events in the news, changes in churches, and local developments have all contributed to a surge of interest in a subject that I'd argue is always important, but not usually "top of mind" with church members until, as they say, stuff happens.


For a Christian minister, the story would start necessarily with the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, and start to expand out with Jesus' great commandments of "love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."


Of course, that's an ethical basis for all Christians to follow, with clergy just a bit more public in their lives and with outside scrutiny. For ministers, though, there's a few different opinions about where you go in particular for that calling and an ethical standard.


One of the best known ethical standards is the Hippocratic Oath of doctors, beginning with "First, do no harm." It's not a bad start. And many ethical professional standards start and tend to live in a place of negative guidelines: don't do this, don't do that. "Do no harm" is an interesting ethic to apply: think about surgery, which starts with a knife and cutting, but with a goal to do more help than harm by the time you're done. So a Hippocratic standard would say "don't just cut to be cutting, but if you take something worse out or fix something you have to cut to get to, it's okay if you sew it up well." Or "do no harm."


I've become part of a professional field within my years in ministry, that of mediation. In training with the State Supreme Court and other instruction around the practice of mediation, I've learned there is a general ethical benchmark that goes something like this: "never re-victimize a victim." That also sounds like a negative instruction, but mediators I've worked with over the years and I have learned it's a fairly expansive guide to when to mediate, and how, and where you step back and say "this is not a case for mediation."


For clergy, many denominational bodies have a "statement of ministerial ethics." Most of these I've seen are long, and wander off into exhortations of best practices, with most including a few negative guidelines about when not to offer pastoral care. A common ethical question is about when a former pastor can do a wedding, baptism, or funeral.


My own tradition has a pretty strong stated restriction on this, and I've backed into it by way of saying to an elderly surviving spouse at the graveside, in response to a direct question, "yes, I will do your funeral." Of course, they lived longer than I think they expected, and when that day came the church was not only no longer where I was serving, they had an interim pastor, who was not happy I'd even implied I would do that service when the time came. After some awkward discussion, the person said "but honestly, I'd rather not make an extra trip up there in the middle of the week, so you go ahead." It's an area where I'm not sure sweeping prohibitions work as well as they look on paper . . .

I've had many conversations over the years with fellow preachers about when and how you can "borrow" sermons. My feeling is that if you preach a message as if it's the result of your work in the previous week, you need to state clearly "most of today's sermon is taken directly from Fred Craddock, and I don't think I can improve on his thoughts on this passage." But if I take a general outline of ideas and two illustrations? If I just liberate the title, but go in a different direction? How much is plagiarism, and what is homage? There are differences of opinion here, though I am adamant that if you tell someone else's story and put yourself into the pronouns directly, I think you've got a problem.


In general, I think ministerial ethics boil down to this: don't be a jerk. Seriously. Be kind, be humble, be honest and clear. Keep the confidences you've promised to keep, and don't make promises you can't. And when in doubt, apologize. Do the loving thing, even when it's hard. Especially then.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's learned that the loving thing is often harder than it looks but still has to be done. Tell him about your interactions with ministerial ethics at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.