Can a pastor deposed for sexual misconduct subsequently serve as an elder in a congregation?
After a local council in Classis Toronto decided that a deposed pastor in the congregation could serve as an elder, Classis Toronto became involved and said it was inappropriate.
In early 2013, a woman abused by the deposed minister many years ago wrote to the council in protest of its actions. The reply she received from the church council stated that his nomination to be an elder took into account his sins but also his repentance. “It isn’t fair to his victims or [the pastor] to be reconvicted of the same offence,” the letter to the abused person read. “Both he and you suffer from the same life sentence already.”
The woman took her case to Bonnie Nicholas, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Safe Church Ministry. “Safe Church Ministry works only in an advisory capacity,” Nicholas said. “I sent a letter to the church council about the importance of holding church leaders to a higher standard and asked them to reconsider allowing this person to hold his current position.”
Nicholas said she was assured by the council that they were aware of the past infraction, and that the one who perpetrated the abuse was repentant and had been forgiven by God and the church. There were strict limitations placed on him. For example, he could not do visitation alone. “So the council believed that they were handling the situation appropriately,” Nicholas said.
The person who was abused was not satisfied with that and, with Nicholas’ encouragement, took her case to classis.
After investigating the facts, Classis Toronto took action, asking that the local council ask the deposed pastor to resign his term as an elder, which he then did.
At its most recent meeting, Classis Toronto stated that an officebearer (which includes pastors) who is deposed under Church Order Article 82 and 83 may not be reinstated as an officebearer without the approval of classis.
Classis also noted in its minutes that some senior persons in the classis who knew the perpetrator’s history and knew he was being ordained as an elder and should have known the rules either didn’t know or understand the rules, or felt the rules were not relevant, or ignored those rules.
The classis is sending a letter of regret to the person who was abused.
According to Rev. Henry DeMoor, an authority on the Church Order and author of Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, a local church council is free to nominate any qualified person for the offices of elder or deacon. However, he said, in the case of a deposed pastor, the reasons why a pastor can or cannot be reinstated as a Minister of the Word according to the Church Order should also inform the council’s decision on appointing that person to any role as a spiritual leader in the congregation.
“While technically the Church Order does not forbid it,” he said, “it would seem to me a violation of the spirit of that process.” DeMoor also noted that the language in the supplement to Church Order Article 84 does not talk specifically about ministers but uses language that refers in broader terms to officebearers being reinstated to office. “This wording was intentionally chosen by Synod 2004 and, in my opinion, should be respected by local councils as informing them in all local matters.”
The person who was abused said she is satisfied with the result in Classis Toronto but wonders why it took a year to get there. And, she asked, what policies are in place that something like this can't happen again?
Nicholas also said the situation brings up a need for a system of accountability for pastors who have been deposed. “Confidentiality must be weighed against the value of preventing future harm in these kinds of situations,” she said. “Given the horrific effects of clergy abuse, I believe it is best to err on the side of safety and prevention.”
She added, “I’m so thankful for people who have the courage to come forward with their experience of abuse, even in the face of pain, shame, and opposition. My prayer is that the Lord will give us ears to hear.”
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