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Is an Article 17 Always Bad?

Church Order Article 17 establishes a mechanism for a pastor and church to part ways for any “weighty reason” except resignation from ministry (Article 14), retirement (Article 18), or discipline (Article 82-84). The “weighty reason” for an Article 17 can cover anything from enrolling in a PhD program or moving for your spouse’s career, to irreconcilable tension among leadership or unaddressed burn-out on the other hand.

In other words, the range of reasons and circumstances that lead to an Article 17 is vast. Some Article 17 releases are serious indicators of pastoral, council, or congregational dysfunction. Others Article 17s imply nothing negative at all about the pastor or the church’s functioning. And many Article 17s fall somewhere in the middle: there are some underlying concerns, but nothing major or disqualifying. 

The problem is that most Article 17s are presumed to be negative. Article 17s have been called a “scarlet number” and a “red flag,” warning potential future churches, “Do not call this pastor!” or telling potential pastor candidates “Stay away from this church!” 

Stigma? No. But a Wake-Up Call? Maybe. 

Now, in some cases, an Article 17 is an important wake-up call for a pastor or church. Maybe the pastor pushed him or herself too hard, failed to maintain a healthy rhythm of life, wasn’t sufficiently supervised by the council, and burned out. Maybe a council failed to challenge dissension or bullying among members and the pastor became a convenient scapegoat.

In cases like these, you might say that some concern is warranted. These behaviors or ways of functioning deserve to be challenged or addressed. Fortunately, Article 17 provides opportunity for accountability and support in the form of Church Visitors, Regional Pastors, and oversight committees. And indeed, at Pastor Church Resources, we regularly see pastors and churches experience considerable personal, professional, corporate, and spiritual growth despite the pain and disappointment of an otherwise unwanted Article 17. 

Painting with a Finer Brush

But too often a pastor or church’s growth is obscured by the long shadow of Article 17’s biased reputation. If all it says on your record is “Article 17”, potential future churches or pastors don’t know quite how to interpret it. In the ambiguity, they may assume the worst, even though the worst is not a valid assumption.  

How then ought churches, pastors and classes mitigate the confusion and ensure Article 17s do not cause others to assume the worst?

We recommend two ways.

1. Letters of Reference

When a minister is made eligible for call (or a church is given permission to extend a call), we suggest that the classis write letters of reference for the pastor and the church. In most situations, this letter can be written by church visitors when the Article 17 release is enacted. Or, if an oversight committee is formed for the church or pastor, the oversight committee could write the letter at the completion of their work. Such a letter can provide as much nuance and context as is necessary to help clarify the circumstances of the separation for the benefit of future pastor candidates and/or potential calling churches.  

Classes should resist the urge to sugar coat or minimize legitimate concerns, as unaddressed problems that show up once are likely to show up again in the future. But a letter, more than a few words in the classis minutes, allows a classis to speak the truth in love. 

When the reason(s) for separation were innocuous, the classis can make that clear. When the reasons for separation indicated deeper concern, the classis can give a simple accounting of what happened and an honest appraisal of the good work done by the church or pastor that prompted the classis to declare them eligible for call/to call.When the reasons for separation are somewhere in the middle, a letter can capture that nuance, too.  

The idea is that with a decent reference letter, no one has to guess at what the Article 17 meant or didn’t mean. 

2. Incorporate Your Article 17 Experience into Your Story

Pastors and churches who have been through an Article 17 should expect and prepare to incorporate the story of their experience when speaking with potential calling churches or pastor candidates. Getting defensive or being dismissive of questions about it will only raise more alarms. So, even if the circumstances that led to the Article 17 reflect poorly on you, articulate how you’ve learned, grown, or changed through the experience. Try hard to avoid blaming others. Speak honestly about your part in the challenges. A pastor or church that is able to talk about their growth through failure will be a more appealing call not less. 

Learn More

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

Comments

Both of those recommendations are very good!

Thanks, Sean, for your wise suggestions. As an associate pastor who has used Article 17 some years ago, I did ask for and received a letter of recommendation from my colleague, the lead pastor. But, I did not ask for one from a trustworthy voice in classis who knew both the Church and me. Seeking a call was a difficult and prolonged process. By God's grace, the rest of my ministry career went well. Bryce Mensink

 

There is a much simpler solution. We simply should've created a separate category for people who leave for reasons that don't have to do with dysfunction failure or conflict. While your ideas are helpful I don't think it will ever make a difference in how this works in our system until we just have a simple other category.

Shawn,

Thanks for suggesting an alternative approach to this challenge. As you may know, there were several overtures to Synod this year proposing the creation of what I call a “no problems here” Article 17 alternative. And I want to be believe that your proposed technical fix could resolve the problems with our Article 17 system, but I'm doubtful. If you'll indulge me, let me share my concerns with that approach and see whether you share them or how you might allay them.

To start, I would wager that once you created a "problems 17," including oversight committees, synodical deputies, classis deliberation, church visitors, etc., and a distinct "no problems 17," with less accountability, within a year, there would be not one "problems 17" submitted to a classis anywhere in our denomination. And, I dare say, the absence of the “problems 17” will not be because all of our churches and pastors magically began dealing with their differences so well. Rather, I think that classes, churches and pastors have many (short-term) incentives to avoid naming and addressing challenges in a church or with a pastor plainly and clearly. There is a strong motivation to look the other way and, (I apologize if this sounds cynical) my experience tells me that classes, pastors and churches often seek the path of least resistance and hope that a change of pastor or a change of church will itself solve whatever underlying challenges may have contributed to the separation.

I see classes function this way now in a number of ways. I see it when a candidate badly fumbles an exam in a way that raises serious concerns to delegates but they sustain the exam anyway, assigning a powerless “mentor” to address the many shortcomings that 4 years of seminary and internships did not address. I see it when a council opts for a 17 even when a case warrants special discipline. I see it when a classis opts for a “terminal leave of absence” for a pastor involved in a troubling pastor/council dynamic rather than permit an Article 17 (and the attendant accountability that can come with it). In other words, there are many occasions already when a classis, given the choice to lean into accountability and the hard conversations or to permit a pastor or church to save face a classis opts for the latter. 

I have no illusions about the Article 17 process being perfect. Far from it. But it is the basic elements to work pretty well. I think for the most part that when we make it easier for folks to have less accountability, especially in times of challenge, they will choose less accountability. And when we choose less accountability, we are neglecting one of the best gifts we have as a part of a denomination.

Thanks, Sean.  Very helpful, particularly in my work as part of an oversight committee.  The letter is an excellent idea. 

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