Church order Article 17 is used as our flagging system to help us identify and address issues with pastors and congregations. Is this a good system? Should we have flags?
Church Order Primer
When a CRC council has a conflict with their senior pastor at some point that buck will stop at the desk of classis. Many times congregations and pastors work out a quiet divorce, (like Joseph tried to do to Mary prior to angelic interference) usually pulling out the language of “feeling called”, but if that doesn’t work classis will get involved.
The CRC Church Order is organized by “articles” and the article that administers a pastor/church separation is Article 17. It is designed to be a “no fault divorce” applied when formal discipline is inappropriate but one or both parties in the conflict has determined that a severance of the relationship is in their best interest. Classis then steps in to try to care for all parties in the separation, to ensure that both parties are treated fairly, and to make provision for long term healing. These are noble and well meaning goals, actual performance, as with all things in this broken world, may vary significantly.
Avoiding Article 17 to Avoid Stigma
The first thing to notice is that Article 17 is only engaged at the initiation of either the local pastor or the local council. Classis cannot force Article 17 on anyone. There is wisdom in this in limiting the power of the classis. We can’t have classis separating pastors from their local churches for something less than the weightiest of reasons. At the same time we find churches and pastors separating without invoking Article 17 leaving both parties in ecclesiastical limbo. In most cases both the local church and the pastor wish to avoid the stigma of having an Article 17 on their record or credential.
For those who don’t work with the church order the mechanics of its system can appear to be an arcane encumbrance that ought to be jettisoned. Why can’t we all just get along?
It’s easy to feel this way until something happens we didn’t intend and then someone says “what do we need to do to make sure this bad thing doesn’t happen again?” That’s when we start making rules and procedures and writing things down. The credential and calling system is designed to afford a certain amount of disclosure and protection in an extended system where we all don’t have face to face relationships or histories.
Carfax for Ministers and Churches
Perhaps a crass example might help clarify what is going on. Anyone who wants to buy a used car wants ultimate disclosure. Was this car ever in an accident? Did the previous owners do the proper maintenance on it? Did the previous owner “baby” it or drive it hard? Highway or city miles?
The seller of the used car also has an agenda. They want to present the car in the best light possible to get the best price for the car. Because of this services like Carfax have come to the market to provide a bit of impartial disclosure. Buyers can ask a third party to examine the insurance record of the car. It won’t tell you everything, but it will tell you something.
The CRC system for pastors and churches creates a sort of a market place when it comes to ministerial matchmaking. Congregations seeking a new senior pastor want the perfect candidate and they want to present themselves in the best possible light. Pastors too who are looking for a place to serve want to find a congregation that fits what they want to do and will treat them well.
Into this mix the CRC credential system and the denominational Ministerial Information System comes as a sort of a Carfax to the conversation. If a minister is separated from a congregation via Article 17 it is noted on his profile. If a church too separates it is noted on their profile in the Ministerial Information service. This operates as a sort of a red flag, inviting prospective pastoral candidates or congregations to do a bit more inquiry into what had transpired. Was this a case of a bad match or does it indicate something in the pastor or the congregation that might be a problem in the next relationship?
Many of us know that disclosure is always a tricky business. In evaluating two cars, one might prefer a car that had never been in an accident over one that has, but people and congregations are a lot more complex than cars and a pastor/congregation relationship is a lot more complex than a driver/car relationship. Not all conflicts are the same and even though it is easy to say that both parties will bear some responsibility in any conflict (as professors of total depravity it’s easy to declare that neither party engaged the other perfectly) it is more difficult to look at one conflict and to know how contributing dynamics of either party will play out in the next relationship.
Upsides and Downsides
Given the ministerial marketplace we can well understand the desire of councils and pastors to avoid having an Article 17 on their record. As with many things in life there is an upside and a downside to this.
The upside is that both sides should be motivated to work on the relationship. Maybe the pastor taking a call to someplace else IS the best choice for a particular situation. Maybe a congregation’s leadership needs to take a look at the leadership culture that has developed and make some changes.
Another upside to the record keeping system is that patterns can become apparent to the broader system and there might be hope for remedial intervention. A downside to our system which balances congregational autonomy with accountability to broader assemblies is that issues with pastors or local churches that may cause repeated trouble are often not addressed well or not addressed at all.
When we see patterns like this responsible adults begin to say “something needs to be done about this situation” and stuff happens. Problems are under the surface and are only addressed after the damage is done. This lag in the system too has both upside (sometimes the remedy is worse than the problem) and downside (pastors and churches are harmed when it could have been prevented).
The downside to our record keeping system is that it is “no fault” and a blunt instrument. A flag is a flag and every “buyer” in the clergy marketplace will have their own judgment however poorly informed on any past situation. The system can feel graceless if in one’s judgment past issues have been resolved and won’t likely be repeated.
The system also reinforces the idea that there are spotless pastors and churches and blemished ones. We imagine that a pastor or church with no flag must be better than one with a flag. Sometimes that’s the case, and sometimes it isn’t. Our flagging system will always be imperfect and subject to interpretation. There is no way around any of it. On one hand we act as consumers in a clerical marketplace hoping for a ministerial soul-mate while also professing that all shepherds and flocks are broken.
What do you think?
I think this piece will probably be the first in a series on Article 17 because it is an important function of Classis. One of the things I’ve learned is that there are a lot of stories out there surrounding this. Here are some stats on the use of Article 17. Is this a helpful system? Next time I’ll address more details on how it should be employed.
1980 to 1989: 24 Art 17a, 7 Art 17d
1990 to 1999: 25 Art 17a, 13 Art 17d
2000 to 2009: 146 Art 17a, 26 Art 17d