Every once in a while we get questions from church leaders who wonder what it means to hold a minister’s (ministerial) credentials:
What are credentials? How do we “hold” them? Why is this important?
First, the big picture: The task of holding a minister's credentials is mainly about holding the minister accountable for his or her doctrine, life, and ministerial duties. Here’s the relevant wording from Church Order, article 13a:
A minister of the Word serving as pastor of a congregation is directly accountable to the calling church, and therefore shall be supervised in doctrine, life, and duties by that church.
You could think of this as the church’s responsibility to hold the minister accountable to the promises they made at their ordination, promises that are kept in the course of faithful ministry and the context of faithful life. These credentials aren't official documents that are stowed away in a file cabinet. Instead, the council that called the minister to their work is responsible for supervising that minister. Thus that council is said to be “holding” the minister’s “credentials”.
It is easy to see how this works with pastors of congregations. Councils, not just consistories/elders, supervise ministers by asking for regular reports and following up on those reports as necessary; having formal conversations about work, doctrine, and life; and observing ministers at work and conducting their lives within their congregations.
If they find that their ministers are serving well and living faithfully then they provide encouragement to their ministers to keep on keepin’ on. If, on the other hand, they observe difficulties, challenges, or unfaithfulness, then they still encourage their ministers but they also establish processes for addressing those issues (ranging from work improvement conversations and agreements to separation procedures, and if necessary, disciplinary actions).
It's not so obvious how all of this works in non-congregational ministries, such as those named in Church Order articles 12b and 12c (missionaries, chaplains, specialized transitional ministers, and so on). It makes sense that such ministers are accountable to their employers (mission agencies, military institutions, church agencies, and the like) for how they carry out their ministerial duties, but they are still also accountable to their church councils for their doctrine and lives (two of the three accountability items named in the first paragraph; see Church Order article 13b). Remember, all ordained ministers in the CRC are to be supervised by specific church councils and, in such cases, the employer and the church council exercise what is called "shared (or “joint” or “cooperative”) supervision (see Peter Borgdorff's “Manual of Christian Reformed Church Government”, pp. 62-63 and Henry De Moor's “Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary, pp. 84-85).
In many non-congregational settings this is operationalized in Joint Ministry Agreements that spell out duties and expectations (in the cases of chaplains and ordained employees of the denomination particularly-- contact Thrive for examples). Synod 2024 will hear a study committee's recommendation that this protocol become more consistent across non-congregational ministries.
What are some ways to “hold credentials” well, particularly in the cases of ministers involved in non-congregational work?
Here are some suggestions:
- Councils could invite such ministers to meet with them on a regular basis, at least annually, to check in with them about their lives, doctrine, and work. If there are developments that cause the council to be concerned about the minister's functioning, doctrine, or life, the council can and should, at any time, engage the minister in conversation to explore those concerns.
- Maintain healthy and supportive relationships with these ministers, so that the supervision provided to them comes in the context of mutual trust. This can be done in a variety of ways that the minister and the council would find meaningful. Here are some examples:
- Invite these ministers to provide the congregation with worship/pulpit leadership from time to time.
- Pray with and for these ministers regularly.
- Invite these ministers to contribute ministry reports of some kind to the congregation, as missionaries often do.
A couple of additional notes:
First, there are some ministers who serve in non-congregational settings and who attend churches other than the ones that hold their ministerial credentials. That makes it difficult for councils to be in relationship with and supervise the ministers whose credentials they hold. With this in mind, it would be helpful and wise for ministers to worship and do life in the congregations that hold their credentials.
Of course, sometimes it is not possible for the minister to attend the church that holds her credentials (in the cases of some military chaplains, for example). In this case, it makes sense for the calling church to work with the minister and establish some kind of partnering relationship with the church that the minister attends, so that elements of this supervision and care can be provided by the attended church on behalf of the calling church.
Second, some ministers who work in non-congregational settings have their memberships in different churches from those that hold their credentials. For example, a minister might be a member of Congregation “A” while having his or her credentials in Congregation “B”. That, too, seems relationally awkward. It is preferable to have the same church hold a minister’s membership and credentials whenever possible.
Finally, we sense that there are many churches out there that are doing good and beautiful work as they supervise the ministers whose credentials they hold. Please let us know if you experience that, whether as a minister or as a council member. Let us know what practices you have found helpful and how you are building fruitful relationships.