Candid Comments for Candidates (2)

Part 1

Thinking through the business of candidating as a seminary student, recent graduate, first-time pastor or a pastor currently without a call is less difficult than the matter of calling a pastor who is currently serving a congregation. The most obvious reason the second scenario is more complicated is that the pastor currently serving a congregation has, well, a congregation. To follow up on the analogy suggested in the first post, if candidating is like courting then being called is like getting married. There is a ceremony (the installation). A minister speaks a charge to the bride (the congregation) and to the groom (the minister). There are vows. A reception follows. Ministers frequently speak about a “honeymoon” as a way to describe the initial reception of the new minister.Unlike a literal wedding, after which the honeymoon might be two weeks, a pastoral honeymoon might last 6 months to a year. Only after the honeymoon has ended does a newly called minister begin to learn the hidden realities that exist in every congregation. 

How far may we stretch the wedding/marriage analogy? Should a minister ever leave a congregation for another and, if so, when and under what circumstances? I find these very difficult questions. I don’t know to which biblical texts to which one would appeal to sort them out. Can we sort it out by appealing to the same distinction between the internal and external call to ministry we discussed in the first post? I’m not sure. In the case of the call to ministry, one has a sense that one might be gifted and a desire to fulfill an office and this call is confirmed by the visible church. Can a minister who is already under call to a congregation begin to sense a call to another congregation? If this happens in a marriage it can get fellow whacked in the head with a rolling pin! Again, perhaps this shows the weakness of the marriage analogy for pastoral call?

As a matter of fact most congregations and ministers practice serial monogamy. After some time (often about 7-10 years) ministers are sometimes (often?) called to another congregation. In my experience it is usually, but not always, the case that there are unresolved “issues” that, though not fatal to a relationship, have begun to wear the fabric of that relationship. The congregation’s lack of response to the ministry or the minister’s inability to overcome certain quirks are not as easy to tolerate the 5th year of a pastorate as they were during the honeymoon.

In some cases an invitation to candidate in another congregation comes out of the blue. In other cases ministers begin to ask around discretely or to “send out feelers” about this vacant pulpit or that. In the cases where the invitation to candidate comes unexpectedly the minister faces a crisis. First, someone else has paid attention to the minister and he feels flattered. After all, his “bride” isn’t quite what she was a few years ago. Maybe each party has begun to take the other for granted. It happens. Second, the invitation to candidate comes from a true, visible church. That’s a serious matter not to be dismissed easily or lightly—yet it comes to a man who is already betrothed! Leaving an existing pastoral call for another is not done easily or lightly. 

To further complicate things, in the Dutch Reformed tradition, candidacy is done in groups of twos or threes known as duos or trios and yet congregations have been known to do this without, let us say, equal interest in each candidate. Sometimes at least one member of a trio isn’t really a serious candidate but merely filling out the trio or invited in order to make another candidate look good. In that case, how does one know if one is being used as a stalking horse and should one participate in a trio in such a case?

Historically, however, Reformed pastors have considered, received and accepted calls from other congregations. Pierre Viret, Calvin’s much admired colleague in Geneva, accepted another call and in by his leaving created a considerable vacuum in the ministry of the city churches. The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America allows a minister to leave his congregation for a couple of reasons. In Article 11 the CO permits a sort of no-fault divorce. 

If, for reasons other than such as warrant ecclesiastical discipline, either a minister of the Word or the congregation he is serving desires to dissolve their pastoral relationship, that dissolution shall occur only upon mutually satisfactory conditions and only with the concurring advice of the classis. If the released minister desires to receive a call to serve another congregation, the council from whose service he is being released shall announce his eligibility for call, which eligibility shall be valid for no more than two years, whereafter he shall be honorably released from office. If the minister released from his congregation desires to leave his office in order to seek non-ministerial labor, he must receive the approval of the classis before doing so.

Having seen this article in operation I am not sure it is very helpful. Yes, it allows a congregation and minister to end their relationship when there is no other call upon the minister. The article assumes that there are reasons why the relationship might be “dissolved” that do not involve discipline. In practice is this so? In one case a classis granted such a no-fault divorce and the minister went on to accept another call in the federation but the underlying (doctrinal) issues which created the necessity for “the divorce” were never addressed in the first place and they were carried to the next congregation with unhappy consequences. 

Again, perhaps the “marriage/divorce” analogy breaks down here but if it holds, is there really such a thing among Christians as a “no-fault” divorce? I don’t think that the Reformed churches confess the validity of no-fault divorce. A spouse may seek divorce as a remedy in the case of adultery or abandonment. Indeed, I’ve never seen one a no-fault divorce. Every divorce I know about was attended by sin. Where there is sin there needs to be repentance and forgiveness. Where a minister is troubling the churches with, to put it mildly, problematic doctrine or morals, then that issue should be faced and not “ducked.” 

Perhaps there are reasons for allowing a dissolution of the relation between the minister and the congregation, that have nothing to do with sin and forgiveness, absent a call from another congregation, but, at the moment, I can’t think of any. I guess I have a limited imagination. Church Order art. 7 also allows a minister of one congregation to be called to another congregation:

Those who are already ordained ministers within the federation may be called to another congregation in a manner consistent with the above rules, without the examination or the laying on of hands. Any minister receiving a call shall consult with his current council regarding that call. He may accept the call only with their consent. Upon receipt of proper credentials from the church he last served, he shall be installed with the use of the appropriate liturgical form and shall subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription.

If a minister has become dissatisfied (and let assume assume that this is holy or righteous dissatisfaction) then it may well exist in the congregation and so, when the pastor receives an enquiry or makes his own and a call results the crisis is lessened. Both parties are ready for a change. In many cases, however, this spare account of how the call is to be conducted passes over much anguished prayer, uncertainty, fear, and joy if or when resolution arrives. Let’s assume a healthy, happy relationship between pastor and congregation. Enter a query from another congregation. One’s first instinct is to say no. Often the process ends right there. Why would one want to leave? Nevertheless, it is a valid enquiry from a true church so one fills out the forms and, in due time, having consulted with one’s current consistory, is invited to preach and to meet with the prospective congregation. Out of this process a call arrives. Now things become truly difficult especially for a consistent cessationist.

Often it is at points such as these that many (most?) Reformed folk fall back into pietistic and quasi-Pentecostal patterns and practices. Staunchly cessationist ministers have been known to put out a “fleece” in hopes of getting some sort of sign from the Lord as what to do. Others pray with the secret hope that God will speak a “still, small” Word of extra-canonical revelation. Those who, however, press their confessional Reformed piety into practice consistently pray for wisdom, insight, self-knowledge, and honest assessment of the congregations involved as they seek to wrestle through the call. What are one’s gifts? What are one’s weaknesses? One one’s current congregation be better served by someone else with different gifts? These are some of the questions that must be answered.

This post hasn’t touched on the sometimes complicated relations between ministers and consistories (sessions) and councils (including the deacons). Ministers work closely with their consistories and councils. Most of what they do (or should be doing) is reviewed regularly by the elders. The minister and the elders need to agree on a lot of things in order for the ministry be peaceful. A poor or weak relationship (e.g., lack of trust, miscommunication or principled disagreement) between the minister and the consistory can wreck a ministry in a local congregation. Often classes are (or seem to be) unaware of such difficulties. Nearby ministers may know (ministers do have telephones and email) of the difficulties but without consistories are sometimes reluctant to admit that difficulties exist and without a formal invitation from the consistory, there is not a great deal that can be done. If things become serious enough, one can overture classis for help by way of “church visitors.”  These ministers and elders who are delegated to act on behalf of classis to intervene in difficult situations to help resolve them. Otherwise the issue can be taken to classis for advice and potential resolution.

There are other considerations. Ministers usually have families. They have to live somewhere. Sometimes the living conditions in one place are superior to those in another. I’ve known ministers to live in terrible conditions. More than once I’ve heard deacons or others say, “Well, it’s good enough for the church.” This, neglect of the minister and his family in itself, may not be not sufficient reason to leave one congregation for another, but it does matter and it does help create the pre-conditions for an unstable ministry. Whena congregation has a new minister every three years it’s almost always a sign that something is wrong.  Further, whatever some might think, it matters how one’s children are educated, it matters whether a congregation has provided sufficiently for the needs of the minister and his family. Poor congregations frequently have trouble hanging on to ministers. The pastorate is no place to accumulate wealth and few ministers have to face seriously Jesus’ warnings about the rich and the kingdom of heaven, but there are wealthy, well-established congregations who are able to provide well for a minister and his family and pastors think about these things.

If there is any validity to the marriage analogy, if a minister and his congregation are regularly confessing their sins to one another, forgiving one another, and praying for one another, if a congregation is providing sufficiently for the minister and his family and if the minister is (mostly) joyfully discharging his call, then ministers should not leave their congregations very often.When they do it would be helpful if the minister can say how the process worked. It would also be helpful if we didn’t cover over the more human elements of the process pious bromides which tend to give the impression that God gives extra-canonical revelation to pastors. Whatever some might want us to think, the minister is only a minister. He doesn’t have a special hotline to God. He doesn’t know anymore about the secret will of God than anyone else. He’s a human being with an internal and external call to the ministry but as to exactly where that ministry should be exercised, well, that’s a matter for wisdom, discretion, and honesty.

I can’t say with certainty that a minister should never leave his congregation for another. The Reformed churches have long provided for this and there is probably wisdom in it. This is a fallen world. Sometimes a change is for the best, but I am sure that at least some such calls would have been rejected were relations between ministers, consistories, and congregations what they should be. As in a marriage, recognizing, confessing, and forgiving sin as those who have been forgiven by Christ is essential.

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  1. This is a very interesting read, thank you for posting.

    What about the Pastor that no longer “wants” to be a Pastor but doesn’t know what else to do because of financial concerns. For example, he may not want to leave a particular congregation because of the financial difficulties it could place on him and his family as he seeks another vocation.

    Or perhaps, worse, what of the Pastor that is having serious struggles with his faith (perhaps privately so).

    In either of these situations is the Pastor still bound to his “marriage” to the congregation? Or perhaps more significantly do you think he would have an obligation to leave (either for another call or for another vocation altogether). Your thoughts and wisdom are welcome.

  2. I suppose one reason a pastor might want to move without any unhappiness on either side is if there are family matters which require his being closer to, say, his parents. I can imagine situations where a chap might at least begin to wonder whether he couldn’t discharge his calling to the ministry *and* his fifth commandment responsibilities best by moving closer to the parental home.

  3. Hi JC,

    This is a good point and question. If a man has lost or never had an internal call to the ministry, he ought to confront that directly. No one should be in pastoral ministry who lacks either an internal or external call.

    in view of a minister’s service to his congregation, a congregation ought to relieve his financial distress until he is released from the ministry (our church order has a provision for that) and able to find a secular vocation to support his family. There is nothing dishonorable about demitting the ministry in favor of a secular vocation. Refusal to face squarely this situation could lead to very serious problems for the pastor, his congregation, and his family. In such a case, no the minister is no longer “married” to his congregation because he no longer has one vital aspect to the vocation.

    To anticipate a problem: Yes, the minister’s ministry is still valid even if he lacks the internal vocation. The power of the Word and Sacraments is not the minister’s piety or internal vocation but the Spirit. Paul says, Phil 2, he doesn’t care why a man preaches Christ so long as he does it. We’re not Donatists.


    As always you’ve helped me. Thanks. This is quite right. There might be these and other reasons but, in my experience, they are not the typical or usual reasons for leaving a charge.

  4. Hi Gil,

    NAPARC is a helpful rubric within which to work because all the denominations/federations in it are supposed to be confessional. The ultimate test, however is whether a congregation/denomination/federation is biblical as confessed by the Reformed churches.

    Within those parameters I don’t see why a minister might not move freely (as freely as a minister should move) between denominations/federations. I’ve known ministers who have served in the OPC, PCA, and the RCUS and they would say that they discharged their ministry within each denomination. I’ve only served in two, the RCUS and the URCNA, but I don’t think that my denominational affiliation has had a huge influence on my ministry. I probably see some things a little differently in this context that I did in the RCUS but that’s a matter of degrees. I’ve come to appreciate the Dutch Reformed tradition and I’ve come to value their view of the sabbath and the means of grace, psalmody etc. These are healthy and valuable Reformed traditions from which I would have benefitted in the RCUS. Cross-denominational ministry express can be valuable.

  5. Scott,

    I’m not sure that this is an issue within the URC, but I have noticed that when many congregations in the PCA and OPC begin their pastoral search they include previous pastoral experience as one of their expectations. This contributes to the obvious problem of treating pastoral ministry like a business career where one tries to move up the ecclesiastical ladder.

    Ironically, I’m sure that many churches which require previous pastoral experience of those whom they are considering would bemoan their pastor leaving their congregation for “greener pastures” elsewhere.

    It seems wrong to me to put all of the onus for addressing this problem on the students you are teaching, who didn’t create this system, rather than on those of us who have been around long enough to have become part of the problem.

    Do you see any constructive way to address this issue?

  6. Hi David,

    I did try to address this a little in the post on pastoral search committees. It’s a real problem. At least part of the answer is realism on both sides. Candidates must know that many search committees are going to be unrealistic at first. Every search committee seems to start off wanting a minister with 20 years experience who will serve their congregation for $5.00 a day! Hyperbole yes, but it’s not all that far removed from reality. Search committees need to become more realistic. Perhaps a congregation could decide, as a matter of principle, that they were call a newly minted minister every third call or something like that, so that they do their part to help train new ministers? Sem students should do their part to gain as much experience as possible during sem or perhaps better to serve an extended internship after sem. Not every 27-year old sem graduate is ready to be a pastor. If the churches see graduates functioning well as interns after graduation, they will have more confidence in calling them. Physicians do extended and difficult internships after med school. I don’t see why the churches can’t do this. In fact, some do have internship programs. The OPC has an extensive internship program and I think the RCUS does as too.

  7. Scott,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. Regretfully, I wasn’t sufficiently clear and hope you will indulge me in re-framing my question:

    I wasn’t trying to address the difficulty of seminary students getting their first pastorate and I fully agree that not every 27 year old is ready to be a pastor.

    What I was trying to address is this: If we keep telling seminary students that they need an M.Div. plus 5 years experience to be considered to pastor our churches, we shouldn’t blame many of them for seeing their first pastorate as a stepping stone where they gain that 5 years of experience. This is both painful for the small churches that can easily perceive themselves as being used by such men and damaging to the ministry of pastors who may adopt this mindset.

    The response that I’ve seen to this problem has been to tell seminary students that they shouldn’t view their first pastorate as a stepping stone (which we should tell them!); but the problem is that we are telling these same students that they need to have done so before they can pastor at “our” church.

    Like you, I think that it might make sense for us to develop extended internship programs. I’m in the OPC, and we do a lot of this, but often there is the reality of funding: We generally don’t pay interns anything near a wage where they could support a family. At his point, your comparison to Medical Doctors seems important to me. There are three ways we pay for advanced training in America: (1). High paying jobs that allow those receiving the training to borrow large sums of money which they can pay back (Doctors, lawyers, MBAs); (2). Free Tuition and Stipends for Teaching and Research Assistants (many Liberal Arts and Scientific programs); and (3) Neither (e.g. Pastors). While I appreciate what a great job WSC does at providing a superb education at reasonable cost – it must be untenable for most of your students to add 2 years of internship that they have to pay for (less, perhaps $1,000 per month in stipend).

    BTW – This is not special pleading for your students. As a student at the Naval Academy and then as an officer in the Marine Corps I saw how committed the military was to training its leadership while meeting all of their financial needs. The same is true for (most of) the organizations I ran both in the public and for-profit sectors. It is pretty standard for organizations to pay for 100% of an employee’s MBA while continuing to pay his or her full time salary. While doing the same may be neither tenable nor desirable in pastoral training, I if the gap between how we train Executives and Medical Doctors and how we train Pastors reflects the reality that most Christians care far more about how skilled their Doctor is than how skilled their Pastor is.

    Thank you for doing so much at WSC with the resources that you have … and also for taking the time to address this challenging subject.

  8. David,

    I agree with everything you say. The fundamental problem is that our churches (the NAPARC churches) more or less abandon their students before, during, and immediately after seminary. It’s a poor system. Congregations seem to think that pastors just fall out of the sky. They don’t realize the tremendous investment that others have made so that they might have a pastor. If the present system is going to change it has to begin with a recognition on the part of congregations that they have a responsibility prepare students for seminary (by teaching them the catechism), to support future pastors in seminary, and to support graduates in decent internship programs.

  9. As a raised papist, I have witness how the Roman Catholics do a better job at supporting their seminary students. For instance, for one, their sudents never really worry of having to work odd jobs to pay up for seminary and also they don’t have to worry about debt after seminary school. The churches as a whole, from any location, are very supportive of seminary students. My grandparents, for example, were known for sponsering sevaral students seminary education.

    In addition, four years of seminary training is not enough for them. They required their students to have a master degree in addition to their regular four years of seminary training. So, their model is more like the Medical/Lawyer path.

    Also, you are not given a church to serve alone until you have been doing several internship and at different churches. Besides that, they do have two-three years of internship, but through out all of their 20’s and 30’s (yrs. of age) they are being mentored under much older priest.

    Again, I am only putting this out because I think we can learn from this. Me commenting on papist seminary taining is becuase I have close family members and I know RC priest who are currently becoming papal priest and/or have become priest. I believed we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, Soli Deo Gloria!

    Prof. Scott,

    Do you know how was the model when the Geneva Academy was up and running? For example, How did it work when a church from Poland sent their seminary students to Geneva? Was the Geneva Academy free for seminary students to attend? and What happen after they graduated? Did they served under another pastor as a internship, etc?

  10. Hi Gil,

    The Genevan academy developed gradually from about the mid-50s (College de la Rive) until it became the Academy c. ’58 or ’59 upon Beza’s arrival. There’s a little bit about it and some leads in the Olevianus book. After Calvin’s death in ’64 Beza developed it and it attracted students from the British Isles and from across Europe.

    Students often had to provide their own support. As a result, education was restricted to the upper classes. There was some ecclesiastical funding (scholarships) but students relied on patrons and family. Students lived very Spartan lifestyles. They ate less than modern sem students and they certainly didn’t have cable TV and an iPhone or a mac book.

    Students were sometimes sent out by the Genevan Church to plant churches in France and elsewhere or they returned home to serve churches there. The outcomes varied according to the situation of the student.

  11. This post(also part1) was most helpful. It helped me understand a great deal about what Pastoral calling involves; and also the realities one must face to remain faithful to that call.

  12. It has been over a year since you posted this Dr. Clark. Have you seen any changes (+ or -) over the last year that would change how you approach this topic?

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