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A recent Gallup poll surveyed the public's opinion regarding professions that Americans believed to have the best and worst rating for ethics and honest behavior. The poll showed an appreciation for medical professions, rating nurses, pharmacists, physicians and dentists in the top 10. The clergy came in eighth place.
As far as the clergy are concerned, since the survey began in 1977, public perception of them has declined about 10 percent. We aren't the only ones susceptible to downward shifts in American public opinion. But more importantly, what do these surveys mean?
I believe it is a trust factor in how people who have professional degrees use their knowledge and how they share it in both their professional and personal lives that makes the difference in shaping public opinion.
There are people who say they don't care what people do in their private lives as long as they do their jobs. We have debated this viewpoint time and again, most recently surrounding the embarrassing story of former CIA Director David Petraeus. The truth is that most of us probably say, "I don't want to know what my doctor or the nurse in the hospital do in their private lives. It's none of my business." That only applies until the day that behavior directly impacts their service to clients. Then, all of a sudden, people care.
This reflects a continuing debate about boundaries in defining professionals' personal lives and their working lives. For clergy, those boundaries are interwoven. Most would agree that clergy must conduct themselves according to a high standard in both their public and professional lives. We have seen over the years scandals that garner much media attention about moral and ethical failings of clergy. Clergy know they are one profession where there is no clear boundary line between their professional and personal lives.
What is unique about the survey is that with many of the highly rated professions, people interact in a controlled environment such as a doctor's office. This is one reason the medical professions, for example, are rated so highly. Nurses and physicians should get high marks for their medical knowledge, especially when they show compassion and concern for the well-being of patients.
Clergy are a bit different because they interact in all sorts of situations with their communities. The life-cycle events, from birth to death, as well as the programming of the house of worship, the administration, social activities and the politics of religious institutions fit into a multi-layered set of relationships that transcend one place or one set of circumstances. For that reason, maybe I should be even happier that the American public rated clergy in the top 10.
We all need to be aware that what we do in our private lives directly affects not just the quality of our work but also how the public trusts the work we do.
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow at twitter.com/rabbibloom.