The church order says that if a released minister or a church need “evaluation and assistance” before accepting or extending another call, the classis shall appoint an oversight committee to “plan and monitor an evaluation of readiness for the ministry that focuses on professional competence and personal/emotional status” (in the case of a pastor) or provide a “time of evaluation and assistance before extending another call” (in the case of a church.)
These committees play a significant, though sometimes confusing, role in the pastor and church’s experience of an Article 17.
The committees’ roles are significant because “evaluating” either a church or a pastor is a complex and hard-to-define task.
The committee’s role is confusing because they have both an assisting function (helping the pastor or church grow and heal) and an evaluation function (recommending or not a pastor’s eligibility for call or a church’s eligibility to call a new pastor). These two functions can be in tension with one another. In fact, many churches and pastors resist cooperating with their oversight committees because they fear the initially offered assistance will lead to a negative (and disruptive) evaluation in the future.
To navigate this challenge well, committees need capable members and clear mandates.
The best mandates are first drafted by a classis executive or interim committee in consultation with the church visitors assigned to the church. An effective mandate is like a roadmap that identifies the basic destination, but permits detours as necessary. It provides clarity of priorities but does not restrict a committee’s flexibility to respond to a dynamic situation. The final draft may be approved either by the full classis or, if some wordsmithing after classis is required, by the classis interim committee. Note that if the mandate’s final draft is to be approved by the interim committee and not the classis, it is important that classis delegates and Synodical deputies have had opportunity to provide input on the mandate before it is approved.
The church order only specifies that the committee should include at least two members and that one of the members should be the classis-assigned church counselor. We also recommend that the church visitors who worked with the church before and during the Article 17 process be included.
On the Committee’s Work
By the time an Article 17 is approved by classis, either the church visitors or Pastor Church Resources should have met with the council and pastor and should have submitted a report for the council of observations and, possibly, recommendations for moving forward. These reports should establish the trajectory of the oversight committee’s work.
In the event that no such reports exist, the oversight committee will need to begin by doing this work themselves (in coordination, as appropriate, with any oversight committee assigned to the church).
Either to supplement an existing report or to replace an unwritten report, the oversight committee will likely need to meet with the following:
Council (elders and deacons), including those former council members whose terms ended during the Article 17 process.
The released pastor
If appropriate, two or three other key people as identified by conversations with council and released pastor.
Areas of Focus: Evaluation and Assistance
The bulk of the advice in this blog describes the work of assisting a pastor. But most oversight committees are also asked to evaluate a pastor’s readiness for ministry. That means that while you are assisting the pastor to understand and learn from the dynamics that contributed to their separation, you will also be asked eventually to give classis an answer to whether the pastor should be made eligible for call. Holding both areas of focus is a difficult tension for committees and for pastors. But the assumption is that your answer, though not final, will carry significant weight with the classis precisely because you have walked more closely with the pastor than most.
The primary work of most church oversight committees is assessing the council’s capacity to understand and learn from the dynamics that contributed to an undesirable separation from their pastor. Oversight committees want to have confidence that the council understands the multitude of factors (and it is almost always more than one) that contributed to the separation. They also want to see the council taking steps to address those issues that might otherwise prevent the next pastor from serving well. Some common areas of challenge include
Unhealthy communication practices
Unwillingness or inability to confront bullying behavior
Unwillingness or inability to effectively respond to complaints
Lack of effective council selection and training practices
A lack of clarity around
Expectations (position description of pastor, staff or council members)
Lines of accountability (who reports to whom? How? How often?)
Communication (who needs to know what kinds of things? When? How?)
What happens if things go awry? What are our processes for handling crisis?
Possible Questions to ask
As you reflect on the last year, what are some ways in which the church leaders contributed to the difficulties in the pastor-congregation relationship?
Are there voices from the congregation that spoke more loudly than was warranted or voices that were not given as much of a hearing as they deserved?
How has this experience affected/changed you? Positively? Negatively? Other ways? How have you remained the same?
As you consider your leadership group (current council &, perhaps, former council – how would you describe your current relationships? What relational work among you still needs to be engaged?
As you consider your relationship with your former pastor (& spouse), what remains as “unfinished business”. What yet needs to be said or done?
How do you sense that God has been at work through the challenges of the last few years.
An oversight committee has two audiences, the council and the classis. The tension between these audiences is a reality all committees must face. On the one hand, every oversight committee needs to build trust with the council to help them name and deal with the real issues impacting their life and witness. On the other hand, an oversight committee is also responsible to give the classis a clear recommendation as to whether the church is ready to call a minister without likely repeating harmful mistakes from the past.
Put another way, the committee speaks to the church about growth and to the classis about readiness.
Some resources an oversight committee might recommend to a church, depending on the nature and circumstances of the separation include
A Specialized Transitional Minister (STM) a pastor who, in addition to providing basic ministry leadership, also has training to address particular challenges that may be facing a church in transition.
Vibrant Congregations: For congregations seeking deep renewal, Vibrant Congregations exists to help a church discover their best partner(s) to take fresh steps in ministry and mission.
Listening Groups: A process by which congregational members and regular visitors are provided an opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives on the life of the congregation.
When is an Oversight Committee Finished its Work?
Ordinarily, a committee’s work is finished when the classis approves their work and gives the church permission to call a minister. However, because effective oversight committees get to know the church quite well, many classes find it helpful to keep the oversight committee active for a period of time in a role similar to that of a church visitor.
For instance, if an STM is hired, an oversight committee might meet with the STM periodically to advise and encourage the STM’s work. Or, if the Crossroads Discernment Process or Vibrant Congregations is pursued, the oversight committee might continue to meet periodically with the facilitator or the discernment team to enrich the church’s engagement discerning and pursuing next steps.