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 three members, that the members should include both laity and clergy and that a council member of the congregation may be included. We recommend classis select members who have some expertise and experience in caring for pastors and that they are trusted as objective (able to both assist AND evaluate). Generally speaking, committees benefit more from consulting with council members than including one as a member of the committee. By consulting with council members, the committee can clarify key issues of concern and growth for the pastor. Council members can, at times, struggle to maintain the level of objectivity required to serve well as a member of the committee.
Assistance AND Evaluation?
All oversight committees are mandated to assist the pastor in his or her growth and healing. But a classis could create an oversight committee where evaluation was not required. In such a case, the classis may have confidence that the pastor be made eligible for call immediately, but that the pastor would nevertheless benefit from the intentional support an oversight committee might provide as the pastor waits for a new call.
Discipline and Article 17
Though Article 17’s first sentence clarifies that Article 17 does not apply to ministers “worthy of discipline,” it is a regrettable reality that some churches, pastors and classes use Article 17 as an indirect path to discipline. Churches may (inappropriately) do this because the standard to discipline a pastor under Articles 82-84 is higher and the process is somewhat more cumbersome than a separation under Article 17. Or, perhaps, they do this because they would prefer to find a less confrontational way to separate from their pastor.
For these reasons, and more, churches may opt for an Article 17 as a means of parting ways with a misbehaving pastor, only to discover, to their later deep concern, that a pastor released by Article 17 is ordinarily made eligible to be called by another church. This dynamic can cause churches to seek to pressure oversight committees to release a minister from ordained status rather than make them eligible for call.
To avoid scenarios like this, it is important for church visitors to help councils understand and apply the appropriate Church Order remedy to challenging situations.
It is also the case, however, that some situations which rightly began as Article 17 separation should become cases of Article 82-84 special discipline. For instance, serious wrongdoing by the pastor may come to light during the oversight period. Or the pastor may act in ways that are worthy of discipline during the oversight period. If the pastor is not repentant, or if the pastor’s wrongdoing meets the standards outlined in Article 84, the classis may ask the church holding the pastor’s credentials to initiate a proper disciplinary process to run alongside the Article 17 separation.
It is helpful for classis to identify a target date for when the oversight committee’s work will be completed and to identify and record in the minutes the date at which a pastor’s two year eligibility for call window begins.
The two main options for when a pastor’s two year eligibility for call window begins are 1). immediately upon classis’ approval of the Article 17 request or 2). When the classis or classis interim committee has approved the completed work of the oversight committee.
NOTE: Eligibility ordinarily remains in place for two years. At the end of two years the pastor must request classis approval for a one year extension. Such requests must be made annually. If an extension is not requested or granted by classis, the minister will be released from office by classis, with synodical deputies concurrence
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 be requested of the council and 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 in 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.
A major part of the work of most pastor oversight committees is assisting the pastor to understand and learn from the dynamics that contributed to an undesirable separation. Oversight committees want to have confidence that the pastor understands the multitude of factors (and it is almost always more than one) that contributed to their separation. They also want to see the pastor taking steps to address those issues that might otherwise prevent the pastor from serving another church well. Some common areas of challenge include:
Unwillingness or inability to establish healthy rhythms and boundaries including
a lack of sabbath and other sustaining rhythms of personal discipleship
a failure to communicate or negotiate expectations
Inattentiveness to other important relationships (family, friends)
Inattentiveness to mental, emotional, physical and social health
Lack of self-awareness including
tendency to blame others
poor management of priorities, time and gifts
incapacity to name and understand personal strengths and weaknesses
Unwillingness to address areas of professional growth
Possible Questions to Ask
As you reflect on the last year, what are some ways in which you contributed to the difficulties in the pastor-congregation relationship?
Are there voices in your leadership team or congregation to which you devoted too much or too little attention?
How has this experience affected/changed you? Positively? Negatively? Other ways? How have you remained the same?
As you consider your sense of call, including your personal and pastoral identity, what is clear and what is unclear?
As you consider your relationship with your former church, 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 pastor and the classis/denomination. 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 pastor to help him or her name and deal with the real issues impacting their life and witness. On the other hand, an oversight committee is ultimately responsible both to the classis and the denomination to give a clear recommendation as to whether the pastor is ready and can reasonably be trusted to continue to serve as a minister without causing harm to themselves, their families (where applicable) and any future church or ministry. This may, at times, require the judicious sharing of concerns with the delegates of classis.
Some resources an oversight committee might recommend to a pastor, depending on the nature and circumstances of the separation include
Pastor Church Resources can refer oversight committees to a highly reputable assessor of clergy’s psychological fitness for ministry. These recommended assessors were identified through a thorough search across the US and Canada. The report they generate will help the pastor identify areas of growth and strength while also helping the oversight committee evaluate if and when a pastor should be declared “eligible for call.”
The pastor will have an opportunity to meet with the assessor to go over his or her results. An oversight committee may also request a meeting with the assessor to help clarify areas of misunderstanding.
“A Christian spiritual director is a trained listener who will accompany you as you share about your spiritual journey, helping you to notice God’s presence and activity along the way, as well as your personal reactions and responses. Hospitable, confidential, and grounded in biblical truth, spiritual direction is a ministry that helps you grow in prayer and live into your calling as a follower of Christ.” -—Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association
Therapy or Counseling
A process of caring for one’s inner struggles and needs that are too complicated or heavy to address on one’s own or with one’s current resources. It aims at relieving emotional and spiritual distress, renewing one’s personal growth, and restoring greater wholeness to one’s self and relationships.
Note: It is common for a classis to reimburse the pastor for some or all of the costs associated with seeking professional help. In such a case, the therapist or counselor should be mutually-agreed upon by the committee and the pastor.
A coach helps leaders develop their God-given potential so that they grow individually for the purpose of making a contribution to the kingdom of God. Coaching utilizes various techniques such as active listening, open questions, encouragement, challenge, and catalyzing moments to help the leader move forward, while always remaining supportive. With an assumption that God is at work in the life of the leader, the coach, along with the leader, listens to the Holy Spirit to discern how he is at work and empowers the leader to join him in their growth as a leader, their stated goals, and their development path.
Nearly 400 CRC ministers have received a vocational assessment through Pastor Church Resources’ Birkman-Certified Coaches. These assessments and the two-hour coaching that accompanies them provide pastors deep insights into their motivations, interests, self-perception, and what they need from those around them. These assessments are especially helpful for pastors trying to understand why a pastoral fit didn’t work and hoping to establish a better-suited fit in their next call.
Pastor Church Resources has found that pastors in transition benefit enormously from the simple rhythm of regularly gathering with peers for honest, vulnerable (and playful) time together.
Pastors have indicated their appreciation for extended retreats at institutions like Quiet Waters (Centennial, Colorado) and Alongside Ministries (Richland, Michigan).
Many pastors find themselves in trouble because they’ve conflated their pastoral and personal identities. A forced sabbath, including temporary restrictions on public ministry tasks can help the person recover their non-professional relationship with God and others.
Rule or Rhythm of Life
An oversight committee might ask the pastor to articulate what they’ve learned about themselves and God through this experience. What practices, relationships or rhythms have they or will they incorporate to help them sustain a healthier life of ministry moving forward?
A Pastoral Note
Each of these possible recommendations has the primary intent of helping the pastor grow and heal. A pastor’s resistance to such recommendations represents a significant occasion for discernment between the oversight committee and the pastor: “Why are you (pastor) working so hard to avoid something that could be so good for you?”