Time to Move On?

Editorial
The gospel of Jesus Christ is so much bigger than any person who proclaims it.

Margo and I inflicted the same trauma on our children that my parents inflicted on me. We tore our kids from their home, their community, and even their country. Several times they, and we, had to be the new kids on the block. At times it was brutally hard. But I believe that ultimately it was good for us and, more important, for the church. That’s because my dad was a minister of the Word and so am I. He bound on my heart that ministers need to leave before the church wants them to.

That sounds harsh. But it’s part and parcel of ministry. The gospel of Jesus Christ is so much bigger than any person who proclaims it. That’s why from the very beginning preachers have been itinerant. That’s why Calvin Seminary taught us rookie preachers to steel ourselves for the worthy sacrifice of moving on.

Times have changed, of course. Today many pastors’ spouses—rightly—embark on their own careers. And their calling needs to be on the table every time a move is contemplated. Today ministers invest in their own homes because the Ministers’ Pension Plan says you need to if you ever hope to retire. But every time you have to sell and buy a house, you take a financial wallop. Today there are fewer vacancies than there once were—and churches think twice about calling an older preacher. Today the increasing diversity of congregations makes taking a call elsewhere an “iffy” proposition because we are uncertain whether it will be a good match. No wonder today more pastors go beyond their “best before” date.

We urgently need to figure out a better calling process that facilitates clergy mobility. How about a four-pointer like this?

  1. Every call is a term call—the congregation and its new pastor covenant for an initial three-year stint.
  2. Before the term expires, the council (with input from the congregation) decides with the pastor whether to renew the arrangement for another three-year period. Either side can “walk” with no stigma either way.
  3. The denomination would form a (match-making) placement committee (with teeth) that assigns pastors are freed from their congregations to vacant churches who are looking for a pastor. As an added benefit, churches that have a hard time competing for pastors in the “open market” would be able to have an experienced pastor who isn’t yet counting the weeks from his or her ordination or the months to retirement.
  4. Finally, the ability of pastors to embark on non-ministerial callings will no longer be discouraged. If they cannot not move because of their spouses’ careers, for example, they would be entirely free to find other employment. As Reformed Christians we believe that all legitimate callings are kingdom callings. Let’s practice that.

There may be better ways to tackle this issue. But the goal matters: we need to get our preachers back on the road—though maybe less frequently than in the 1950s.

Churches should be formed in Christ’s image, not in the image of their pastors. So wise pastors will get out of Dodge before that happens.

If even Jesus himself had “no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), moving should remain an unavoidable job hazard for pastors.

About the Author

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

See comments (8)

Comments

A couple of thoughts. First, there is some wisdom here, in that Bob has identified a legit concern. I'm sure there are cases where pastors do overstay their welcome. Those serving the church, I think, do well to ask themselves if it continues to be in the best interest of a congregation for them to stay. I do think it is better to leave early, than to leave and have people glad to see you go.  Second, however, the idea of creating a structured, rule-based (i.e. "top-down") effort to manage churchs and pastors is SO "Grand-Rapids". I shudder at the idea of a mandated, cookie-cutter approach like this. Why? Because, thirdly, there are just as many churches that benefit from lengthy stability. Inner City churches, for example, where everything is transitory -- relationships, jobs, housing -- the church becomes the one place that is stable. That's just one example. I don't think that there is a one-size fits all approach to something that is not a problem in every context.

As a PK I have what could be described as a vicarious view of the ministry and to those ministered- being inside the parsonage and inside the church.

As a child of a minister I indeed experienced what the editorial mentioned- for the most part we remain strangers in the churches served.  As an adult that feeling really never leaves- am I one of the congregation or a member of the minister's extended family?  It is real.

Currently when a new pastor comes to my church, one that I moved back to where my father served- I married a girl of the congregation, I welcome the pastor and family to "my house"- in many respects the parsonage is just that, or was.

However, given all- the system does work.  Sometimes a longer stay is merited; other times- "you can't get out of Dodge quick enough!"  I literally watched both instances with my father's service, and experienced both as an adult from the point of view of a congregation member.

Change what we have into a "bishop like" process, trickle down or top down process...I'm not sold on that really either.  I still think let God through the congregation (and minister for that matter) ultimately decide, both do you know...we've all seen it happen.

As for the PK...we are blessed with a kaleidoscope of experience; if you care or allow us- we share; and I do.

I also disagree with this article. Should be no surprise as I've been in my current church for 18 years and there are others in my classis (Pacific Northwest that have been at their charges for longer.

I believe long stays are healthy for both pastor and congregation. It takes time to go deep with people. It's wonderful to watch kids grow into adults and be a part of their discipleship process. It's great for my family to have stability as my kids grew up.

Longer stays means you get to know both the church and the surrounding community, making outreach more contextual. Longer stays means building trust and recognition with both church and community.

I would resist any attempt to tie the hands of local churches or pastors, forcing mobility as a matter of policy

I am ambivalent.

It is an issue when pastors stay too long in one place, even if it is necessary.  People go with the tangible, and pastors are tangible, so the longer a pastor is in place, the easier it is for the church to subtly morph from Christ's church to the pastor's church - at least in the minds of some.  It also can greatly enhance the instability a church feels when transition is necessary whether by reason of retirement or death or other such thing.  It's also damaging to one's successor.  No matter who comes next, he won't be the guy who was there before whom everybody liked (and we can be fairly certain that everybody liked him because, after 20 years, anybody who didn't has long since left).

But the denomination is not as homogenous, either - and neither are pastors.  We worry about "fit" these daysbecause these varieties exist.  I've been using the masculine pronoun, for instance (and will continue doing so because other approaches are too awkward), but pastors are not uniformly male any more.  Some churches don't have a problem with that.  Others do.  This variety means that a pastor coming into a congregation needs more time to get acclimated before he can properly discern a way forward.  My grandfather reportedly thought 5 years was about right.  In five years nowadays, one is just getting started.

But DeMoor's proposals do not strike me as a solution to this tension.  As Toornstra mentions above, it's a centralized, "Grand-Rapids" solution focusing on control from the top.  We rejected that in the 16th century and for good reason.  It also doesn't account for the fact different churches pay their pastors at different rates (sometimes significantly different).  Neither would it allow pastors to make longer-term financial commitments since after any 3-year period, they may be unemployed and, while freeing them up to take non-ministerial vocations seems like it might help, that doesn't mean Joe Corporate is going to hire a "reverend" to be his sales manager.  Rather, "reverend" or "pastor" tend to scare off HR types in non-religious organizations - at least, that was my experience from 2005-07 when I was no longer on active duty as a chaplain, but hadn't received a call.

We do need to challenge congregations, classes, and clergy to not make assumptions, to consider how it will affect one's relief/replacement, and to not put a desire for stability above the demands of the gospel.  We need the discussion.  I'm not certain we need regulations - at least not yet.

 

I'm responding as a preachers kid and preacher who is now a Specialized Transitional Minister -- where moves every 2 years or less are the norm.

 

About moving frequently: This will affect each person according to their constitution and the way parents handle it. In my youth, moves were just announced to us kids. With my own family, the entire family was made aware and as much as possible was part of the process. Since one of our moves was to the real Holland, I have gained a 'culture reading' ability that is a crucial tool in my work now.

 

About leaving before the church wants you to: The writer may be clinging to a notion that was once appropriate for his father, but is no longer so. In a day when our churches were more mono-cultural and cookie-cutter pastors could fit almost anywhere and repeat their evening Catechism sermons somewhat creatively enough to maintain interest for 3 to 5 years, and a day when democracy and pop-poll-arity were not strong in the church, it may have been valid. But today churches believe too much in democracy (one strand of the problem) and that a pastor has to 'keep them happy' (a second strand in the bigger problem) and where each congregation and pastor position within them can be very different from church to church (strand three) and where – from both sides, pastors and congregations – we have tremendous difficulty being clear about expectations and abilities in an open and transparent way (four) the case is no longer valid. Plus, the statement “leave before they want you to” hints at a lack of biblical perspective on serving God in a congregation, where it is God who might want you to stay while the congregation wants you to leave (fifth big strand 'prophetic calling' and sixth strand 'discernment'). I take pleasure in reading the first part of Numbers 14 with people and asking what would have happened if a congregational meeting had been called followed by a vote?

 

Clergy Mobility: I do see the housing equity and spousal career factors which have changed mobility ability. But the writer needs to make the case for why itineracy should be the norm, rather than simply state, like a traditionalist would, that this was handed down from the forefathers as accepted truth.

 

We most definitely need to revamp our calling system:

In my work I have seen that churches have lost touch with the principle of the two-fold calling, where a personal sense of call must be confirmed by the church. Congregations do not know that they are affirming a person's called-ness when they extend a call. They tend to see it more as a 'hire' or electing someone (there is a lot of 'gaming' of the equation that happens around the 'vote' to approve extending a call) who they can then un-elect and un-hire. Re-teaching is needed on calling.

Pastor Church Relations has a new book out that can help a lot with the search process, but still, if a pastor is deluded about their abilities or inabilities, or a congregation is misrepresented by it's search committee as wanting outreach when the congregation really wants to hunker down and be safe with 'their own kind' we end up with stuckness. In one of his books, Eugene Peterson, in one of his books, even refers to the search process as “Ecclesiastical Pornography” where too much airbrushing goes on and shock sets in when the real blemishes become apparent. The church could learn much from the recovery movement about the value of being open about struggles, rather than continuing to hide the fact that we all create dirty laundry and carry that baggage. We need much more transparency in the call conversation.

I don't know much about the past, but pastoring has, in my experience, become much to political and resident chaplain-esque. Buying a house and having a spouse with a good job, or having massive student debt will hinder most preachers from risking-in-faith in a pastorate. The unstated value in congregations seems to be that the pew must remain comfortable and the pastor may be unique or intriguing, but may not speak God's word in a way that rattles comfortable core values. We need a return to strengthening the prophetic side of pastoring. (I know that may mean all kind of things to people, but have to risk that misunderstanding)

More and more it is a fact that churches and pastors seem to get 'stuck' with one another. Too often one or the other or both languish in pain for too long and then there is a rupture. We certainly need new and creative processes to get churches and pastors unstuck from each other, and for preventing stuckness in the first place.

 

My thoughts here are in no way comprehensive. All of this is evidence to me that a major change in the way we are church, based on scripture, Reformed principles, and cultural context is needed. This will not be fixed by more mere tinkering. The kind of change needed is Adaptive (as another article in the Banner describes), it needs to run deep into our hearts and worldviews, and we need to find the courage to drop everything Egyptian and Pharaohic that has become comfortable for us, and forge ahead into whatever shape God's promises have for us in the land of the future.

How many congregations did Peter, James and John each serve? You're not advocating for a committee as much as a bishop. That's been tried. What exactly is the problem we're trying to fix? And precisely how is it better for the church to have a constant parade of pastors wander through their doors? I give you this though, point #4 is the most helpful recommendation of the lot.  

When there is a good fit, treasure it and keep it. When there is a bad fit, move on, like Bob says.

I appreciate the sentiment which prompts the four point suggestion. I can see the place for term calls, especially with pastors over 60 for they would find it easier to get a call with such a practice in place.  And, with Lambert, I would love to explore your fourth point. But I am not sure, with our theological approach to call, that we can categorize the lack of clergy mobility as a problem. 

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