Rev. Duane Visser's job often required him to deal with disturbing aspects of church life.

As director of Pastor-Church Relations for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Visser had the role of trying to intervene and, if possible, help to heal rifts between a church and its pastor or other ministry staff.

"We're often in there on the ground level. It can get difficult, but it is very crucial to work with pastors and congregations," said Visser, one of four CRC agency directors who are retiring this year.

"Sometimes it is messy,” he says. “At times I have been appalled at how lacking in forgiveness people can be. … But you have to have hope.”

Often the issue facing a congregation and its pastor is fairly simple: it isn't a good fit. But there were times when the issues involved infidelity or alcohol or drug abuse or financial mismanagement or pornography.

"Things happen and you do what you can" to restore faith and trust and Christian concern between all of the parties involved in a dispute, Visser says.

The other agency directors who are retiring later this year include Rev. John Rozeboom, director of Christian Reformed Home Missions; Rev. Herm Keizer, Jr., director of Chaplaincy Ministries, and Gary Mulder, director of Faith Alive, the denomination’s publishing agency.

Visser, 67, has been in the job for almost 13 years. Before coming to the denomination, he pastored a church in California, oversaw an alcohol rehabilitation center in Arizona, served as a chaplain at a large medical center in Chicago, and was on the staff as a counselor and administrator at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Everything he did, from preaching to counseling to administration, prepared him for the job as behind-the-scenes troubleshooter for churches in conflict.

During his tenure, he said, he has worked hard to convince churches to come to his office sooner, rather than when the "conflict is at a high pitch." Too often in the past, he said, his office was called to help long after it could do anything to bring about a happy resolution.

But that has been turning around in recent years.  Since Rev. Norm Thomasma joined the staff, he has worked to educate churches and pastors about ways in which they can avoid conflict and develop and maintain healthy relationships.

The CRC’s Board of Trustees has appointed Thomasma as the new director of the Office of Pastor-Church Relations. He will take over when Visser retires.

Nevertheless, problems remain, Visser says. For instance, pastors these days are tending to stay longer in their churches.  "Now that they are there longer, there are more challenges to the relationship," he said.

But even here, his office has been making progress with assistance from the CRC's Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program, a grant-funded effort to connect pastors and their spouses in peer groups and through programs in which they can share their challenges and find healthy ways of facing and overcoming difficulties in the ministry.

"In many instances, the ministry is about the couple and the family," said Visser. "When you talk about a healthy church, you need to talk about a healthy pastor. And when you talk about a healthy pastor, you have to talk about a healthy family."

-Chris Meehan, CRC Communications