Fractured Flocks - A Good Reason to Consider Another Option

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The February 11, 2013 edition of the Christian Courier includes an interesting and informative article by Peter Schuurman entitled “Fractured Flocks: A leadership crisis in the CRC?”  In his article Schuurman documents an astounding statistic pertaining to the Christian Reformed Church in North America, a denomination of just over 1000 congregations.

During the first decade of the 21st century, over 140 pastors and congregations in the CRCNA experienced the painful divorce commonly referred to as “Article 17.” This is a process by which pastors and congregations agree to terminate their relationship, even though the pastor is without a call to another ministry. The number of Articles 17s in the first decade of the current century is even more astounding when compared to previous decades.  In the 1990’s, for example, just over twenty pastors and congregations split up.  The same can be said for the 1980’s.

Peter Schuurman describes several reasons for dramatic rise in Articles 17s, including the declining membership of many congregations and the apparent inability of both pastors and congregations to handle conflict. By doing so,  Schuurman has done the CRCNA, as well as other Christian denominations, a great service.

I was captivated by one of Schuurman’s closing remarks.  He observed, and I believe accurately, that the CRCNA, like so many denominations, is now experiencing a new internal pluralism. I wonder if that is as much a contributing factor as others mentioned. Here’s what I mean.

Fifty years or so ago, CRCNA congregations, much like McDonalds franchises, shared countless similarities. They shared a similar culture (one developed to a great extent in the Netherlands), similar liturgies, identical creeds, confessions and hymn books, and almost identical menus of ministry. As a result, you could attend almost any Christian Reformed congregation in North America and find it similar to your home church.

Fifty years or so ago, the CRCNA and its congregations were much like the McDonalds Corporation. As the McDonalds Corporation trains its franchise managers at its corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, IL, so the CRCNA trained its future pastors at Calvin Theological Seminary, a fine school nestled in the corporate headquarters of Grand Rapids, MI.  When both finished their training they were branded with the values, commitments, beliefs – culture – of the corporation.  They were then prepared to serve any franchise or congregation throughout North America.

Fifty years ago pastors believed they could serve just about any CRCNA congregation in North America. In addition, congregations believed they could call just about any CRCNA pastor and look forward to a healthy chapter of ministry. This was possible because of the internal cultural uniformity of the CRCNA and its pastors.

All that has changed. The CRCNA is now characterized by internal pluralism. Local congregations differ greatly from one another.  Their ministry contexts differ significantly from one another. Pastors differ widely from one another.  A growing percentage have completed, at least, part of their seminary training in places other than Grand Rapids. A growing percentage of our pastors come from multi-cultural families and ministry contexts. In other words, CRCNA congregations and pastors differ culturally from one another.

Internal pluralism raises many questions and issues. As it relates to the discussion now before us, I believe it forces us to admit that some congregations are just not a good fit for some pastors, and some pastors are not just a good fit for some congregations. One way, then, to minimize the potential for conflict between pastors and congregations is to work hard at the front end to determine if a pastoral candidate is a good fit for a congregation.

My question in response to Schuurman’s excellent article, then, is this: Is it time to reevaluate the traditional search process by which pastors and congregations court one another? Is there something we can do differently on the front end to assure better matches between pastors and congregations and to minimize the number of conflicted marriages between pastors and congregations?  I believe the answers to those question is YES.

In the past decade many congregations and pastoral candidates have experienced the benefits of an independent third party, a person commonly referred to as a “consultant” or “head-hunter.”  Such a person partners with the congregation with but one objective: a great marriage between pastor and people, one that leads to effective ministry together. Together, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they enter a discernment process that leads to the eventual discovery of the next pastor. This approach has been found to be very effective.

Surely there are many other initiatives that could be taken to improve the relationships between pastors and their congregations, but I hope congregations and pastors alike would continue to recognize the internal pluralism of their denominations and the corresponding challenge of good fits between pastors and congregations. I hope they would continue to evaluate the processes by which pastors and congregations court one another, and then, perhaps, try something different.

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Sam raises some interesting points, and perhaps the "head-hunter" model needs to be given more consideration.

But the reality is that we have tried that to some extent, with MIS, and now Pastor Church Relations, and it hasn't seemed to slow the problem (or maybe it has--maybe the separations would be even higher without PCR).

Search committees are spending much more time than they did 30 years ago, and the problem has gotten worse instead of better. Perhaps all this effort at "finding the right fit" has actually made things worse, by raising the expectations and thus almost guaranteeing disappointment.

I hope we find some way forward out of the current uncertainty and pain.

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I wonder if there is a deeper underlying issue in the call process, namely, a lack of knowledge/experience for congregations and Councils and pastors in what discering the Lord's will actually looks like.  Seems it takes time and a lot of prayer, not just private prayer but corporate prayer (and not congregational prayer style but some seeking prayer approach or some crying out prayer approach).  

Seeking a perfect fit sounds more like seeking what we will be most comfortable with ... not too prophetic.  This needs more discussion for sure.  The conditions in and around ministry for churches and pastors have changed and are changing.  What is our core concern in all this?  Happiness?  Holiness (i.e faithfulness to the call of the Kingdom of God)? Status quo?  Maybe instead of a perfect fit, we need to see if pastor and congregation can travel together for a while along the pathway the Lord is leading them.  Are the two parties headed in the same direction even if the exact route is not identical?  Just some thoughts.

Lord grant us all grace!  

Colin.

There are no easy answers to Schuurman’s article about the deeply disturbing increasing use of Article 17.  However, a key to address the problem is to help pastors and office bearers conduct transparent, honest and grace-filled conversations about things that matter.  Too often, we simply do not know how to do this in the church.  As a result, irritants lead to tension which turn into conflict and become the elephant in the room no one wants to confront until it is to late.  We need help in designing the kinds of conversations early on and routinely that will be transformative toward renewal.  

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