Learning the Hard Way from an Article 17 Separation

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No one at the regional meeting of Christian Reformed churches (classis) was happy with the decision we had made. A pastor and a church were parting ways, and we had approved the separation. The decision was weighted with sadness: the pastor and church had once dreamed of going places together! The decision was weighted with inevitability: the relationship between pastor and the church had diminished beyond repair.

The change was slow at first, almost imperceptible. Small and surmountable things showed up, but no one could quite put their finger on what those things were. Besides, much good ministry was happening. Who wanted to stir up trouble? But there was trouble, and it grew to the point that effective ministry was no longer possible. At that meeting, we approved the separation in accordance with Article 17 of the Church Order. This article calls for neighboring CRCs to agree that the working relationship cannot be sufficiently repaired and that separation is necessary. Terms of a severance package are included and oversight committees are formed to work with the pastor and with the church to help each heal, learn, reconcile, and move to another chapter of ministry.

The pain of separation

The process of separation can be painful. Friendships are often strained. The self-confidence of the pastor might be shattered, or at least shaken. The council is left to wonder what they did or did not do and then to help the congregation understand all that has happened. That’s no easy task given that much information must remain confidential. Feelings of confusion, anger or betrayal are not absent. Over everything and everyone there hangs a heavy cloud of sadness.

Relationships can unravel for many possible reasons. No matter how carefully one tugs at the threads, a single explanation rarely emerges. Perhaps a pastor has stayed too long in a congregation. Pastors are understandably reluctant to move children from good schools or ask a spouse to leave a good job. Should pastors be quicker to ask if their heart and skill set are still a good fit for the church they serve? Pastors might not be as good at reinventing themselves as they might think. Should churches ask if the consumerism of our culture has snuck into the church? We might grow tired of our pastors in the way that we grow tired of clothes we loved five years ago but now hang in the closet, neither outgrown or worn out.

Relationships can unravel because of differing expectations. Pastors and councils might be doing good work but there is disagreement about which work takes priority. A sharp conflict might arise and expose a lack of communication or lack of trust. Like a tree that blows over in a storm because of unnoticed decay at the core, so a pastor and church are unable to withstand a conflict because of unnoticed decay in relationships. Except when the dust clears, most everyone will admit they noticed a long time ago that something was going sideways. No one knew how to bring it up.

Finding an off-ramp

If you think about all the events that lead to a separation as a highway, then the good news is that the highway has many off-ramps. Attentive pastors and churches can exit the highway and return to good ministry together.   

The first off-ramp is prayer. Leaders and all others need to pray for the church, for leaders, for pastors, for each other. Pray and humbly listen for God’s guidance; spend unhurried time listening to his Word. Quick solutions might be no closer, but godly character will be formed.

Most other off-ramps circle around one theme: honesty.

  • Be honest about the good stuff! When good stuff happens in your church, name it! Celebrate it! Recognize that by the grace of God, good ministry happens even if that ministry does appear at the top of your list of priorities.
  • Be honest if there is some matter of procedure or policy that is not clear. Make it safe to ask questions by answering gently. This builds trust in small things and that builds a foundation for bigger things.
  • Be honest about struggles. Pastors or council members, if you have had a rough go, take a risk and name it at a council meeting. Yes, there is business to conduct at a council meeting, but the heart of the business of church is to care for one another. Take time at meetings for anyone who is feeling weary. This is vulnerability that draws out kindness. Kindness draws out calm communication and imaginative problem solving.
  • Be honest about quality and quantity of work—by all involved. Conduct regular staff evaluations. Ask if the council’s support is adequate and expectations are clear and fair.
  • Be honest with church visitors, a regional pastor or the CRC’s office of Pastor Church Resources; we are blessed to have systems and people in place who can help!

When a pastor and church use these off-ramps, undesirable patterns can be caught in time to fix. Ministry and relationships can flourish.

Hope for healing

After all that, relationships between pastors and churches might still need to end. Or better to say the relationships will need to change when a pastor moves on to a different calling. Such a change brings some sadness but also the excitement of new opportunities and the assurance that deep friendships will last. In the case of an Article 17 separation (and these could still happen), we can trust more deeply that grace will abound. For the church and for the pastor, the separation need not be a place of failure or shame, but rather the gift of a “reset” button. Churches and pastors are given the opportunity to reflect, learn, and start again.

(Read another story about an Article 17 separation here: Conduct Becoming the Body of Christ.)

About the Author

Rev. Curtis Korver has served on four different committees assembled to help a pastor or church after a separation. The story told here is a composite of all four experiences. He serves a church in Port Alberni, B.C.

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Comments

Good stuff.  I would strongly urge the denomination, if it hasn't done so already, to develop a unit (or whatever) that tries to help the congregation deal with the aftermath. Separations actually bang around the walls and lives of a church for years. It would be useful if there was a kind of "lessons-learned" that summed up all the wisdom gathered from past experiences that could be shared with the congregation to help prepare them for what they're going to go through, and to help them prepare. These aren't just sad experiences, they're quite confusing. Elders with detailed knowledge of what occured rotate off, others come on who know nothing, and they're expected to lead the congregation during this time of great emotion, lots of criticism, fear, etc. Churches need wise counsel. 

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