People tend to associate certain numbers with specific meanings. Three, for example, reminds us of the Trinity. Seven, corresponding to the days of creation, represents fullness; and 40 suggests testing.
And then there is the number 17. Mathematicians will recognize it as a prime number, divisible only by itself and the number 1. In many cases, identifying something as “prime” has a very positive connotation—as in “prime rib” or even “prime minister.”
It should come as no surprise that things sometimes go badly in the church.
But in the Christian Reformed Church, the number 17 is usually uttered with a mixture of fear and distaste by church councils and pastors—that is, whenever it refers to Article 17 of the Church Order, “Release from Ministry in a Congregation.” Article 17 seems to be particularly meaning-full.
Councils and pastors often look for alternate routes through a parting of ways. Perhaps the pastor could seek out a call to ministry elsewhere. Or the congregation could offer the pastor a time of sabbatical with the understanding that this would be terminal, allowing both to quietly close the chapter. Or perhaps the pastor could simply take a time-out from ministry. Anything to avoid the daunting stigma attached to Article 17!
Pastors fear that the number 17 will hang around their neck like a scarlet letter identifying them as flawed or quasi-qualified for ministry. And councils worry that using Article 17 will give them a reputation as a “difficult” congregation—a treacherous place for any minister who follows.
But is that perception accurate? Is the stigma real? Is there a way through the conundrum that, in many cases, the only route to release available in the Church Order is the route we want to avoid?
Challenging the Perception
In fact, the stigma is unwarranted. Article 17 applies to a whole range of situations, and its meaning can vary widely. For example, a pastor who intends to pursue further education would do so under Article 17. The same is true for a denominational agency or a congregation that downsizes and eliminates a position, or a pastor who chooses to step away from parish ministry for a time of discerning his or her calling.
Beyond these occasions, there are more challenging circumstances. Reasons for change in the fit between congregation and pastor are many and varied. After a length of time, a congregation may require a leader with a different gift mix. Years ago, pastors served congregations for relatively short stretches—three to seven years. When that was the norm, difficult situations would “resolve” themselves in a matter of time. Over the last 20 years, the pendulum has swung toward longer pastorates and encouragement for pastors and congregations to work through challenges rather than simply move on.
But this trend has a downside: the new reality of pastors staying in a congregation longer than is advisable. When that happens, the pastor and congregation may become enmeshed in increasingly unhealthy systems of formal and informal expectations. Sometimes congregations are unkind to their pastors, and pastors are unkind to their congregations. Other times, pastors are unkind to themselves, affecting their ability to function as leaders.
Whatever the cause, when it becomes clear that “fit” is a concern, congregations can no longer presume that a timely call will be forthcoming. While the general proportion of “vacant” churches—churches without a pastor—within the CRC has remained fairly steady, the calling system moves more slowly and deliberately, with an increasing focus on the right “fit.” Churches take longer to move through the search process, and pastors are less inclined to move quickly. This may seem just fine—until you are the pastor looking to move, or the congregation seeking a pastor! Then the pace can become a source of impatience and frustration. The current sluggishness of our calling system contributes to the need for Article 17 separations.
Opportunities for Healing and Growth
Someone once commented, “When you’ve seen one Article 17, you’ve seen one Article 17.” It’s true that no two situations are precisely alike. The range of situations covered by this single article in the Church Order is immense: from painful and lamentable to simply circumstantial or purely personal.
In each situation, it’s necessary to establish the basic circumstances and dynamics leading up to a release. But it is far more important to look at how the parties respond. There are times of brokenness and wrongdoing in each of our lives, and in our life together. For a community that confesses the need for daily repentance and forgiveness, it should come as no surprise that things sometimes go badly in the church. Through this brokenness, did the pastor and congregation demonstrate enough humility to engage in a process of healing? Were mistakes acknowledged? Are both pastor and congregation in a better position to engage in significant new relationships? Does the congregation have a fresh commitment and ability, by the grace of God and the presence of the Spirit, to be a more hospitable and mature community, and the pastor to be a more able and mature leader?
Over the years, the Church Order has included significant revisions to Article 17. In 2003 a supplement was added to provide processes of healing for pastors and congregations. There are provisions for counsel and assessment for pastors, and specialized transition ministers to assist congregations and allow pastors and congregations to flourish.
The fact that there is a stigma attached to a process for dealing with our brokenness is troubling. It suggests that the church of Jesus continues to be a place where it is not safe to be weak. Wouldn’t it be grand if our starting point with each other were not the shine of our veneer but rather our shared conviction that in our weakness the grace of God is our strength? Wouldn’t it be grander still if a trend emerged of pastors and congregations becoming more hospitable toward each other, and this trend led to fewer painful separations?
The reality of Article 17 is that it includes both tinges of scarlet and shades of healing. Sometimes an Article 17 release may point to ongoing concerns about a community or a person. Other times it may point to a community or a person radically changed for the better! Often Article 17 points to challenging times of brokenness that cry out for hope. These are opportunities for healing, for growth, and for renewal. They are occasions for persons and for communities to learn anew what it means to live by the grace of God. One thing is sure: Article 17 invites us into conversation with each other in a process designed to achieve clarity and, sometimes, healing.
Article 17: Release from Ministry in a Congregation
a. Ministers who are neither eligible for retirement nor worthy of discipline may for weighty reasons be released from active ministerial service in a congregation through action initiated by themselves, by a council, or jointly. Such release shall be given only with the approval of classis, with the concurring advice of the synodical deputies, and in accordance with synodical regulations.
—Cf. Supplement, Article 17-a
(You can find the full text of Article 17 at crcna.org/site_uploads/uploads/resources/2010_churchorder.pdf.)