Guidelines for the Separation of Pastor and Congregation (Article 17)
The following Guidelines were adopted by Synod 1998 (cf. Acts of Synod 1998, pp. 392-96, also published in Appendix A of Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government):
A. Responsibility of the separating pastor
1. Promptly inform the regional pastor and church visitors when signs of conflict arise, and maintain regular communication.
2. Conduct him- or herself so as not to disrupt further the peace and unity of the congregation.
3. Identify a personal advocate who can assist him/her in the process.
4. Be amenable to career counseling and/or personal counseling.
5. Update the Pastoral Profile and contact Ministerial Information Service (Pastor-Church Relations) if relocation becomes necessary.
6. Help formulate and sign a separation agreement with the council if there is a separation. It may be helpful to make use of the Separation Agreement Template approved by Synod 2022.
B. Responsibility of the council/congregation
1. Seek assistance from the classical church visitors and regional pastor when signs of conflict begin.
2. Be willing to work with a designated person(s) (e.g., Pastor-Church Relations staff, classical regional pastor, mediation specialists) toward reconciliation. This would involve both the time and cost of such intervention.
3. Along with the pastor, determine the reasons for the conflict and/or separation.
a. This step requires accountability from both council and pastor.
b. It is also important to determine whether suspension is a more appropriate response to the problems which have arisen than separation/severance is.
4. Inform the congregation of decisions which are being made about the relationship to the pastor. This should be done in a timely manner, and members should be apprised of the process (cf. Church Order Art. 37).
5. If a decision is made to release the pastor from active ministerial service in his or her congregation, the council should attempt to enter into a separation agreement with the pastor. This agreement should address at least the following issues:
a. Clear specification of the effective date on which the relationship between church and pastor is to be dissolved and the pastor's employment is to be terminated. This date should be defined as the date on which the pastor is relieved of the duties and benefits of his or her position, except as expressly provided under the separation agreement.
b. Specifics regarding the length of time for salary and benefits continuation and the nature of any transition assistance. Some salary and benefits continuation may be necessary to make the separation agreement legally enforceable.
c. A clear specification of the date on which the pastor will conduct his or her last service and the date on which the pastor and family shall vacate the parsonage, if applicable.
d. In consideration for continuing compensation and benefits, the pastor should agree to release the CRC, the applicable classis, the church, and each of their respective trustees, delegates, directors, employees, and agents from any and all claims, damages, liabilities, losses, and expenses which the pastor (or anyone claiming on behalf of the pastor) may attempt to claim in connection with the pastor's release and termination of employment, whether those claims are known or unknown, liquidated or un-liquidated, contingent or not contingent.
e. The pastor should agree that he or she will not, directly or indirectly, engage in any activities designed to recruit members who have held membership in the church from which the pastor has been released.
f. The pastor should commit to maintaining the confidentiality of the agreement and any proceedings of the council, classis, or synod in connection with the release. Moreover, the pastor should commit to a non-disparagement provision which requires the pastor not to make disparaging comments regarding the CRC, the classis, the congregation, or the council.
g. Provision for liquidated damages in the full amount of the salary continuation and the cost of benefits in the event that the minister breaches the provisions of the agreement, including the provision for member non-solicitation, confidentiality, and non-disparagement or in the event of any of the following:
1) The minister acts in violation of his or her ordination vows.
2) The minister renounces any continuing ecclesiastical governance of the CRCNA over the minister.
3) The minister is convicted of any significant criminal conduct.
h. Provision that any dispute under the agreement, or otherwise in connection with the minister's release and termination of employment, must be reconciled by the classis, or synod on appeal, as ecclesiastical issues. Provision that recognizes that civil court shall have no jurisdiction over any dispute, except to the limited extent necessary to enforce the judgment of the classis or synod by entry of a monetary judgment and/or injunctive relief. Civil courts shall have no jurisdiction over the merits of the judgment of the classis or synod, which would create a governmental entanglement in violation of constitutional protections for freedom of religion.
6. Present to the classis the specific reasons for the separation. This involves the dynamics and behaviors of both the pastor and the council/congregation. Since the separation commences with the official decision by classis, this may necessitate a special meeting of classis to process the separation.
7. Engage the services of an interim pastor who has been trained to guide the congregation in processing the reasons for the conflict, interpersonal healing, and planning future vision and mission for the congregation. This is particularly appropriate when there has been extended conflict which led to separation of the pastor and congregation, a series of forced separations from the same congregation, or the last pastorate was a lengthy one. It may also be advisable that the church delay calling another pastor until there has been an interim process.
8. Provide a compensation package (cf. Church Order Arts. 16-b and 17-b) which includes the following:
a. Cash salary–a minimum of thirteen (13) weeks from the official decision of classis is required. Following the three months, further remuneration may be decided upon by a committee made up of some members of the local council and some members of classis. Any recommendation must be approved by the full classis.
b. Parsonage occupancy or housing allowance.
c. Provision for continuation of medical- and dental-insurance benefits.
d. Provision for continuation of Ministers' Pension benefits.
e. The church served at the time of separation is responsible for the severance compensation.
Note: Synod 2010 adopted an amendment to the above regulation. “This package may not apply in every circumstance of separation such as when a pastor leaves for purely personal reasons” (Acts of Synod 2010, p. 916).
C. Responsibilities of classis
1. Church visitors should be available to assist or may take initiative if necessary when there is an indication of conflict or other relationship difficulty. They may be involved in reconciliation or mediation, or they may recommend that there be others who can assist the pastor and congregation in this process, e.g., a committee from the classis or outside resources such as representatives of Pastor Church Resources or mediation specialists.
2. Concurrent with the work of the church visitors, the regional pastor should be called to provide emotional support and guidance for the pastor. The regional pastor, often one of the first persons aware of tensions, can serve as a gatekeeper and adviser for the pastor in the process of mediation.
3. Church visitors should continue to provide support and guidance for the council and congregation. They may assist the council in communication with the congregation.
4. If a separation of the pastor from the congregation is recommended, the classis should do the following:
a. Assist the council in determining whether a separation is appropriate. If it is appropriate, give guidance as to whether there should be a release or a suspension.
b. If necessary, call a special meeting of classis to process the separation.
c. Assign an individual(s) (not the regional pastor) to provide liaison between the pastor, the congregation, and the classis in the process of the separation. Such a person(s) should be acceptable to all parties involved.
d. Approve a separation agreement between pastor and council and record in the records of classis specific reasons for the separation.
Note: Copies of this agreement should be given to the pastor, the council, the classis, and the Pastor-Church Relations office.
e. Encourage the pastor and/or the congregation to seek continued help in learning from this situation and facing their responsibilities. (This will often require specific recommendations and continued involvement.)
f. Recommend specific follow-up for the congregation, such as a specialized interim pastor to help with healing and future planning.
g. Inform the regional pastor, congregation, and classis of his/her presence in the new region if the pastor moves to another region.
D. A pastoral note
It is important that ecclesiastical due process be followed in the separation process. When Synod 1996 asked that the above guidelines be prepared, it did so against a background of concern for the possibility of healing for both pastors and congregations. When signs of conflict or disagreements arise, it is crucial that the pastor, council, and classis take prompt action to deal with these differences. When there is early intervention and open communication, reconciliation is a greater possibility.
If pastor and council or congregation are not able to mediate differences, it may be advisable to bring in outside resource persons. If a separation does occur, it is important to recognize that there are continuing needs. The members of the congregation require continued support, opportunity to grieve, and guidance for future planning. The separated pastor and his/her family should not be forgotten as they leave the congregation and seek another call. The congregation and classis should covenant to provide continuing ministry and care for them, assisting in any way possible to encourage personal healing and further opportunities for ministry.