A Strange Practice With a Strange Name

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The name:  “Censura Morum”. 
The practice: at the council meeting, just before the Sunday of the Lord's Supper, the chairman will ask each office-bearer whether he/she can participate of the sacrament without ill feelings toward fellow office-bearers.
 
The name and the practice have a nobler origin than it would appear. Years ago a synod of the CRC decided that it would be a good practice if local churches would periodically review and evaluate their ministry practice. Then synod added, for good measure, that this be done four times year. And subsequent synods made that part of the Church Order. Here's how it reads:
“The council, at least four times a year, shall exercise mutual censure, which concerns the performance of the official duties of the office-bearers.” (Art. 36 b).
 
The thrust of the article was, it may be assumed, “let's, as a council, from time to time consider whether we diligently do the work of ministry...” Instead councils, through the years, took it to mean: “Can we get along as office-bearers...?” 
 
The stipulation four times a year was added to assure that it was done regularly. Curiously enough, however, the Lord's Supper was then mostly also administered four times a year. So the two were closely associated: link the practice to the Lord's Supper and assure that the table of the Lord be kept holy.
 
This might well be one of the most enduring misunderstandings in our denominational history!
 
From positive it became negative. And that's how the answers, individually, were given: “Do you have anything against your colleague office-bearers?”, answered by: “no, I don't”. My mini-survey indicated that many counsels have forgotten about Article 36 b. That, in itself, is regrettable. Synodical decisions ought not to be allowed to fade away. But, even more important, the article has value. Councils should regularly engage in self-evaluation: together, as a team, do we all pitch in and do our work with vision and diligence?
 
So dear readers: what do you think? Does your council have good self- evaluation practices? Can you think of better ways to implement the intent of Article 36 b?
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Over the past three years, we have used this item as a time for members to recognize fellow officers for exceptional service within the fellowship. Ending the quarterly meeting with a series of commendations for work well done has contributed to a positive, supportive service environment.

At every Elders meeting we always ask the question - How is ministry going?  We go around the room and each Elder has an opportunity to give feedback on the way ministry is handled.  It sometimes becomes a basic evaluation of my work as a Pastor, but there has been some very fruitful things that have come from that.  Also, every 3 months we still do Mutual Censure and it has been a blessing to find out how the Council feels about the Ministry of the Church.

Thanks for this helpful article, and for clearing up this misunderstanding!    

You might also want to know that Article 36b was updated by Synod 2010 to read a bit more positively and now says:

b. The council, at least four times per year, shall exercise mutual censure, in which officebearers assess and encourage each other in the performance of their official duties. 

Thanks Kathy for the reminder regarding the update. I certainly agree with LT that the practice's being "tied" to the Lord's Supper four times a year was most regrettable. Changing the frequency of the Lord's Supper helped a little, but I made the decision many years ago to make it a part of every Council meeting.....A proper and honest implementation would help avoid the kind of surprises and unhappiness that now happen, leading to the application of Article 17, at least for some situations. Then a Council could possibly suggest to the pastor that he/she could, if not should, consider another call or calling.... It was a wise group who introduced the concept but again, it requires appropriate implementation. The honesty required, the communication expected, may be the difficult.

I do recall with a smile a humorous response when upon doing the encouraging, one of the elders received considerable accolades and gratitude for the watchfulness and visitation taking place in his "district," the elder responded with a twinkle in his eye, "Cut the ^&*(%^ and put it in the paycheck." A delightful memory of a ministry moment.

Colleagues galore, may I again encourage the perusal of the wisdom of ages as reflected in the Church Order....there's a lot there that'll help avoiding its application when there's no more encouragement and it's hitting the fan.

Participant

This article has revealed to me that I have simply carried on accepted or passed-on understanding of Censura Morum rather than paying attention to the original intent of the Church Order. I welcome that! Particularly because I much prefer the original intent as described here to what I had learned and have been experiencing.

I vividly remember the first time I encountered the term as a new Deacon, sitting as the youngest and freshest face in a room of about 23 men, some of whom were smoking. (It was the last meeting burnt offerings were allowed during the meeting. After that, we first went to having two breaks in meetings so smokers could get their fix.)

Oh yes, much to observe for a rookie! Including "Rook break."

Near the end of the meeting, the pastor/chair announced it was time for Censura Morum, words I had not even heard in the semester of Latin I took in High School before dropping out of that class. My limited translational abilities turned it into the "Censorship of Death" and this interpretation sure fit the sudden intensification of the already severe mood in the place. Then, without further explanation, the chair turned to the man on his right, and the man said "No." This started moving around the room as the chair's gaze fell on people. It was fairly easy to appear understanding when his gaze fell on me and add my my own rejection of the Censorship of Death with a "No" of my own.

As time went on, I learned it was associated with upcoming Lord's Supper, and when I finally asked someone for more information I was told it was about whether officebearers thought the other officebearers were ok to share communion with. I fear I may have passed on a version of that belief, even as a pastor, though I used the language of accountability rather than worthiness.

So I am glad to have the original meaning clarified. I will no longer spread falsehoods.

I have one question though. From what you write, Louis, it does seem to have an intent of creating a discussion about job performance as Elders Deacons and Pastors. Is that a correct understanding? In some situations it is an awkward thing if for instance one Elder does not get visits done...

In our church the way that we do it is through going around the room and answering the following questions:

1. In your opinion are the office bearers of our church carrying out their duties to the best of their abilities?

2. In your opinion, are the various programs and ministries of our church being maintained faithfully and is the church fulfilling the Great Commission through them?

3. Do you have any ideas about how our church ministries or church leadership can be encouraged or developed?

I've found that such a structure allows for a climate of improvement without pointing the finger at any one individual.  It also tends to encourage discussion "in the confessional mode".  We're not accusing each other, we're sharing our shortcomings, our struggles with time and focus, and the need for mutual encouragement.

Community Builder

My sincere thanks to the six people -- Ed Gabrielse, Mark Vande Zande, Kathy Smith, George Vink, Pete Vande Beek, and Jeff Brower -- who commented on my article regarding the practice of Mutual Censure.

Kathy Smith  was kind enough to point out that a synod of some five years ago modified the article. She added the revised version . I had not been aware of that and it has bearing on how we now need to see the practice the article is concerned about... Thanks, Kathy!

The key words of the new reading are: "assess and encourage" with reference to the duties of office bearers. Synod will have debated this and will have had good reasons to continue the practice (4 x a year) though in a milder framework. My problem still lies with the practice and its setting. Is it helpful for consistory members, after being together, to (4 x a year) express, at the end of that meeting, how they feel about each other? I thought it would be better for a council to schedule periodically a meeting (with due preparation) and assess the entire ministry program and make the necessary improvements. Program leaders should by all means be invited to participate in such an exploratory meeting.

What think ye, readers?