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.