In the world of professional sports, nobody is immune from getting ousted, canned, axed, or the more genteel "relieved of their duties."
In the NFL, so many firings are condensed into the day after the regular season ends that there's a name for it: “Black Monday.”
"I hate it," said former Ravens coach Brian Billick, who did an entire podcast on the topic in 2014 with NFL analyst Steve Mariucci. In it, Mariucci related a story about his 1997 job interview with the San Francisco 49ers:
When I was hired by the 49ers, I asked Carmen Policy, "George Seifert won two Super Bowls here; why isn't George Seifert still your head coach?"
He said to me, "You know what? Every coach has a shelf life. And you know what, Steve? You have a shelf life, too. You're not going to be here forever."
The moral of the story? As Mariucci states, "[As a coach] you're not married, you're dating…"
In the Christian Reformed Church, pastors are facing their own “Black Monday’s” at a higher rate than in our denomination's history. While we don’t use the language of getting ousted, canned, or fired, an Article 17 is the Church Order’s prescribed mechanism for releasing a pastor from a call to a specific church without ending the pastor’s call to ordained ministry.
And while there are many reasons why a church or pastor might request an Article 17 (leaving to study for a PhD, moving to accommodate a spouse’s professional calling, stepping back to care for an aging parent), the fact is that most Article 17 separations arise due to tension or conflict in the relationship between the pastor and the church.
Unlike Mariucci’s note about “dating,” Article 17 reads more like a manual for marriage counseling and orderly divorce. Only after the pastor, council, church, and classis have made a sincere effort to understand and address the dynamics that contributed to this present challenge, and have pursued every other reasonable option for resolution, should an article 17 be pursued.
For decades, Article 17’s have been intended to provide safeguards that slow down a separation and even create the possibility for reconciliation and growth for pastors and churches. However, Article 17’s are on the rise in the CRC and they have been for quite some time. Consider:
In the 20-year span from1980 to1999, there were just 69 Article 17’s, or 3 per year on average (with 300,000 members or more in that time span).
Comparatively, in the 20-year span from 2000 to 2019 there were a whopping 361 Article 17’s, or 18 per year on average (even with almost 100,000 less members in the CRC)
That’s an enormous jump at the turn of the 21st Century. Additionally, only two years into the 2020’s, we are well on our way to break more Article 17 records in our denomination.
But let’s add one additional element that makes this statistic even more alarming—there are significantly fewer members of churches in 2022 than there were in the 1990’s. CRCNA membership statistics cite 316,415 members in 1992 (the high point for CRC), and just 211,000 in present day (the lowest number on record since these statistics were measured starting in 1963).
Allow me to further illustrate using a “Article 17’s per member” metric:
In the 1980’s there was one Article 17 for every 10,000 members
In the 1990’s there was one Article 17 for every 7850 members
In the 2000’s there was one Article 17 for every 1535 members
In the 2010’s there was one Article 17 for every 1164 members
The trend is relentless. That means there are far more Article 17’s in our denomination even as there are fewer and fewer members of churches in the CRC.
How can this be? What attributes to this trend?
While this trend has a number of complex factors which cannot be oversimplified, there is a connection between the Steve Mariucci story and the rising trend of Article 17’s: "More coaches get fired when their teams are losing."
We might like to think we don’t act this way, but the statistics between losing NFL coaches getting “fired” and CRCNA pastors of shrinking churches getting “Article 17’s” are eerily similar. Consider a few factors that attribute to this:
THE POST-CHRISTIAN EFFECT
The Christian "culture wars" [a term used to describe the fall of Christian influence in culture and society] were lost in the 90's, but it took an extra 20 to 30 years for the church to admit defeat. The last three decades have revealed accelerating growth of the two largest religions in the US and Canada—the “nones” (no religious affiliation) and the “dones” (used to be churched, but left). The church, not just the CRC, has been on a steady numeric decline since the early 90's and is only picking up speed. One example:
In 2019, a poll was taken by Barna asking Christians how often they attended worship. For all of the respondents who said they attend “every week” or “at least twice a month,” Barna identified this group as “active churchgoers.” Six months into the pandemic, they asked this specific group of “active churchgoers” again about their worship habits, and they were astonished by the new responses. They discovered that 22% hadn’t gone to church at all—digital, physical, or otherwise.
Please let that sink in.
More than one in five “active churchgoers'' simply stopped attending all forms of worship in 2020. What’s perhaps even more striking, among the same group of Christians who regularly attended worship every week, or at least a few times per month pre-covid, is that only 51% of that group indicated they still worship “every” week. So, it's not just “nominal” churchgoers who have changed their habits. It’s a distinct number of active churchgoers, too.
During this time, we are currently seeing more Article 17's in our denomination’s history. We are witnessing a significant dwindling in numbers (by more than 1/3rd in the last 30 years), which of course is discouraging and debilitating to all, but often has vocational implications for pastors. Like NFL coaches, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and even pastors, leaders of organizations are often blamed in instances of hardship.
From the beginning of the Christian Reformed Church and up till the turn of the 21st Century, most CRC churches could rightly be described as mostly “monolithic.” Whether you went to rural Sioux Center, Iowa, suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan, or metropolitan Edmonton, Alberta, CRC churches had a very similar history, with shared values and experiences. Given our ethnic roots as Dutch settlers to the US and Canada, the history and culture was largely the same.
In the 80’s and 90’s it was not uncommon for Calvin Seminary graduates to get three, four, five, or more different calls to churches across North America. The concept of professional “search groups” to assist churches in finding pastors who match their unique culture, habits, and philosophy of ministry was largely a foreign concept.
Contrast that to the present day. CRC churches across the US and Canada are increasingly diverse and the process of seeking to become more of a “mosaic” community has been difficult, especially for churches with a long monolithic cultural and ethnic history. Then comes the rub – change. Changing core ministries for the sake of new ones, starting new and unfamiliar rhythms, and killing sacred cows.
As churches increase in ethnic and cultural diversity, the complexity of church ministry in the 21st Century is greater than at any other time in our denomination’s history. This leads to friction in the church. At the same time, churches are shrinking in average size. The average size of a CRC church in 1992 was 300, and is less than half of that number today.
CHANGES OF “TRIBE”
In the 80's and 90's, people were still tribal by geography and traditional/cultural/theological upbringing. The introduction of cars for practically every house changed that a bit from the 50's to 80's, but the real game-changer was…the internet. Now, people are no longer tribal by "geography." They are tribal by "choice." That resulted in significant shuffling of church members and, in some instances, brought out our worst instincts as pastors and as congregants in appealing to a consumer mindset.
In the CRC, consider how many church-plants we had in the 80's compared to today. At the church I serve [Gateway in Abbotsford, B.C.], we have a wonderful history of planting five churches in the first 50 years of our existence essentially in our own backyard. No fear of "competition" or "dilution," but seeing this as an enormous blessing for the Kingdom of God. At that time churches were still on the rise in the US and Canada. Now, I think all local CRC's [not just here in Abbotsford, but also in Sioux Center, Grand Rapids, Edmonton, and other CRC hubs, etc.] at least feel the pressure to "out-perform" one another to appeal to our dwindling market.
Additionally, pastors in the 21st Century now feel like they are "competing" with online churches and speakers—the likes of Tim Keller, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, J.D. Greear, etc.
CULTURAL AND POLITICAL DIVISION
I regularly have the opportunity to meet and pray with other pastors. All of them are telling me the same thing: “Our churches are shrinking rapidly, and contentions in church are worse than I’ve ever experienced previously.” So, the battles in church seem to be more intense than in the past. What all of this brings is a bit of a process I see a lot more. Something like this:
First, as the "market share" dwindles, and congregants are far more ready and willing to "uproot" from one church to another, there is an increased pressure to perform.
Second, when pastors "under perform" in the eyes of their congregation [dwindling numbers, political and cultural divisions, unmet expectations], its easier for congregants to break the Matthew 18 principle, which means going to the source with unmet expectations rather than to gossip, slander, or complain generally to others. This leads to a feeling of hopelessness among pastors.
Consider again the example of NFL coaches: What coaches like losing? Would you rather be the coach of a championship contender? Or a bottom feeder already looking to the draft? Of those coaches, who is sleeping better at night? Who feels the job security? Who is more prepared to "take risks"? Who is feeling less weary?
Third and finally, the pastor’s reputation is harmed via anonymous complaints, a refusal to go to the source with said complaints, and a growing tide of unmet expectations. Their reputation is slowly harmed over time.
This isn't new to the church. Our intentions have never been so pure and so immaculate as to be exclusively focused on seeking to build the Kingdom of God over our little mini kingdoms. However, one significant factor has changed in the last 30 years: most of our churches are not “growing.” Complaints are often minimized when things are going well, when youth groups are growing, newcomers getting integrated, and a general sense within the church that "God is at work." After all, how many of us have heard the stories of the “good ole' days?”
So, I will end how I started: More coaches get fired in professional sports when their team is losing than when their team is winning. In general, and using a worldly metric, most CRC teams/churches are "losing" right now.
SO, WHAT’S THE REMEDY?
I have sat with a number of different local church leaders this past year and there are two "camps" that I see:
- Churches that are shrinking, and are disappointed with the performance of their team. Much like a professional sports team, they start to look at their leaders for evidence of failure. Some people left angrily because the pastor said something/didn’t say something about COVID / vaccines / masks / racism / politics /climate change. The grapevine has been alive and well and is destroying the reputation of leaders in the church. Before long, even if a pastor and their elders are diligent in running down the anonymous complaints—all the “they said” and “people are saying” comments—a point arises when the damage has been done and, well, the coach has lost the locker room. [The many Article 17’s don’t even account for the pastors who quickly find a new church after getting the hint to “move on.”]
- Churches that are shrinking, but are looking for how they can further disciple the people that have stayed. The elders have a calming presence, are differentiated, and are not looking to their pastor(s) to "fix" everything. They refuse to get sucked into cultural and political battles, and focus on the Great Commission. In many ways, they aren’t “dating” their pastor. They are functioning as a body, each with a part to play, and dealing with criticism and conflict through the lens of Matthew 18. They’ve focused on the people who have stayed, not the people who have left (or have stayed with conditions). The elders are devoted to prayer, discernment, repentance, and reconciliation, and are growing in their desire to expand God’s Kingdom through cultivating habits of discipleship rather than in the building of their own mini Kingdoms. Most pastors don’t want to “date” their churches. They want to be fully integrated members of a faith family. That requires a deep level of intimacy, trust and, when needed, healthy conflict and reconciliation so that they can continue to serve together for the long haul.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
I believe there are specific, tangible steps that pastors, council members, and congregants can do to mitigate this trend. Consider:
Pastors: Don’t rob the church you serve from the one who owns it.
Since you likely spend more cumulative hours investing in the local church you serve, it stands to reason you will feel the greatest hurt when things fail and the greatest personal triumph when it succeeds. If you place your identity in the ministry outcomes of the church you serve, you are setting yourself up for failure, regardless of what the future holds. In times of failure, you will become weary and will want to throw in the towel. [Barna research has shown that more than a third of all pastors have contemplated leaving the ministry in the last year.]
In times of success, you will be tempted to usurp God of His glory. Either way, you have taken ownership of something that doesn’t belong to you in the first place. It’s God’s church! Give it back to him.
An almost weekly prayer for me is, ‘Lord, I think I took the steering wheel again. Please forgive me. I entrust this church to you. Do with it what you will. Use me to build your kingdom.’ I am sure I will pray this prayer many more times in the future. It is a huge relief and weight off my shoulders when Jesus reminds me, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” [Matthew 16:18]
As odd as it sounds, one practical step I have taken to remind myself of this is to develop hobbies and interests outside of the local church. Hiking, reading, camping, running, biking, dry-aging meat, woodworking, crocheting—ok, not the last one. Find something outside of the church to invest in to safeguard your soul from placing your identity in the happenings of the church that you serve.
Elders & Deacons: Don’t sacrifice the Great Commission on the altar of public opinion.
Council members often feel like it is their job to serve as “representatives” of a particular constituency, much like members of Parliament or Congress. You likely receive complaints and criticisms while drinking coffee in the lobby after the service, over the phone throughout the week, in person during a home visit, or even when randomly crossing paths with a church member at work, school, or otherwise. You might feel like it is your duty to share said complaints as their representative.
As a member of Council, you don’t represent “people” to your pastor. You represent “Christ” to the church you serve. With respect to conflict, instruct your members to apply the Matthew 18 principle. Remind them to go to the source and nowhere else. All the while, defend the integrity of your pastor.
As leaders, it’s critical to grieve losses. We can’t skip over that part. There has been so much loss in our denomination these last 30+ years. But there also comes a time when you have to start celebrating who’s still here and imagining a new future with those who have stayed. Otherwise you function more as a memorial center than a local church. Now’s the time to get on with the mission.
Members of Local Churches: Don’t give too much credit to church leadership on either end of the spectrum.
Pastors and church leaders are often given way too much credit. They are often venerated as saints or demonized as, well, demons. To some degree, we do this with all public figures, granting them far more credit than they deserve. Not ironically, this principle leads to what happened with both "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill" [venerating of personality-driven churches and even toxic pastors/leaders] and "The rise of Article 17's" in our own denomination.
With respect to your pastor(s), consider treating them the same way you would treat your spouse or a very close personal friend. When conflict arises, consider the best way to approach them. You wouldn’t gossip or slander your spouse. You would, with the door closed behind you, address the concerns you have so that the relationship can flourish and grow. When that doesn’t work, you might consider including just one more person so as to always defend their integrity and reputation. If that doesn’t work, you might even pursue a full-on intervention with close family members [or, in this case, elders]. But your goal is always to find peace and reconciliation.
Additionally, recognize that the work of the church and the expansion of God’s Kingdom, as far as it depends on us, requires the active engagement of the entire congregation doing their part, not just the “performance” of your pastor. Your pastor (and council’s) job is “…to equip Christ’s people for the work of ministry, and the building up of the body of Christ.” [Ephesians 4:12]
In that way, your pastor is very much like a “coach.” But, like you, they desperately want the Lord to do great things in your congregation. So, pray for your leaders, encourage them, and support them. When the going gets tough, take them aside and share your concerns in a way they can receive it.
If pastors, council members, and congregants can commit themselves to these principles, I think the number of unwanted Article 17’s will experience a sharp decline in 2022 and beyond.
To learn more about how to walk a pastor, a council, and a classis through the process of discerning, averting, or facilitating a pastor’s release from call, check out crcna.org/pcr/article-17