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.
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