Commissioned Pastors: A Rose By Another Name?

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Does “a rose by any other name” sound as sweet? Synod 2012 agreed with the Candidacy Committee that there is a more fitting name for those ordained via Article 23 of the CRC Church Order. The office formerly known as “ministry associate” is now known as “commissioned pastor”.

Those acquainted with CRC history know that the office had an earlier name, “evangelist”. The genesis of the office was the recognition or belief that it was appropriate for the church to recognize through “ordination” the work of those who serve the church alongside of pastors, elders and deacons in the particular work of “evangelism”, or church planting. Through the past four decades this office has broadened, evolved, and served to allow a variety of church staff to be ordained to particular ministries. The guideline synod has adopted is that the ministries performed must be natural “extensions” of the work of Minister of the Word. We are currently moving toward (if we are not already there) the recognition of two cadres of pastors in the CRC.

The first cadre, labeled Minister of the Word, has the basic requirement of a formal theological education, as expressed through an M.Div degree. Persons ordained into this cadre can serve denomination wide, in a variety of roles. The second cadre, now labeled Commissioned Pastor, has no consistent or formal education requirements – it is up to each classis and local ministry to decide and discern what sorts of training are necessary for a given candidate. Persons ordained into this cadre can serve, by definition, in a specified local ministry as designated by a job description approved by their classis.

In both cadres, “ordination” is a deep value: all want to honor as “commissioned by God and His church” those who are set apart for ministry. The current trend of treating persons in official ministry as mere employees is something most want to correct. The answer to our puzzlement regarding two cadres of pastors can’t be to “not bother with ordination”. Yet how do we handle confusion and unintended consequences of maintaining two cadres of pastors?

Some celebrate the development of a second cadre (i.e commissioned pastors), convinced that the recognition of grass root, contextualized leadership is a great blessing to the church. Some lament this development, convinced that the church is increasingly being served by persons (i.e. commissioned pastors) who have been insufficiently trained and vetted. Especially as we have given commissioned pastors more and more roles to fill, including use as solo pastors in emerging and organized churches, this concern has been voiced.

How can the church best balance the concern for consistent formal theological education and the demonstrated desire and concern for contextualized and localized leadership? How can the church appropriately make traditional theological education a requirement, or should it be only a preferred option? How can the church honor those who serve as pastors, while still insisting that they pursue knowledge, wisdom, and even education?

Your thoughts are welcome.

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Credentials are tools we use to communicate and confer trust in systems that are beyond our face to face networks. It's easy to see why educational degrees (diplomas) fit naturally in that system, that is essentiall what diplomas do. Someone that has a credential (accredited school) says "this person has passed the requirements". 

At the same time we all know that in church work trust is established by track record. When new people come into my church there is always an implicit vetting process. In time that person may become a leader, but the members of the church need first to learn to trust that person and then they will confer status (office) upon that person and trust them enough to follow them. 

There is no reason our credential system can't recognize capacity, giftedness and skill in persons who have not had formal theological education. Formal theological education is a great thing, but it is not the only thing. I've read far more books since I've been in seminary than I read in seminary.

My grandmother (Grace VanderKlay) never had more than an 8th grade education but she eventually went on to write Bible Puzzle books and had a regular column in the Banner (Women's World) where she wrote about all sorts of issues of the day. She was a life long learner with a sharp, inquisitive mind. She'd also regularly whip her children and grandchildren at word games. It's not always where you spent your time, it's how you spend it. 

What we need are robust, trusted systems that prove their worth in time. When I evaluate colleagues in ministry their level of formal education is not usually the great determiner of effectiveness in ministry. The world is more complex than that. 

I think that if you've been able to plant and lead a church, have a proven track record in ministry, this better informs your capacity for future ministry than a seminary degree. 

I regularly work with graduates fresh out of CTS and other schools. They are wonderful, gifted, enthusiastic, bright, and will I pray do great things as many have already done. They are also, often green. That's not their fault, it's just their situation.

I find others who have learned from the church, who are self-taught or availed themselves of education available to them. There are often areas that need addressing in their preparation, and this can usually be done locally, but in the end they will serve the church well. 

We need a system that:

  1. Encourages and supports life long learning
  2. Can evaluate and document ministry experience and learning in the church
  3. Can communicate levels of giftedness, competency and passion through credentials so that the pool of useful servants in the kingdom is expanding. 

Our largest bottleneck in expanding the kingdom in North America is leadership. We can plant churches without money, but not without leaders. The CP is a useful tool in expanding our leadership base. We should invest in systems that help more people from varied backgrounds train for ministry and deploy them where they are needed. pvk

As a synodical deputy I lament that we are not at the examination of commissioned pastors.  Our sole role in all of this is to approve the "job desctription", which seems as wide as possible.  Some simply want to be ordained thinking that gives them more credability, not realizing thast by their fruits we shall know them.  I feel the whole issue needs a second look.  Ron Fisher

I think that one of the reasons why this "second cadre" of leaders is now apparent in our denomination stems from the specialization of ministries. Calvin seminary and those like it have consistently graduated pastors and teachers. Many of us Apostle/Evangelist types slipped under the radar while going through seminary.  The specialized ministries typically allow for more of the apostolic, evangelistic and prophetic gifting. It's interesting to me to note that the most successful church plants across North America come from non-theologically trained pastors. It's unfortunate that those who have more apostolic evangelistic and prophetic giftings, whether we want to say it or not, are relegated to a second tier system called "ministry associate"or now "commissioned pastor" as I am.

As a church planter and ministry associate I was recently told that since I was not a "minister" I could not represent our Classis as a Minister delegate but rather as an elder delegate. Now… I understand the need for clarification and definitions regarding roles and I understand the need for things to be in proper order. However, we have for far too long allow the equipping ministry of the apostle, the evangelists and the prophets to be sidelined in the CRC to secondary positions at best or sidelined altogether in church.

As I read Ephesians 4 the passage indicates that all five giftings (pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet, apostle) are necessary for a healthy ministry.  If we teach new ministers and prodominatly educate them as pastors and teachers than this office of commissioned pastors is vital because, like myself, many are not drawn to an educational system that focuses on pastors and teachers.  It is one areas that allows for the expression of leadership in the CRC in an ordained office. 

This brings up 2 concerns for me...First is that what we're communicating is that one group is more official/legitimate than the other.  When I read Ephesians I do not see the segregation.  The second concern is that we are saying that a "commissioned pastor/ministry associate" does not have the credentials to be a Minister of the Word and yet I have pastored our church for 7 years on my own as a "commissioned pastor/ministry associate", because its allowed in a church plant.

I recognize my gifting and seek help and support from my ordained ministry collegues on issues of pastoral care but guess who they come to for advise on mission and evangelism, me.   Why...because we need each other and one should not function without the other.  We need all five equiping gifts present in the leadership of the local church, "As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love." (Eph 4:16) NLT  But we also need them present in the leadership of a Classis and Denomination. Not in a two tiered system but as equals.

Commissioned pastor sounds okay to me.  All pastors are commissioned essentially, after all. 

I think that the problem we have with "official" roles, and the unofficial giftings, is that they do not always correspond exactly to each other.  So we have pastors who are evangelists, and apostles who are teachers, and commissioned pastors who are preachers.   What does this all mean then?  What is it that we are really getting hung up on?   Where do the elders and deacons fit in to all of this?   Why is it that the primary mention of a particular office has to do with offices of elder and deacon, and not with qualifications of teachers and pastors(commissioned or otherwise)?  

I once attended a service at a church in Florida, where they did not have official pastors or ministers as such, but only elders, who functioned as preachers and pastors.  

How can we separate our desire for education  and a learned approach to preaching and teaching and pastoral care, from our innate human desire for categories, titles, and earthly honor?   How can we honor theological learning and education appropriately, without honoring them above the necessary respect due to the gifting of the spirit within the heart of a person.   How do we honor a particular office of authority, without supposing that formal education is sufficient to grant that authority? 

Participant

In my context the name change is not really all that helpful.  We commissioned our Youth Pastor but he has not been ordained as a Ministry Associate.  So what is he now?  He is a commissioned pastor in our context and now Synod decided that is what a Ministry Associate is called. 

I was a delegate to Synod 2012 and the discussion was rather brief and pointed to the fact that "commissioned pastor" clarified the position in a few specific contexts.  It was said to be an attempt at not being second class as a Ministry Associate.  However, given how we here (and in other congregations I have been a part of) commission Sunday school teachers, commission groups to go on mission trips, commission Care Givers, commission worship coordinators, and others, I think Ministry Associates just got placed in an even broader category of all kinds of official volunteers by virtue of their new title.  In other words, they used to be ordained to the office of Ministry Associate, now they are just commissioned to the pastoral role.  Ministers of the Word, elders and deacons are ordained to those offices even if they carry out pastoral roles. They are not commissioned as pastors.  For me the term pastor is a functional description of part of what I do as a Minister of the Word ( I preach, teach, pastor, administrate, etc). 

 In the ecumenical context our church is in, the term Associate Pastor makes sence to most.  A commissioned pastor sounds temporary, short term.  In the neighboring churches, anyone on staff in the church is referred to as a pastor of the area they are overseeing.  And then what we call Minister of the Word, is either the Preaching Pastor, or the Lead Pastor or the Senior Pastor or some such title. 

Evangelist as an office made some sense to me,  Ministry Associate, by it's short and basically open definition given by Synod 2001 (whose guidelines entail a few sentences ... that's it) applies to any role that advances the ministry of the Church.  Our church secretary does that wonderfully well.  I have yet to hear of a proposed Ministry Associate job description that got turned down by a Classis or by Synodical Deputies.  The definition is so wide open as to drift into meaninglessness.  Perhaps that is part of the problem that drives the desire for a better name for the office. 

The offices of the church are supposed to be equal in honor but different in calling or function.  And since they are to be fundamentally servant leadership positions, the title should be something that helps people understand the person's place and role in serving the Christ and His body.  Maybe it's just word play, but words have this nasty habit of communicating things ... intended or not. 

Any other suggestions for a better title?

 

Colin.

I was a Ministry Associate and now, of course, a CP. I watched Synod over the web and was extremely surprised by the switch. I had not been alerted that there was even a debate about the name. I think MA was better than CP, but it got me thinking about what would be better. So here goes.

My suggestion is "Minister in Service." My main reasons for this title have to do with its similarity to "MInister of the Word and Sacrament," so it moves closer to equal honor, I think. In addition, when thinking about this category of ministers, we are all identified by the specific service we perform. I'm a Military Chaplain, others are Hospital Chaplains, others Evangelists or Missionaries, etc... We are all ministers within a more specific mission than the Ministers of the Word and Sacrament are identified by their general service. They do it all (in some sense).

To be honest, as much of an emotional response as it provoked, it doesn't matter much practically, because I am a Chaplain to anybody who asks, not a CP or MA. The title is a denominational identity that allows me to have my Army identity. On a practical level, the CRC could decide to call us all Jello Molds. I would still be known as Chaplain. No disrespect intended at all. I wouldn't be ordained through the CRC if I didn't respect it, but very few people have any idea who my endorser is. The largest Protestant supplier of Military Chaplains doesn't even have a separate ordination. If you're ordained, you're ordained. I'm not necessarily saying we should go this route, especially because of the categorical difference between mandatory education or possible education.

I have a friend, also a CRC Army Chaplain who is a MWS, while I am a CP. One day, when I have more time, I would like to go through the examination to earn the MWS because after retiring from the MIlitary, I'd like to pastor a CRC church, but I have at least 16 more years to go before I'm eligible. A lot can happen in that timeframe.

Godspeed.

Clarification:  I meant the primary mention of offices in scripture refers to elders and deacons. 

Sounds like a distinction also made in the military among different officers.

There are officers who go through school (Academy, ROTC, or some other college program followed  by OCS) who are commissioned.  Technically these all require the advice and consent of the Senate and they serve at the pleasure of the president (although various laws have modified that somewhat as the U.S. military expanded and became more permanent after WW2).

Then there are officers who come up through the ranks and specialize in a particular field of endeavor.  These are of two sorts, too.  The first are given a commission as well, but their area of duty is limited to their expertise (limited duty officers or LDO).  Often their commission is temporary until they've served 8 years as an officer (if they retired after only 6 years commissioned service, for retirement they'd revert to their enlisted rank).  The second of these is not commissioned, but is given a "warrant".  They are, as you'd expect, Warrant Officers.  A warrant officer is sort of a cross between a commissioned officer and an enlisted person - recognized experts in a given field, they may have the effective status of a commissioned officer, but in terms of protocol (who salutes whom first, for instance) and precedence, is also effectively enlisted.  The warrant also does not require the advice and consent of the senate, but merely a determination of need in the service and ability in the service member by the Commander-in-Chief.

By way of parallel, we have ministers who go through seminary and are ordained (with the advice and consent of Synod).  There are also those who may not go through seminary, but by some other means are found to have the theological competence to serve as ministers (Church Order Article 7).  These also require the advice and consent of Synod (via Synodical Deputies).  Although not formally limited in their duties, in the nature of the way things actually happen in the CRC, they often are in practice in a way somewhat parallel to the LDO.  And then there are Commissioned Pastors whose position roughly parallels that of the Warrant Officer.

Is it neat & tidy & clean so that it's always clear which is which?  Nope.  Is it servicable?  Yup.  And "Commissioned Pastor" certainly has a less bureaucratic sound than "Ministry Associate".  The latter sounds like we're a law firm and they're hoping some day they can become partners.

One of the challenges is getting good data.  "Seminary trained pastors are more effective."  Oh?  Where's the data?  What is your definition of effective?  How do you measure effectiveness?  "People without seminary training do just as well as seminary trained pastors."  Same questions.  Virtually all of our "evidence" for any assertion in this conversation is anecdotal.  

In calling for data, I'm not crticizing anyone for not getting the data.  When I was a member of the Denominational Candidacy Committee we wanted such data, we decided to go after it, and found it to be virtually impossible to get the data.  For a bunch of reasons.  What's the definition of effective?  What measures would you use to define whether someone is effective or ineffective?  Length of time in congregation?  Article 17?  Surveys?  It's virtually impossible to find true measures of ministerial effectiveness (or ineffectiveness)  And then, if we did come up with measures,  try to get people from every classis to send the information needed to start drawing conclusions.  A response rate of over 50% from classes would be considered miraculous.  

So, people have tried to get data, and it hasn't worked, which I understand.  But until we get data, I fear that we're really are just swapping anecdotes that support our prior convictions.  I wish there was a way forward that included some reliable data.

Participant

I have wondered how many of our churches are started by Evangelists/Ministry Associates/Commissioned Pastors vis a vis Ministers of the Word. I have never gotten the data, but I think it might be helpful to look at it we are going to investigate the slow but steady decline in membership. We often suggest that the vast majority of evangelistic growth is through the planting of new churches, but now you have me questioning whether or not that might also be a myth... Thanks a lot! :)

I remember studying the development of the office of Evangelist in seminary.  It took almost forty years and a lot of soul searching for our denomination to come to the conclusion that biblically, there was another office. Since then it's changed a lot! (or ceased to exist?)

Looked at in the light of wider tradition, I wonder if the office of ministry associate/commissioned pastor that we've developed is similar to what some denominations(not our own) would call a permanent deacon. If we want to give this office more bibllical/theological clarity, I wonder if we should see it in that light.

Community Builder

Very interesting discussion.  Eric V.'s comments on the military titles suggests a weakness in the CP title for people who have served in the military.  I believe the primary underlying issue is how do we decide who does what in the service to our Lord in his body.  Connected to that is who decides and why.  Apparently there have been many who looked down on MA's for some reason or reasons, and I suspect the name change won't change that much if any.  I respect and honor the CP's I know, they are apparently very effective at a role I am probably not cut out for, that of planting churches.  Reading the report in the Agenda for Synod I was genuinely surprised to find MA's (back then) felt looked down on and believed something should be done about it.  We have other distinctions and differences that cause people to look down on each other or others.  (I know, you're probably shocked and appalled at that.)

Having read the Agenda I wasn't shocked to hear a MA (before the vote) tell of feeling looked down on in the debate on the floor of Synod 2012.  What did surprise me was David's apparently derogatory comments about 'recognized problems with Article 7'.  I admit some defensiveness on that point, but when I asked where I could go to find out what they are I was even more surprised at David's reply.  Essentially he said (correct me if I'm wrong) the problem with Article 7 is that people in seminary wonder why they are there if people can serve God in a way they are training to do without the training they are getting.  I've been thinking about that, does this mean they only go to seminary because they have to serve the Lord as a pastor?  Do they think some (like me) are only looking for an easier way to become a pastor?  Do they think many years of self teaching and training (over 27 for me) is somehow easier than seminary?  These should be included in the data Duane K encourages us to get somehow.

I have heard the comments like the MA's were apparently hearing, that I 'cheated' or 'took a shortcut', some look down on me like some look down on MA's and sometimes it bothers me a bit or for a little while.  Usually I get over it by remembering it was the Lord who called me to serve his body and He makes it work.  Most days it doesn't bother me a bit that some think my 'Rev.' is somehow spelled differently, I just continue and sometime try to increase my service to my Lord God.  I was serving him in other roles as he called and gave opportunity.  I hope and pray CP will help people stop looking down on some of the Lords servants, and if there is a better name or better way to get that done I hope we find it and stick to the business of serving God and building his kingdom.  Titles will never get that done, faithful servants and disciples probably will.  Tom

Participant

I so appreciate this conversation. I have gotten hooked by my own sinful demand for honor and respect and it is helpful to be reminded who we serve and to whom all honor and glory should go. As a denomination we clearly have not honored the office of Evangelist the way we honor Minister of the Word. Some steps have been taken to begin to remedy that, but we have a long way to go. For instance, the venue we are using to have this conversation still refers to Ministry Associates in the Discussion Forums section and the office is not mentioned at all under Networks although the other offices are featured there. Not to worry, however, since there are very few posts in the Ministry Associate section anyway. :)

I have lived through the title changes from Evangelist to Ministry Associate to Commissioned Pastor. I was sent to Tucson for the purpose of planting a church and being ordained as an Evangelist was a hugely significant moment in my life when I realized that my passion for church planting was not just an individual passion, but one blessed by the broader body. Titles do mean something when they are the mechanism we use to convey the church's recognition of a call from God. In times of great discouragement I have held on to that call that was affirmed by God's church and that  realization has often helped me stumble on.

When the title was changed to Ministry Associate I thought it became a less honoring title. It no longer felt like an office and felt more like a job description title. The office was further changed when we added all sorts of other tasks to the list, such as music director, youth leader, visitation pastor, etc. I think we have successfully gutted the actual Evangelist role of serving as church planters or ministers of evangelism in established congregations. Perhaps that was the desire.

When I was first listed as an Evangelist in the Yearbook (fifteen years ago in September!) the vast majority of the names listed near mine were ethnic minorities. I know that part of the reason for creating the office of Evangelist was to allow those serving the Navajo and Zuni nation churches to be able to preach, offer the sacraments, and bless those to whom no Calvin Seminary graduate was likely to go in Classis Red Mesa. I was regularly approached to go to seminary in those days and become a 'real pastor' or at least try the Article 7 route. It was made quite clear through words and actions that Evangelist was a secondary office. When I attempted the Article 7 path in those days I was told by Synodical deputies that while I might well be qualified, there was no need for more ministers in the CRC and that if I felt so called I should move to Grand Rapids and go to school. More recently I have been asked to test the process once again, but at age 60 I no longer have the inclination or the energy to do so. I do deeply love the role of the Evangelist. I love gathering the not yet gathered and watching them respond to the gospel. I love pouring into the lives of other chuch planters and evangelists and sharing a bit of what I've learned along the way while also continuing to serve the beautiful church God has gathered around me here in Tucson. I can't imagine a day coming when my co-pastor (also a Commissioned Pastor) or I will step away from the Village and turn it over to a Minister of the Word, but instead we will raise up leaders from within our community (something we are already doing) who will take our places. We will encourage them to continue their education and invite them to consider things like distance learning through Calvin as a legitimate and important way to further their training. The Village is a church of very young people who find relational credentials far more important than an educational certification from a distant group. The problem with saying this, of course, is that God might well upset the apple cart and call me elsewhere tomorrow. :)

We have a two tier system. We should acknowledge that and move on. We seem to believe by both our actions and our words that the primary way to raise up leaders is through formal classroom based theological training in approved institutions. There is very little room for any other path. Sometimes I think this only matters when I travel to Grand Rapids or attend a broader church meeting. Here in Tucson, I'm just Pastor Rod. Most days that is enough unless I get hung up on jealousy or some other sinful longing. The God of all grace has indeed been merciful to me in allowing me to see the constant evidence of his great love from a front row seat. Titles fade away, but that love never ends.

Amen.

I prefer "Commissioned Pastor" to "Ministry Associate" or, frankly, "Evangelist".  The last does not encompass all that those so ordained actually do and the one just departed ("ministry associate") should really apply to every member of the church.  "Commissioned Pastor" gives the same title I have (pastor), but connects more specifically to the particular task at hand which is appropriate to the role played in the larger body of the CRC.

The new title also makes it easier when dealing with secular organizations.  We'll get far less grief form the IRS from treating a pastor like a pastor if we call him (or her) a pastor.

It is also true, despite our best efforts and the clear statement in the Church Order (as well as the confessions) that these offices do not differ in dignity, functionally we treat them with different dignity.  If 400 years of church order and confession hasn't changed that, nothing any modern synod does will do so either.  The most we can do is enjoin those who hold the offices to discourage this differentiation in their own minds and those to and among whom they minister.  It may be spitting into the wind, but sometimes you've got to.

To take from my earlier post regarding military officers, I note that officers with prior enlisted experience tended to do far better as lieutenants than those who came into the rank straight out of school.  As someone once said, experience is the best teacher - though often the most expensive school.  Given a choice between someone who's done it and someone who's only read about it, I'll take the former any day of the week and twice on Sunday.