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As a specialized transitional minister, I serve at churches whose pastor recently departed. A pastor might leave for various reasons, such as accepting a call elsewhere or retirement. But I’ve observed that with growing frequency there is another reason: pastors and councils are deciding to part ways.
One frequent factor centers on differing expectations for the responsibility and authority of the pastor in relationship to the council. This might seem rather surprising. After all, Reformed churches have a heritage stretching back for centuries. The relationship between a pastor and council is spelled out in Christian Reformed church order.
In Reformed understanding, a pastor is called by God and accountable to the Lord and at the same time called by a church and accountable to the council. In our tradition, elders and deacons have been accorded an equal voice and vote and dignity with the pastor. Our church order takes seriously the words of I Peter 5:3: that pastors are to be shepherds of God’s flock—not lording it over those entrusted to you.
So why have differing expectations recently caused friction in some churches? Perhaps some view our church order as advisory. So they feel free to adopt other approaches or structures that seem to better suit their church situation.
For example, in larger churches, elders and deacons might work full time and meet once or twice a month. They cannot keep up with all the issues and decisions that arise day by day. Further, a large church tends to have a larger council. And the more people around the table, the more time it takes to discuss matters and make decisions. That proves to be poor stewardship of the precious time of busy leaders.
Some larger churches have moved toward more staff-driven leadership. The senior pastor and staff are given more responsibility and authority to make decisions. Meanwhile, the council tends to broader issues of vision, direction, and major decisions.
In some traditions the pastor functions more like a CEO. Often such pastors have the authority to hire or fire staff or make significant expenditures. I recall the approach of a large neighboring church where I served. When a new senior pastor was called, all the staff were expected to submit their resignation so he could build the staff team in the way he wished. As pastors join the Christian Reformed Church from other backgrounds, they might bring varied expectations of leadership.
When a pastor and council hold differing views of their responsibility and authority, it readily creates friction. If unresolved, teamwork is undermined. This can be a factor causing a pastor and church to part ways.
In reflecting on this problem, a few biblical and pastoral thoughts come to mind. First, God’s Word provides a lot of freedom in how churches may function. The Bible doesn’t include a book of church order. Around the globe we find an amazing variety of churches and leadership styles. We should embrace the considerable freedom God has provided to design a structure suited to our particular church and its mission.
Second, while facing larger church dynamics or assessing leadership models, let’s treasure the biblical principles embedded in our Reformed heritage and church order. One principle is accountability. Even the most gifted, trusted pastor benefits from healthy, biblical accountability from the council. On the flip side, councils benefit from healthy accountability provided by their pastor, their classis, and church visitors.
Another principle is teamwork among a church’s leaders. In the early church, a team of apostles and leaders made key decisions. Teamwork provides wider wisdom. Since all believers have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, all can help discern the leading of the Spirit. That’s why major church decisions are presented to the full congregation for a voice and vote.
Further, shared decisions can shield a pastor from undue blame. I think of a church that had some major budget reductions and had to trim one of its full-time pastors. The council left that decision to its senior pastor. When he made that difficult decision, he received some criticism for it.
Finally, given the diversity of leadership styles today, it is crucial to be crystal-clear on the expectations of responsibility and authority between a pastor and council. Clear, shared expectations are vital to foster healthy teamwork, to avoid friction, and to bring God glory before a watching world. Then there might be less need for transitional pastors like me.