18 February 2019
Conflict of Interest
Again and again we are hearing about public bodies such as Health boards or councils , or trusts where people have had unrecognised conflicting interests, often with disastrous results for those around them. The latest in the news involves the Hawkes Bay District Health Board. Here a person was appointed to the Board knowing about his business interests and that he was a potential contractor for services from the Hawkes Bay. His conflict arose between his business interests and his duty to the Board and people of Hawkes Bay. Too much was at stake as far as his personal financial enrichment was concerned, for it to be certain in the minds of any observing, and certainly in the minds of the local people, that the interests of the Board were being fully served.
School Boards have a whole series of guidelines for employees and trustees to help them discern where they could have, or seem to have conflicts of interest and how to manage those situations so decisions can be made with integrity and fairness. Every professional body is aware of the particular conflicts which can arise in their own professions and stepping out of line brings speedy penalties and admonishment from the professional body, especially when a client./patient is put at risk.
Politicians, in particular, always need to be aware of where their responsibility for the common good,, clashes with the pressures placed on them either by the prospect of more power, or by financial inducement to act so they serve their own interests or that of a small interest group - not always an easy choice. If they succumb to the temptation to take the path of using their position for self reward then we have corruption, people lose faith in their decisions and others start to treat the law with contempt.
Two weeks ago we received a circular from the Assembly office of the Presbyterian Church giving us guidelines on conflict of interest within the church. Many of the conflicts the church has had to deal with, have at the root of them, people not perceiving or acknowledging where they have conflict of interest between carrying out their duties and the decision making they may be part of within the church. The guidelines are clear, ideally, we should not need them if we know whom it is we serve and what our priorities are, but experience has shown that even the most dedicated person can lose sight of when their own interests and those of the community they serve get merged so the boundaries become fuzzy. In church councils and committees, the line between making good decisions for that parish can get blurred for example, by people worrying about the effects on long term friendships, should they differ from a friend, instead of impartially deliberating the issues for the good of the whole community and seeking where God is calling it to act, in mind..
These guidelines remind us that we must be able to recognize where there is a potential conflict of interest and manage it accordingly.
The document says
"Conflict of interest is a contemporary restatement of Jesus’ admonition that “you cannot serve two masters”. “Interests” includes financial, personal or professional interests which could directly or indirectly compromise independence or integrity, or impartiality. Family, friendship and financial relationships are obvious examples of where conflicts are likely to arise. The best way to deal with conflicts of interest is to avoid them. If this appears problematic, disclosure or third party evaluation is essential. Where informed waiver is not possible or desirable stepping aside from the decision-making process is required."
It all seems so obvious, Jesus knew about it when he turned on Peter, when Peter suggested that Jesus take the easy comfortable road which would have totally compromised the task which Jesus was called to do. Peter did not know all the facts or what Jesus was struggling with he just wanted to "help" his friend avoid pain. Peter also may have had some self interest here and not wanted to be hurt himself. Jesus could have held Peter's friendship as the most important issue and listened to his friend's advice - it was obviously tempting to do so. But instead Jesus remembered what it was he was there to do, and let us be thankful that he did not let friendship or self interest deflect him from his path.
"From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must … suffer many things … and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." [Matthew 16:22-24]"
It is so easy to try to serve several interests and persuade ourselves that there is no conflict. It is only too easy to persuade ourselves that we are serving God, or being loving toward others, when it is really our own interests that are being served. Jesus knew the temptations which lay in making choices which look good but are in reality avoiding the hard choices. There was to be more than Peter could have imagined, after Jesus was raised from death, Peter himself was encountered on a beach by the living Jesus and found that he was loved more fully by this true friend than he could ever have dreamed.
"Love God and love one another as I have loved you", says Jesus to us. And we find this is not a woolly being nice and pleasing one another, but being clear about whom we are serving and whose love we are living as we go about the tasks that God places before us.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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