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?
- Every call is a term call—the congregation and its new pastor covenant for an initial three-year stint.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.