As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
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.