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A task force reviewing Church Order articles relating to the calling, supervision, release, and readmission of Ministers of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church in North America is recommending a number of updates to the Church Order as well as additional templates and guidance to clarify the separation process of a minister and church, but no substantive change to Article 17.

Church Order is the established set of rules that govern how congregations and other assemblies will work together in the denomination. It can be changed only by a vote of synod (the CRCNA’s annual general assembly), with recommendations for changes being proposed by one synod and adopted by a subsequent synod. The 108-page review deals with Articles 8, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17 and their supplements and will be part of the agenda for Synod 2024. Synod 2022 requested the review as a response to several overtures and asked the task force to “develop suggestions for clearer guidelines to pastors and churches in times of conflict, as well as assistance for positive pastoral transitions and more effective oversight of individuals in specialized ministries” (Acts of Synod 2022, p. 849).

In addition to specific updates, the task force is recommending Synod 2024 reaffirm established principles related to a minister’s calling, supervision, and release; “encourage the support and accountability of a minister in a noncongregational service, including the use of a Joint Covenant for Supervision”; and “remind the churches and classes that our Church Order exists for the purpose of fostering Spirit-led discernment about the work of building God’s kingdom” (pp. 2-3).

Addressing Stigma

Article 17 is the provision in Church Order for the release of a minister from active service in a congregation when neither retirement nor discipline is the reason. The task force reviewed suggestions to address perceived stigma around the use of Art. 17, deciding in the end “that the system we have in place now—namely, a single-track process for addressing all separation requests—remains the best and fairest system despite its drawbacks. … (T)he most fruitful approach to the issue of stigma will be to emphasize the variety of situations covered by Article 17 and the reality that many situations do not arise out of conflict” (p. 52).

The authors do recommend a minor change in language, which would see the current “weighty reasons” in Art. 17 changed to “valid reasons” for a release to be initiated. “We hope that this minor change may indicate a slight shift in the way Article 17 separations are perceived by removing some of the ‘weight’ from these situations,” the authors write (p. 51).

Two Sets of Recommendations

The task force divided its work between two broad categories: “issues dealing with supervision, accountability, and support for Ministers of the Word in what the task force is calling ‘noncongregational’ settings,” roughly Articles 12 and 13; and “issues related to transitions in ministry, especially when a minister of the Word is released from a particular call without another call in place, or resigns from ordained ministry in the denomination as a whole,” roughly Articles 14 and 17 (p. 2).

The report notes some gaps and inconsistencies in the current Church Order’s approach to ordained ministry in noncongregational positions and recommends reorganizing sections so that “as much as possible, all material related to the calling of pastors appears in Article 12 and its Supplements and so that all material related to supervision appears in Article 13 and its Supplements” (p. 24).

In its review, the task force highlighted the importance of mutual encouragement for congregations and ministers serving in roles outside of the congregation, noting that the current Church Order language leans heavily on regulation without mention of the opportunities for encouragement.

“Holding the ministerial credentials for a minister in noncongregational service should be seen as an opportunity for a congregation, not a burden … (the) processes of supervision and accountability should be seen not simply as matters of administrative paperwork, but as opportunities to build relationships and invest in ministry together,“ the authors write (p. 28).

The report lists nine possibilities for encouragement and relationship building (p. 50) and offers I Thess. 5:12-13 and Heb. 13:7 and 17 as scriptural basis.

The authors encourage “covenants of joint supervision for all pastors called to serve beyond a local congregation,” (p.35) not just for those serving in roles with the denomination. When the called minister’s noncongregational employer is a government or large institution that might not follow the expectation of consulting the calling church before adjusting the terms of employment, the task force had this advice: “In such cases, the calling church and pastor should simply do their best to honor the principles of joint supervision even when the release (employment termination) process does not fully align with the expectations of Church Order or our theological convictions about ministry” (p. 46, parenthesis original).

Report authors noted concerns about a “growing use of ‘business’ language and expectations in church leadership,” wanting to reinforce, “The church is a spiritual reality shaped by different principles, driven by different goals, and assessed according to different measurements” than a business model (p. 13).

When Ministry Ends

Because “ordination is understood as a long-term (traditionally life-time) calling exercised on behalf of the church, and tied, not to an individual, but to a specific set of ministry roles … the release of a pastor from a congregation or from service in the denomination is not a light matter,” the report notes (p. 37, parentheses original). It also observed “there is a growing sense that people may be called to different roles and tasks during their lifetime” (p. 40), so the report covers principles to follow in the event of a necessary separation and offers eight purposes of severance for Synod 2024 to consider as official guidance (pp. 47-48).

Whatever the cause of the separation, there should be a balance of transparency and confidentiality in processing the release and a recognition of “the painful aspects of such a process,” the report suggests. “While it is difficult for an assembly to fully address the pain that results from a pastoral separation, it is pastorally wise to at least take some formal note of this reality” (p. 54).

It recommends viewing assigned “oversight committees” not as a remedial fix to something that went wrong, but as having a role “similar to a vocational coach, spiritual director, and accountability partner for church councils and pastors” (p. 51). The authors write, “As a people who proclaim that God can and does use conflict to accomplish his work in us, we need not fear conflict if we are able to see it as a tool, albeit a sometimes painful one, to make something of God’s character and care for us as his people” (p. 55).

The report points out resources and guidance for churches “to work toward healing and reconciliation in times of conflict,” including church visitors (the office bearers appointed by classes to provide counsel to churches and to pastors), regional pastors, staff and publications from the CRC’s Thrive ministry (which encompasses the former Pastor Church Resources), classical counselors, and the possible use of leaves of absence (pp. 58-59).

It recommends the use of separation agreements in all Art. 17 separations, pointing to a template approved by Synod 2022 (see Acts of Synod 2022, pp. 757-758) and offering an updated version, along with the recommendation that leaders consider a similar tool for managing a release via Art. 14 as well. To aid transparency, the report’s recommendations propose “that classis minutes record specific and publicly acknowledged reasons for a release from a call” (p. 64).


As with other parts of the task force’s mandate, the report authors write that “it is difficult to create a standard process for handling the variety of cases which may arise during a request for reinstatement to CRC ministry.” They are, however, suggesting some changes to create more consistency in the process, such as requiring “a similar examination of the ‘circumstances surrounding the release’ (Art. 14-e) for pastors being readmitted from other denominations, as is currently the expectation for former pastors who resign for nonministerial vocations” (p. 56). This examination is best handled by the classis that released the former pastor, the report authors suggest, as is currently the case for ministers readmitted through the Art. 14-e process.

The denominational Candidacy Committee could also have a role in order to ensure re-eligibility declarations are consistent with the current standards set by synod (p. 57).

Implications for Other Situations

The task force’s mandate was confined to the specific articles of Church Order, which all dealt with ministers of the Word and not with commissioned pastors, but the report authors “recommend that synod task the Candidacy Committee with considering whether an update of the Commissioned Pastor Handbook would be appropriate which would take (the relevant) matters (from the report) into account” (p. 66).

The report authors also note “the importance of good communication and supportive relationships between retired pastors and the councils to which they remain accountable in faith and life,” (p. 66) although Art. 18, which deals with the status of retired pastors, was not included in the review.

The Church Order Review Task Force was chaired by Rev. Joel Vande Werken and included Revs. Rita Klein-Geltink (reporter), Laura de Jong, Chelsey Harmon, and John Sideco, Pastor James Jones, Casey Jen, and Rev. Kathy Smith (ex-officio). Rev. Dave Den Haan, from the CRC’s Thrive ministry, and Rev. Susan LaClear, director of Candidacy, participated as advisers.

The report is available in English through the synodical services web page, with translations of the executive summary expected in Korean and Spanish. The report noted “the importance of building bridges especially in situations where issues of supervision, accountability, and release are being applied across cultures. We would encourage the denomination to ensure ready access in multiple languages to the Church Order and to synodically approved templates and guidance identified in this report” (p. 68).

Synod 2024, meeting June 14-20 in Grand Rapids, Mich., will receive the report and act on its recommendations.

Calling for further Church Order review might be part of what synod chooses to do, as the authors write: “Just as our task force has noted the inconsistencies of our existing procedures regarding readmission of pastors who were released under various provisions of Article 14, we also note that the readmission process for ministers deposed under Articles 82-84 is not always clear. … We believe that the denomination would be well served by a review of these procedures although they are beyond the scope of our mandate” (p. 66).

They also note potential updates to materials such as the Manual for Synodical Deputies and the Guide for Conducting Church Visiting, to reflect changes that might be undertaken because of the report (p. 69-70).

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