What Is Article 17 and Why Is It So Common?

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To learn more about how a pastor, council or classis should walk through the process of discerning, averting or facilitating a pastor’s release from call, check out crcna.org/pcr/article-17

A High View of Calling

In many workplaces, there are fairly straightforward options if an employee doesn’t like his job or an employer no longer appreciates her employee. But the relationship between a pastor and a church is not merely a relationship of employee and employer.

At the ordination or installation worship service which marks a pastor’s initiation to a new ministry, the first question asked of the pastor is “Do you believe that in the call of this congregation God calls you to this holy ministry?” In the Christian Reformed Church, we believe that pastors are not merely hired by a church, but they are called by God. For that reason, our denomination has always believed that it should be hard for a pastor merely to leave a ministry and hard for a church merely to dismiss their pastor. 

Yet, as highly as our denomination regards God’s calling through a church, we also believe that there are times when a pastor’s call to a church may end. Typically, this happens when another church or ministry senses God calling that pastor to serve their community. Changing from one call to another can be sad and challenging for a pastor and a church, but it is also often hopeful, as both the community left behind and the community being entered recognize a new chapter in ministry beginning.

When One Call Ends, but Another Has Not Been Revealed

Church Order Article 17 exists for yet another kind of “release of call:” the release from active ministerial service in a congregation without a new call to another ministry. In other words, Article 17 exists for those times when either a pastor or a council (or both) sense that the pastor’s call to this particular church has ended even though there is not another call from God to take its place.  

Article 17 has four basic qualifications:

  1. The reason for release must be weighty (as defined by the collective discernment of pastor, council, classis and synodical deputies).

  2. The reason to separate is not worthy of discipline (Articles 82-84)

  3. The reason to separate is not a call to another ordained position (Article 8, 14a) nor for a temporary leave of absence (Article 16) nor for retirement (Article 18).

  4. The pastor does not intend to leave ordained ministry permanently (Article 14b)

Many Article 17 separations emerge because the pastor or the pastor’s family feels called to something else for a season, but expects to return to ordained ministry eventually. Perhaps, the pastor feels called to study for a PhD, or the pastor’s spouse feels called to a job in another region of the country. Sometimes, an Article 17 provides a means for a minister to care for an aging parent or a child with special needs. Rather than take a leave of absence (Article 16), and ask the church to wait for the pastor’s eventual return, Article 17 allows the church to “move on” and call another pastor.

Article 17 Stigma and Misuse

There are many perfectly honorable reasons why Article 17 might be invoked. Yet Article 17 is mostly known by pastors and churches as a painful instrument of ministerial “divorce.” Part of the stigma comes from some churches misusing Article 17 to discipline a misbehaving pastor without going through the process of actually disciplining the pastor. Other churches and pastors have used Article 17 because of their own unwillingness to engage conflict or challenge, retreating to Article 17 to escape from a moment where God seems to be prompting his people to grow and change. It’s not hard to find churches, pastors and pastor families who have horror stories related to a past Article 17 release.

Sometimes, there is real (though not discipline-worthy) dysfunction on the part of the pastor and/or the church that has prompted this sense of “release from call.” While Article 17 does provide a process to determine whether a pastor and/or a church’s dysfunction contributed to the separation, an Article 17 need not be entirely or even primarily a reflection of anyone’s dysfunction. 

In fact, part of the reason Article 17 releases are more common is because the context of ministry in the CRCNA has changed in a number of ways over the years, ways that make Article 17 a more attractive option for pastors and churches. 

The Way it Was

A generation ago, the typical CRC pastor was the primary breadwinner of the family. The average CRC pastor could expect to serve six, seven or more congregations in a 40ish-year career. CRC congregations were assumed to be basically similar. The typical CRC congregation in Edmonton was quite similar (in culture and worship style, if not climate) to the typical CRC in Los Angeles, Grand Rapids or Halifax. For a variety of spiritual and sociological reasons, most of these churches were growing or stable numerically. Virtually every one of these churches provided a parsonage for their pastor and (his) family to live in. As churches were assumed to be similar, so too, pastors were assumed to be similar. “Pulpit vacancies,” the time between one pastor’s departure and the next pastor’s arrival, were generally no more than a few months. Pastor searches took little time; and calls were more readily extended by churches and accepted by pastors. 

Trends Toward Article 17

But, today, almost all of these dynamics have shifted in ways that make Article 17 more prominent. 

Many CRC pastors have spouses who feel a strong sense of call to their own professions.  Pastors are more and more likely to live in their own homes. Thus, pastors (and the churches calling them) increasingly expect that a call will last 10, 20 or more years to one church. Each Christian Reformed congregation has its own increasingly unique culture and set of expectations. As churches have become more particular, pastor searches have taken longer. Fewer calls are extended. And pastors, who have become more particular themselves, are less likely to accept new calls.

Now none of these trends, in themselves, are either good or bad. Home ownership has some advantages and disadvantages over a parsonage. Long pastorates may provide more stability for church, pastor and pastor’s family. A strong sense of call for a pastor’s spouse is what one would expect from a robust Reformed world- and life-view. And fewer formal members "on the books" does not necessarily mean a less engaged or vibrant congregation. 

But each of these trends present certain challenges for pastors or churches.

A pastor who owns their own home or whose spouse has a satisfying profession is one who may be more inclined to remain in one place for a long time. Whereas an earlier generation of church member might have endured a less-than-ideal pastoral fit, or a period of numeric decline, content to wait a couple of years for the current pastor to leave, pastors today are more likely to stay. Combine those factors with slower, choosier search processes, and it's more likely that a pastor and church will find themselves feeling “stuck” with each other.

If that feeling of being “stuck” persists for too long without a new or renewed sense of call, the pressure can begin to build until someone can’t wait for a natural release. Instead, either the council or the pastor say, “it’s time for this call to end.” At that point, an Article 17 release is initiated. 

Not Necessarily a Moral Judgment

Notice that none of these situations are necessarily moral judgments against a church or pastor. In fact, the reasons for an Article 17 are rarely straightforward and to the extent anyone is “to blame,” there is almost always plenty of blame to go around. Yet, fundamentally, what is often recognized in an Article 17 separation is that a pastor and council, who once shared a common understanding of God’s call, no longer do. That different sense of calling, all by itself, is enough to generate feelings of frustration and pain, even abandonment or rejection.

A Better Way To Separate

Because our denomination has such a high regard for a pastor’s calling to a church, it’s not enough for the pastor or the council to just say, “that’s enough, we’re through.”

Rather, our church order provides a process intended to invite broad discernment and care to govern such a release from call. While either a pastor, a council or both may initiate an Article 17, the process cannot move forward without the substantial discernment of the classis and synodical deputies. In fact, long before a pastor or council initiates an Article 17: as soon as one or the other begins to wonder if they’re “stuck,” the council and pastor are expected to honor their high view of God’s call by inviting church visitors to come and help them reconcile their diverging impressions of God’s call. Only after inviting the classis’ support may the pastor or church even begin the formal Article 17 process.

Learn More

To learn more about how a pastor, council or classis should walk through the process of discerning, averting or facilitating a pastor’s release from call, check out crcna.org/pcr/article-17

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