Long Pastorates, an Old Problem?

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“The extremely long pastorates of our day...place a great strain on many a congregation and especially upon its minister.” That comment may sound familiar, but it is not new.  I came across it while browsing through an old church order commentary (yes, I do know how that sounds).  The inscription in the front cover indicates that it was owned by C. Groenendyk, my wife’s grandfather, in 1962. This both shows that elders once purchased church order commentaries, and that anxiety about the movement of pastors is not a new phenomenon.

The author of the commentary, The Polity of the Churches, J.L. Shaver includes charts to show that the average length of Christian Reformed pastorates had increased from 4 years in 1870, to 7 and a 1/2 years in 1944. In 1945, he reports that the average length of a last pastorate before retirement was 16 and 1/4 years. He complains that the length of pastorates is partly the result of the nature of the CRC calling process and worries that the number of students at Calvin Seminary would make the situation even more acute. Again, these sound like comments I hear at classis meetings today.

The reasons that Schaver believes are the source of the problem are different from the reasons we would identify today. His solution, which is that search committees apply the golden rule and turn their attention to those pastors who have served churches longest, could hardly have worked even when his commentary was in print. But the fact that Shaver addressed this question 50 years ago suggests that this is a human problem as much as a problem for our times. While we struggle with questions of pastoral tenure, pastoral movement, and the number of “article 17” separations of churches and pastors, it might be helpful to know that the stresses we experience in pastor church relations are not entirely new. It also suggests that these issues will not be fixed by bishops, pastoral movement committees, or other structural solutions on their own.  Instead these call for the ongoing work of relationship building, communication and humility. 

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