Classical Counsellors

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A few weeks ago I attended an induction service at the Presbyterian Church in town. The experience reminded me of how little I know about Presbyterian polity and ritual. In contrast to Christian Reformed installation services I have witnessed, this service felt like combination of a worship service and a committee meeting. One item in the order of worship especially puzzled me. It was called “the narration of the steps.” I had no idea what that might be until the pastor who served as interim moderator of the vacant church delivered a report narrating the steps that had been taken from the time the vacancy was announced up to the induction service. As he spoke it became clear that a Presbyterian interim moderator is much more involved with a vacant church than a Christian Reformed classical counsellor is.

The role of a classical counsellor is simply to see that “ecclesiastical regulations have been observed” in the calling of a minister (CO article 9). As far as I can tell it is up to the counsellor to define how active they are when counselling the calling church. In contrast, a sampling from the Presbyterian Church of Canada’s Calling a Minister: Guidelines for Presbyteries, Interim Moderators and Search Committees, indicates that (among other duties) interim moderators are expected to

  • read to the congregation an announcement declaring the pulpit is vacant
  • chair meetings of session and congregation
  • arrange pulpit supply
  • direct the session in appointing a search committee, and
  • attend all meetings of the search committee.

I am not going to advocate for the Presbyterian approach. To my mind it is a bit top heavy and rule bound. But the comparison makes me wonder whether CRC churches are left too much on their own when vacant. The calling process has become more complex since the time pastors were treated as interchangeable parts, but the role of the counsellor has not changed. Congregations and pastors are increasingly concerned about proper ‘fit’, but the resources available to congregations are denominational and classical counsellors do not seem to be expected to help in this process. Pastoral relationships increasingly end painfully, but the classis offers no more help to ensure that the relationship begins well. The exception occurs when a church has experienced an article 17 separation from its pastor. Then, the counsellor serves as part of an oversight committee, if the classis determines that one is needed. Here too, however, I wonder why the church order assigns a counselor to the committee, not the church visitor who would presumably be more familiar with the history and dynamics of the congregation.

I cannot imagine any CRC accepting that degree of classical oversight I observed in the Presbyterian induction service, nor would I envision that many CRC pastors would welcome the extra work. But in a time when relationship between pastors and congregations is a cause for concern, something more than a counsellor seems needed.

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Norman, you do not indicate whether the Presbyterian church was PCUSA or PCA.  I have heard of big differences between them.  That aside, calling a church vacant, when presumably there are several elders likely present, and there is a congregation present, seems presumptuous.  Precisecly because the church is not vacant, but merely has a pastoral vacancy, is why each church needs to determine its own need for a counselor or advisor.  The assumption that the only relationship or significance is between a pastor and a congregation is harmful, and does not recognize that there are significant relationships between various parts of the congregation, as well as between members and elders, and deacons, etc.  It is not as simple as you make it sound.  An overbearing counselor or interim moderator leads to an immature body of believers, never able to take on the tasks God has given them. 

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John, Norman mentioned the Presbyterian Church of Canada. We don't have PCUSA up here. There are several PCA church plants though... to appease the conservative contemporary worship people who don't want to remain CRC nor are they willing to jump to the URC. The Presby Church of Canada operates a differently from the PCUSA and PCA.