Can Two Pastors Exchange Pastorates?

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At our Classical Interim Committee meetings, we have been musing for some time about two pastors, both of whom have served their respective churches for more than a decade. They just never seem to get calls to move on for a new start. What we were toying with is to have them simply exchange pastorates. One of us thought that synod had approved such an arrangement, and we're thinking it might be refreshing for them and their congregations. Is this possible?

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First things first: Synod 1934 considered the possibility, but rejected it as “impractical” and not in keeping with Reformed polity. Previous cases in the Reformed tradition, it said, were not good precedent because they were events that occurred under “abnormal conditions” (Acts of Synod, 1934, pp. 64-65). In other words, this would be an illegitimate excursion into an episcopal form of church government.

Synod 1976 apparently had no such reservations. A report of the Ministerial Information Service indicated that many had requested the possibility and proposed a procedure that kept any inquiries in confidence. It envisioned two “single nomination calls” to be approved at congregational meetings of two churches held at approximately the same time, and suggested that if one such vote were to fail, the other church’s call would be “nullified.” The consideration that this might be an “episcopal detour” was pushed aside by the committee’s insistence that these were legitimate calls, not “placements” such as those a bishop would make. Synod agreed. So did Synods 1978 and 1980, when called upon to “review the arrangements.” Apparently, there had been only one attempt at an exchange that did not materialize and was “canceled by partial resolution of conditions” (Acts of Synod, 1980, p. 363).

The Ministerial Information Service reported to Synod 1983 that it had “worked with the concept” on three different occasions since 1976, but had “not been able to complete any of them.” The “concept has many built-in problems,” it observed, “and does not seem to have much chance of success at the present time.” Synod agreed that no further extension was in order (Acts of Synod, 1983, pp. 192, 620). The current Pastor-Church Relations Office that later absorbed the Ministerial Information Service into its operations has never requested a formal renewal of the experiment. What’s fascinating is that the episode did not end with the 1934 objection on the basis of principle, but with the pragmatic judgment that it simply wasn’t workable. So the answer to your question, I suppose, is that there is currently no synodically authorized way to do what you suggest, but also no inherent reason why you couldn’t ask the denomination to revisit the matter with yet another experiment. Are you intrigued enough to draft an overture?