The Synods of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America are now history. At the CRC Synod, as usual, a raft of new candidates for the ministry was approved. This year there were 44 names on the list. A few of them already know where they are going, others will enter a season of waiting and praying and discerning and, above all, anticipating getting “a call.” And I do pray they will all get a call someday soon but just generally, I have been wondering about the whole call system of late.
In Reformed polity, we have never had any desire for offices like bishops who have the authority to move pastors around based on a bevy of factors including congregational needs, professional skills, length of service in any given place for any given pastor, etc. The Reformed system is a grassroots movement, investing the local congregation with the necessary authority to call–or not call–at will and whomever they will. And, for a very long time now, this system has served the churches in my Christian Reformed denomination pretty well. But the system has also been creaking a bit and showing signs of strain the last twenty or so years.
There was a time when Christian Reformed ministers–with a few (usually well-known) exceptions back in the day–moved around every 4-6 years as a matter of course. Congregations in need of a pastor tended to offer calls with frequency, knowing they’d get a fair share of declines but also knowing that sooner rather than later they’d hit it right and would get someone who was “due” to make a move. For much of the 20th century, pastors got call letters routinely. My great-grandfather, Herman Tuls, graduated from Calvin Seminary in 1905 and ministered a short 19 years before an untimely death. I have his collection of call letters now and so can see that in 19 years of ministry, he received 32 calls. (One such call letter, in Dutch, is the picture accompanying this blog post). He took 4 of those calls and turned down 28 of them but averaged 1.7 calls per year and stayed at the calls he did accept 4.75 years per congregation. A bit more recently was my father-in-law, Isaac Apol, who served 36 years as a pastor after his 1951 seminary graduation. I don’t know how many call letters he got across those years but he took 8 calls, averaging 4.5 years per congregation. Most of his peers would have similar statistics across the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
That was then. Now pastors tend to stay longer (and are expected to stay longer) in places where ministry is going well. That much is good news for such pastors in good spots. But there is a flip-side: because pastors move around a lot less frequently now, congregations issue fewer calls and among other things this means that pastors who might be eager to move on–and congregations who might be eager for the same thing for their pastor–often find themselves with nowhere to go. There are multiple factors at work in this all but I am pretty sure that this has contributed to what many observers in my denomination regard as a sad avalanche of pastors being separated from their congregations the last 20 or so years. Failing the likely prospects of pastors getting a chance to move on to somewhere else, congregations take it in hand to force the change.
I paint with a wide brush here and people in churches who have separated from their pastors have stories to tell to explain what happened in their particular circumstance. I am not condemning or critiquing any case in particular. I merely point out that the system that functioned well when pastors moved routinely may not be serving the church as well now that ecclesiastical cultures have changed, congregational expectations have changed, life situations of pastors have changed. I am not advocating for bishops, and had we had such authorities in place when I was a pastor serving congregations, I can well imagine how I would have chafed under the prospect of having a move forced on me.
But the fact is that even short of such a major change in Reformed polity, lots of pastors are even so being forced to move on (except that in the short term at least, most of them have nowhere to move TO just yet). That makes me sad and troubles me a bit for the future. I have no solutions. Just raising a question to see what it generates.
Published by permission. This blog was originally posted on The Twelve at blog.perspectivesjournal.org/