In a recent article called Shelf Life, Gregory K. Hollifield asks, “what happens to your ministry calling when you can’t find a ministry job?” In the article Hollifield describes how some of his vocational assumptions have been challenged by the harsh realities he and others who are without work have experienced. We may not share all of Holifield’s assumptions, but we do have our own. I clearly recall a discussion at an Internos (what we used to call pastors fellowship meetings) that took place not long after I was ordained. In this discussion it became clear that my colleagues questioned the commitment of anyone who did not share the assumption that the call to ministry is a call for life. That assumption would soon be challenged. Of the 43 candidates for ministry the year I was ordained, 14 (32%) are still active in parish ministry in the Christian Reformed Church, 10 are in some form of ‘non-parish’ ministry, while 17 (40%) have been released from ministry in the CRC altogether.
I don’t know whether my class of candidates is typical or unusual. I don’t know how many of the 17 are serving churches in other denominations. But this sampling still suggests that many CRC pastors have faced some version of Hollifield’s question, “what happens to your ministry calling when you can’t find a ministry job?” Whatever out theological assumptions about calling might be, the church order acts as if calls do have best before dates. In our tradition we have said that an internal sense of call must be confirmed by an external call from the church. Henry De moor appeals to that distinction when explaining the two year limit on a pastor’s eligibility for a call after an article 17 release. Two years, he says, is considered adequate time to determine whether an external call still validates the internal call (Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, p. 104). While that seems logical and orderly, it does not begin to address the frustration felt by some pastors who have felt their ordination was taken from them (see “loophole”). Despite years of service to the church, they are now without status and must apply for a license to exhort just like others who were never ordained.
If the distinction between an internal and external call suggests that a call to ministry is not necessarily for life, the church seems implicitly to agree. Despite the attrition rate illustrated by my class of candidates and the cries of alarm at the number of article 17 releases, the Christian Reformed Church does not appear have a shortage of pastors. This year synod approved one of the largest groups of candidates ever, and a majority of those candidates have yet to accept a call. There is no doubt more than one reason for this, but a large incoming class and a slow calling rate, compounded by church’s willingness to look outside the CRC for pastors, all suggest that more pastors will be faced with Hollifield’s question.
How can classis respond to people who are asking this question? For one, classis might provide time to explore a sense of calling. The two year limit on eligibility for a call following an article 17 dates back to 1983. Prior to that, the church order simply said that a person may “eventually ... be completely released from ministerial office.” If two years was considered to be adequate time in 1983, I doubt it is now when churches are willing to experience two year vacancies, when a host of retired pastors are available to serve as interims taking the pressure off calling committees, and when classes are encouraged to appoint oversight committees to determine when a released pastor is eligible to receive a call. At the very least the two year clock should not start ticking until after a person is declared eligible to receive a call.
In addition to time, classis can ensure that those wondering where the call went are aware of the resources available to them. The CRC’s Pastor Church Relations ministry offers assessments for pastors and suggests “pastors on point” to those exploring a sense of calling. At least one classis, Alberta North, has its own pastor church relations committee. Other classes might want to consider that model. In other cases classes, through regional pastors or candidacy committees, could become aware of competent coaches, counsellors, and career advisors who are available in their regions and provide resources to those who need them.
The Christian Reformed Church invests a lot of energy at the beginning when a person is exploring a call to ministry. We have multiple checks to ensure that a candidate is gifted, educated, examined and credentialed. If we can no longer assume that a call to ministry is a call for life, we ought to pay similar attention at the end when pastors are wondering what happened to the call.