The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Returning a stolen mug

Kay writes: I work at a facility that serves seniors. A client left a fancy insulated travel coffee mug by accident. The client was upset that he lost it and asked if we had found it. I had seen it on the lost and found shelf, but when I went to get it, it was not there.

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Later, I saw one of our physical therapists using it. I mentioned it to our supervisor, whose response was, “He has money, he’ll just buy a new one.” I suggested to the therapist that she return it, and now she is no longer speaking to me. What do I do now?”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“While your response was appropriate your co-workers responses were misguided. One saw the mug's value in dollars but what if the real value of the mug was purely a sentimental attachment. The second co-worker was called to do the right thing but instead they responded with the cold shoulder. My sense there is the presence of shame, a very limiting response. Personally I would consider buying the elder man a new mug. We cannot make others raise to their best selves but when we are challenged as you have been I believe our best response is to rise. In the end you will have restored your own faith in humanity.”

Doug Van Doren, the pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, responds:

“There are several things that disturb me about his whole scenario, because they seem rather petty for professional people in the profession of serving others! Whatever happened to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In retrospect, it probably would have been better to have gone to the physical therapist and simply said something like, ‘Sorry, “Joe” has come for his travel mug that was in the Lost and Found.’ Involving the supervisor puts her or him in the situation where they may feel like they have to settle a squabble among employees that should have been worked out among themselves. (Though given the information, the supervisor should have acted. At this point it is petty theft and it needs to be made clear that that kind of behavior is unacceptable in the agency.) What do you do now? Treat the physical therapist the way you would any fellow employee - as you did before the incident, whether he/she responds or not. Don’t let her or him determine how you will act. (Someone has to be an adult in this situation.) After all, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ ”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Commendably, you are aware that what happened is wrong. You did your faith filled duty to call attention to the situation to the supervisor in an attempting to correct a wrong. To me, this demonstrates your attempt to follow proper chains of command. I must admit I find your supervisor’s response appalling but I wish to tell you that YOU did not fail… you were simply not heard. The fact that the therapist you spoke with is no longer talking to you is indicative of the quality of his/her character, not yours! Maybe it’s time to simply let it go because you never had control over this situation and therefore there is no reason for it to be on your conscience.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Your supervisor’s call was quite foolish, in Biblical terms. A therapist who steals from clients will steal from her employer and anyone else. Our Lord says, ‘He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much’ (Luke 16:10). 

“It was good to give your co-worker the chance to put things right. Sadly, in our world, there is a price to pay for speaking and acting with integrity. It is small comfort, but I’d say you are better off if such a person keeps her distance. If conscience brings her to see the wrong of what she did, she will come to you and say so. Until then, you can only pray for her and keep a watchful eye, lest others become victims of her self-centered ethics.”

Ty Silzer, a former pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, responds:

“First, I’m really sorry. You’re trying to do right by all parties, and are stuck in the middle of conflict. Next, it sounds like you’ve take the right steps to correct this matter. You know well now you cannot make anyone do anything, even the right thing.

“Your options, as I see them:

“Nothing. ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (Romans 12:18). You’ve take the right steps. To do more, where you don’t have authority is only going to shatter what’s already been diminished. This is not your fault—it’s a recognition of the state of things.

“Replace. I don’t recommend this. You didn’t lose it. You didn’t steal it. But if it’s really disturbing you, you could purchase one to replace either the therapist’s ‘need’ or the client’s actual loss.

“Wisdom. You can try to Solomon the situation (1 Kings 3:16-28) and be as wise as a serpent, as gentle as a dove (Matthew 10:16). Obviously, we ‘Ethics and Religion Talk’ contributors don’t know the context’s specifics, but, what if you find a situation for the three of you to be in, therapist with said mug? You could lean over to the client, ‘Hey, didn’t you lose a mug just like that one?’ Thus, reuniting the client with their mug and reuniting the therapist with the confrontation of their heist.

“Faith. Finally, pray. Ask God what you should do.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“Before anything else, please accept my sympathy for having to work at a place where there is such a dearth of basic morality. Clearly, if such a small issue such as a found mug can cause such a lapse then I’d be afraid to see just what happens when more serious ethical questions are placed in front of them. Ultimately, you may be happier in another clinic.”

“There may be a few options to consider. One is that you have done what you were supposed to do. You confronted the thief and the thief enabler. If you did nothing other than this you have acted honorably. But the fact that you wrote us means you are not satisfied. One other thing you can do is to contact the owner and tell him that you did see it on the lost and found shelf. Then encourage him to contact management to find out what happened to it from there. As far as the PT not speaking to you, I would consider it a blessing. But if this interferes with you job then it’s time to revisit the supervisor. Finally, I assume there are people in higher positions than your supervisor. Knowing that there could be repercussions, you might consider going above his or her head. I would hope that at some level exists a person of integrity.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.