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In the past year I have been at least tangentially involved in a couple of “Article 17” cases. For those of you who aren’t familiar with CRC Church Order, Article 17 is a provision that allows for the separation of a pastor from a congregation. This usually occurs at a time when a pastor and congregation have come to the point where friction, distrust, divergent visions for the church, or any number of other reasons make it unhealthy or impossible to continue the relationship. This is not a disciplinary action like deposition. Rather it’s a kind of supervised ecclesiastical divorce.

These cases are becoming more frequent in the CRC, which should not be surprising. One reason is that our understanding of the relationship of pastors and congregation is changing. While we still speak of a ministerial “call,” increasingly congregations think of “hiring” their minister. Ministers are hired to do a job. And when they don’t do it according to expectations, or fail to bring the desired results, they can get “fired,” which is the essence of Article 17 in that atmosphere.

Another reason is that, given the particular pressures and demands of ministry today, more and more pastors just don’t have the personal, spiritual, or emotional resources to do their work well. In some cases, family situations play a role; in others, congregations may make unreasonable demands or have unhealthy dynamics.

And then there are situations that lie in a gray area between malpractice and wrongdoing, with the remedy somewhere between renewal and discipline (Art. 84). There is no provision in Article 17 for a situation in which suspension (which normally leads to discipline) may continue for a period of probation to see if serious problem areas can be changed before reinstatement.

We have to realize that pastors are not necessarily more resourceful, emotionally and spiritually stronger, or more immune to pressure than the rest of us. Pastors too can break under pressure or buckle under temptation like all of us.
 
Though it is difficult, some of these pastors are able make a new start by being called to another church after an Article 17. Many others are not. It may be because of the stigma of an Article 17, or because they are simply unsuitable for congregational ministry. Others languish in the purgatory of being available for call for years until their classis declares them released from ministry.

What bothers me is that many of these pastors do not receive the help that might enable them to either recover their strength and calling for ministry, or realize that they are not really cut out for the task. A Supplement provision of Article 17 says that if the classis deems the minister needs “a time of evaluation and assistance before extending another call, it shall specify at the time of separation what is required before the congregation calls another minister.’ However, my observation is that many classes and congregations do not typically have the trained personnel, budget, or other resources to provide that evaluation and assistance.

It seems to me that this is a situation that needs further denominational resources. What if there was a kind of rehabilitation center for evaluation, counseling, and referral for this growing number of pastors? What if classes could, after doing what they can in the immediate resolution of the matter, be able to refer ministers for this assistance? Just as there is a kind of “boot camp” for church planters, couldn’t there be a kind of rehab center for pastors in this situation?

Of course, this would take extra money and personnel beyond what the Office of Pastor/Church Relations has at this time. On the other hand, there could be creative ways to make it less expensive and more effective, such as creating online evaluation instruments. Personal contact, and even some forms of counsel and support could be done via video link. Then, perhaps once or twice a year, there could be an intensive week-long gathering where the evaluations and support would be strengthened and personalized in community with other pastors going through the same process.

It seems to me reasonable, fair, and beneficial for the whole denomination to commit some modest resources to support, reinvigorate, and redirect these pastors to whom we have already committed considerable resources to educate and train. It would also give further assurance to congregations who might call them of their fitness for a return to active ministry in the church.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.  

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Comments

I think your proposal is very timely and could be very effective.  I am particularly concerned about the mental health of pastors and think this kind of rehab would minister to that need as well.

Thanks for writing on this topic.

Larry

There are already wonderful organizations doing this work like Midwest Ministry Development (http://www.midwestministrydevelopment.org). Let's refer our pastors to their services as other denominations do.

When I attended my first Classis meeting as Regional Advocate for Disability Concerns last year a presentation was made about A Pastoral Leave of Absence for reasons of Mental illness, and the elder delegate who drove me to Classis told me on the way that this was the result of several Article 17 situations.  Yet, mental illness does not figure in the reasons mentioned by the author.  Stigma associated with mental illnesses can be a reason why pastors are not called by other congregations following their separation from their congregations.

 As a denomination we began to discuss depression in the 1980s.  I remember it because I began to experience hallucinations and other symptoms of schizophrenia around that time, and i found it helpful that the CRCNA was adressing this issue.  Unfortunately, I'm periodically confronted with the reality that many people in the pews are still stuck in more ancient times when it comes to acknowledging mental illness as a reality period, let alone that their pastors can suffer from depression or other psychiatric disorders.  I suppose that falls into the unrealistic expectations category that somehow fallible human beings who serve God as ministers of the Word are immune to disease of the brain and emotions despite efforts by the denomination to educate believers about this reality.  It seems we need to keep up the efforts because there is much more sensitivity to and awareness of intellectual disability such as is found in Down's Syndrome than for people who suffer from all forms of psychiatric illnesses.