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As a stated clerk of classis, I just witnessed, walked through, and wept through three Article 17 separations in one classis meeting. It is a painful process for pastors and church councils, usually preceeded by a year or two or three of anxiety and friction between pastor and council.

By the time the termination agreements reach Classis, it is indeed 'a done deal'. It is beyond repair. It has usually involved outside mediation through Pastor Church Relations, Shalem Mental Health Network, or other facilitators. Regional pastors provide support and church visitors serve as advisors, usually conceding that separation between pastor and congregation is the best for both parties. Delegates to classis feel helpless, and more often than not reluctantly approve of the termination.

It has been said that some denominations have bishops who move the pastors around, and the CRC has Article 17. I wish we had a bishop. I've observed the work and the effectiveness of bishops while working at the national offices of other denominations. A bishop can tell a pastor and church council to resolve their differences and to make their 'marriage' work. He may reach that conclusion after weighing the circumstances and realizing, for example, that this separation is instigated by a few power hungry members of council — or within the congregation — who simply want to get rid of the minister. The bishop could tell them to swallow their pride and make it work because this pastor is staying there for the next five years.

The bishop may also very well discover character flaws in a pastor and tell him/her to take a CPE course, and appoint a mentor.

A bishop breeds accountability. He is the arbitor when it comes to notions of termination. It isn't left to a group of delegates to classis who feel helpless, if not paralyzed, by circumstance.

I recognize that having a bishop is contrary to Reformed polity, but it may be the best solution to the broken system that we currently have. I would want to restrict a bishop's authority to that of moving pastors around from congregation to congregation, classis to classis. He would in essence be a region's HR department: one person covering a few classes who simply oversees who is ministering where, but who would also have the authority to tell a church council to 'suck it up', to reflect servant leadership, perhaps even to insist that a church council go through some pastoral training.

Article 17 focuses on the pastor, and leaves him with incredible stigma. Church councils are off the hook. They can simply turn around and, generally, call their next pastor. Unless a classis attaches conditions to when a church can call their next pastor, they simply re-enter the calling process.



Just trying to wrap my head around how this might work within our polity.  Would this essentially be a "classical pastor" who would be empowered by common consent of the classis, to enact some of these administrative /pastoral tasks?  How would/could this be anything more than an advisory role?  Could it?

Keith Knight on May 22, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

This would need to be a Church Order article to give the position both authority and accountability. I liken it somewhat to a regional pastor, though that position deals solely with pastors and not with councils. I visualize a person, perhaps appointed by Pastor Church Relations (as are regional pastors), who could cover two or three classes within a geographic location and who has specialized gifts; certainly an ability to discern a pastor's gifts and a congregation's needs/culture.

I agree that if this 'bishop', for lack of a better term, is simply shuffling problems from one congregation to another, that would be a pointless exercise.

A generation ago, virtually any minister within the CRC could fit within virtually any CRC congregation. That is, of course, a broad generalization. Congregations today have vision statements and mission statements, and they aren't always wise in calling the appropriate pastor to their specific needs. Conversely, a pastor may not always have the full information in accepting a call to a congregation ... or he/she may simply accept a call because he/she longs to leave the present church.

This is all about pastoral care ... for the pastor and for the church council. Why are we dealing with so many Article 17s? That's a complex question with an even more complex set of answers. One of them may be that it may be too easy for a person to enter pre-sem and seminary. We seem to have a tough time questioning a person's sense of calling. If a person feels called to the ministry, I know of too many local churches who wouldn't dare question his sense of calling. Instead, they'd encourage this person to apply to the pre-sem program and then hope for the best. Undoubtedly, too many seminary graduates are approved by the Calvin Seminary Board of Trustees and, subsequently, by synod who really shouldn't be in the ministry, or who should enter a very specialized stream such as chaplaincy.

But I digress. I would be a bishop's task to work with regional pastors, Pastor Church Relations, classis and others to identify potential conflict and to step in to attempt to resolve that conflict. Pastor Church Relations is advisory, regional pastors advise local pastors, church visitors can merely advise or suggest. There are just two bodies with authority: a church council can decide to initiate an Article 17 process, and classis has the authority to approve it and to put steps in place which may or may not lead to possible healing. By the time the process reaches classis, it is too late to be reversed. It has reached the point of reconcilable differences.

As I said, it is undoubtedly contrary to Reformed polity, but we need someone with authority to step in to make some tough decisions ... related to the pastor and to the church council.

Imagine having one 'go to' person! Imagine giving the ability to a pastor or a church council to go to that one person with a particular or potential problem, knowing that person has the authority to fix the problem. Today we call in church visitors... who advise ... or the pastor calls the regional pastor, who offers a wonderful listening ear.

The outbreak of Article 17s points out that that isn't enough.

Don't know if I should comment on this too much, but it is interesting that Keith is suggesting this, while term limits for elders are being advocated by DeMoor and the church order.   Theoretically a bishop could work, but then, any system could work if there are no problems.  Having a bishop impose a preacher who was headed in different theological and missional directions, would not be helpful.   I'm also reminded of bishops in another unnamed denomination who simply shuffled child abusers around from place to place.  It would be more useful, if we simply acknowledged that article 17 pastors could be very viable pastors/preachers if they were in the right location,   just as we acknowledge that there are many pastors who have not experienced an article 17 who nevertheless still do not fit in many congregations.  

I would also add that I doubt that any council dealing with article 17 would think it got off scot free.   The trauma, discontent, struggle could often leave permanent scars on council members, which should not be discounted so easily. 

Thank you for this Keith.
I am not confident that having a bishop would address the flood of article 17s. As John points out, denominations that have bishops have their own problems, and I doubt that having a bishop would address all the reasons we see an increase in article 17 separations.  For an analysis of this trend, see Peter Schuurman’s Christian Courier article “Fractured Flocks: A Leadership Crisis in the CRC?”

I do agree, however, that we need some more sustained and long term measures than those available to us now.  Too often when a classis has processed an article 17 separation, we do a lot of hand wringing and say that we ought to do something.  Then our attention shifts to other concerns and we fail to notice that the next sad story is already being written. 

An alternate possibility is that a preacher/pastor is retained for a period of five years.  Then he could be renewed in his term, or perhaps not renewed, depending on the wisdom of the church council.   This would make his term more similar to that of the other ordained elders, who serve for limited terms.  Perhaps we could discuss the pros and cons of such a process.   What would that do for freedom to preach?  for security of position?   for refreshment of ministry?   for a focus on God?  etc. 

I recently spent a couple of weeks in India where their fastest-growing denomination (17 new church plants per DAY!) does exactly that. All pastors are on a five-year term, and that five-year term ends at the same time for all churches within the denomination. Then The Bishop reassigns them and moves them around.

Imagine the strength and wisdom of doing that in a binational denomination! Ministers no longer necessarily stay within a specific state or province. They may get moved from Minnesota to Florida, from Iowa to British Columbia, from Grand Rapids to New Jersey.

Ministers and church councils can find comfort in knowing that they will be working together for five years. Together they can create five-year ministry plans, knowing that at a specific time they will enter the next chapter in their ministry.


Having bishops is not necessarily against Reformed Church polity.

The Hungarian Reformed Church has had bishops since the 16th century.  Incidentally, the Hungarian Reformed Church has also not experienced the splitting, dividing and breaking into pieces that most churches in the Reformed-Presbyterian family of churches have experienced.

There may be some merit in examining a "bishop-like" person within a Classis.

Another possible antidote to all these Article 17's is exploring the idea of a "probational ordination."  By that I mean a candidate who accepts a call would be "on probation" for the first 5 years of ministry.  After 5 years of service and supervision, the probation would be over and full ordination would come into effect.  In ways, it would have some similarity to a residency program within the medical world.

Why do I suggest this?  Because sometimes an Article 17 comes after serving several churches, and things never quite working out.  If this "probational ordination" works properly, it could possibly prevent the full ordination of those who simply are not well-suited for the ministry. 

Keith Knight raises a complex issue, in my view, but if I look only at the issue mentioned in his title - I'm not sure the solution to the problem is limited to the two choices: Article 17 or a bishop.

What if there is another solution, option? What is the solution for churches in which the pastor and the council agree on all issues, yet in the opinion of the broader assembly - the classis - they both made the "wrong" decision?

What if we can we fix the current system, before thinknig of returning to a bishop solution? What if we can help a classis be more intentional in helping out with situations of crisis or disagreement, long before they become a 'done deal'? What if the pastor of the classis, church visitors, synodical deputies, Pastor Church Relations office, etc. get involved earlier in a conflict? What if we design and work on improving all of these available avenues for conflict resolution? What if the denominiation improves the system at this stage of involvement? 

One of the most attractive features of the CRCNA is the equality among church offices, decons, elders and pastors, and that is emphasized by the horizontal understanding of the CRCNA organizational structure, versus a vertical, authoritarian, structure. 

Being an immigrant from Romania, I would like to briefly refer to the situation of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania (HRCR), which has about 700,000 members, and the denomination is led by two bishops.   

The HRCR is struggling with their own structure, in fact, one of the sparks of the popular uprising in December 1989 in Romania was caused by a rift between a pastor and his bishop.  It was a defiant position taken by a Hungarian Reformed priest, Laszlo Tokes, to directly disobey the order of his bishop, Laszlo Papp, who in turn was controlled by the Communist Party.  When a totalitarian system established its reigh and authority over the church, it was easy for the Communist system to control denominaitions with authoritarian, hierarchical leadership structure. Why? Because they only had to control the bishops and all else - decisions made by the bishops - seemed a natural outcome of their own leadership structure.

Furthermore, the power of a bishop is not limited to appointments among the HRCR- although in our case, Keith clearly mentions that he would limie that authority to appointments only.  How can we really limit the authority of a bishop to one single issue, apointing a pastor to a church? Both the church and the pastor have to be under the authority fo the bishop for that to happen.  In the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania, the authority of a bishop extends not only over the church and the pastors, but over the classis, issues, churhc polity, etc. 

Is having a bishop against Reformed church order?

From a historical point of view, I am inclined to consider that a main tenet of the Reformation was to replace the hierarchy of the Roman Church. This effort was particularly clear among the Presbyterians in the British Isles.  

Article 17 is an issue that may indicate the need for a simple solution: the bishop.

However, there are other problems that classis face, and I am not sure if a return to church hierarchy would help the CRCNA deal with Article 17.

Suggestions of a hierarchical system are often made in connection with other issues. At the classis level, an issue could be related to churches that are clearly declining. Article 17 may not be an issue because the pastor and the council are on the same page, and yet the classis may sense that there is nothing it can do because there is no authority of the classis over the council or the pastor. 

Having read Norm's comments and Daniel's, perhaps the use of the term 'bishop' is confusing. I certainly don't advocate a hierarchical structure under a bishop or a series of bishops as is the case with the Hungarian Reformed Church in Eastern Europe. I love our flat CRCNA structure way too much.

We need to find a way to inject a Person of Authority into our structure, sort of like a Multi-Classis Regional Pastor with clout.

A number of our denominational boards have regional representation. Perhaps the expansion of Pastor-Church Relations as a denominational board, with regional representation where each of those regional directors had the kind of authority that P-C Relations can only 'suggest'. Perhaps a Regional Pastor who has the skills to mediate, articulate, suggest and decide when a pastor needs to be moved. This team of regional pastors would need to be well-trained and highly skilled. (This shouldn't be some hobby for a retired pastor)

Today's regional pastors serve as confidantes to pastors. They don't report to classis. They provide a listening ear and they advise the pastor.

So, forget the notion of a bishop. Give Pastor-Church Relations the authority to step in and make significant decisions. Maybe it's as 'simple' as that.

John Zylstra on May 29, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I think you are barking up the wrong tree, Keith.   Local congregations have the authority to decide.   They could decide to accept the advice of a regional pastor advisor even today.   And they could decide to reject the "assumed authority" of a "non-bishop" bishop in the future.   So why not work with what is there? 

Ah, and there's the rub, John. Local councils have the authority. They usually make wise decisions. Sometimes, especially when there are power struggles, they make the wrong decisions. And when they make wrong decisions, despite the 'right advice', the pastor is ousted via Article 17, a congregation may become split over the issue, and a few instigators within a congregation delight in having that power.  I speak generically, without any specific reference to any specific case.

I've chaired a council during a vacancy where one of the first things the new, wise council did was to sit down and write letters of apology to past pastors, confessing that those pastors were mistreated.

If we are content to celebrate the notion that final authority rests with the local council -- and I respect that -- and that nothing needs fixing, then we need to accept that we'll be seeing an avalanche of Article 17s whenever a majority of a local council feels that their minister has been there long enough.

There was a time when the pastor was seen as the shepherd of the local flock, and the sheep followed. We are increasingly witnessing rebellious sheep -- whether justified or not. We are also increasingly seeing pastors who fancy themselves as CEOs of the local church corporation. All of this has the makings of increased conflict. The growth in demand of services from Pastor-Church Relations is witness to that.

The denomination needs to respond with a stronger approach towards pastoral care -- for the health of both pastor and congregation. That needs to happen before we need to become deeply involved in crisis management.


John Zylstra on May 29, 2013

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Keith, I don't know what the grounds for Article 17 have been in all these cases, and it is impossible anyway to comment on circumstances about which one knows nothing, but it would be interesting to know whether the "new wise" council as you put it, was able to convince the old "unwise" council, as you put it, that they had made a mistake.   Now, that doesn't mean that some kind of apology is not appropriate;  often words and communications around these issues could be poor, I am assuming (having never been involved in one).   But as susceptible as the approach is to mistakes, there is no guarantee whatsoever, that a different approach will be susceptible to fewer mistakes.   Was it Churchill who said, "Democracy is the worst of all systems of government, except for every other one."  ?   Not that this is about democracy, but rather about local congregational authority as being original.   If I was bishop, of course I would think it was the best system, because I would never imagine that I could ever make a poor decision.   But perhaps most of us think that, except you, of course.   Just joking a bit, but you see that who is wise and who is unwise is sometimes a matter of debate....  and of course you are right, sometimes it is obvious.   It would be interesting to categorize the various disputes of Article 17:   which were doctrinal, which were personality, lifestyle, work habits, mission and vision disputes, etc.   How many of each type, etc.  

Keith Knight and other commentors: 

Permit me to suggest some constructive guidelines from someone who has "been there and done that" (Retired, former church visitor, pastoral mentor, unofficial "pastor's pastor", and Article 17 casualty).  Two wonderful Christian princilples/goals jump out at me to address the issues you so wisely are raising - Resolution and Reconciliation.  Pastor-church issues need to be resolved, settled and put behind us if meaningful ministry is to be done in the future by all parties.  Reconciliation by mutual agreement is primary (whatever the resolution) as testimony to Christ's Love and Unity in the church.  I also believe a proper understanding of our present Church Order, Article 17 can be made to function even better in both a Christian and Reformed manner.  Therefor I would suggest the following:

1. Some Classis could appoint a classical study committee whose membership would include all facets of extertise appropriate to study this issue, making recommendations for Synodical adoption either via changes to the C.O. 17 or guidelines to govern its use.

2. Such a classical study committee would focus on strengthening and empowering both the classical and synodical approval requirements before any enactment of Article 17 separations.

3. Reformed polity is not congregational even when we say that the essential autority resides with the eldership; but this eldership authority is not defined by just one congregation, but rather by the office of elder as one on all levels - classical and synodical.  For this reason we have required both classical and synodical consent before any final action submitted by a local church.

4. A sudy could be made, as someone else wrote, of the various reasons for proceeding with Article 17 (doctrinal, moral, professional, personality, whatever) of past cases to highlight that not all Article 17 separations are created equally.

5. A study committee could evaluate if there have been any weaknesses in the Article 17 process on several levels:  How much couseling and conflict resolution sessions were there from the beginning?  Was there a failure on the part of regional pastors and the Pastor-Church relations to do all it could do to resolve and reconcile?  Was there a "cooling off period" to avoid premature decision-making?  Did classis properly and adequately participate in the process before making final consent?  How much did the Pastoral Relations try to encourage another church or ministry to give an open door to a minister before being let go?  How much time was given for the pastor to try and find another ministry?  How involved was the entire congregation involved (the silent majority) or was this a "one council decision" not representative of the full body?  Many more questions could be asked.

6. An ad hoc pastoral committee could be appointed by classis, composed of persons with expertise in all the necessary areas to objectively evaluate each situation, give pastoral guidelines, and work toward resolution and reconciliation.  This pastoral committee would give classis reports and finally its recommendation to proceed before any Article 17 may be effected.  Elders rightly "take it slow" in the discipline process (often more from neglect and lack of meaningful counseling and discipling).  Article 17 needs to be slowed down and broadened out to reflect the multitude of counselors among the eldership (church, classis and synodical). 

More could be said.  I empathize with classical delegates, church councils and as I know all too well the personal pain and frustration of seeing such separations take place in the beautiful Body of Jesus Christ.  We can not settle for anything less that the best Resolution and Reconcilation in these matters; and we must see more loving and meaningful corporate involement on the classical and synodical levels regarding Article 17 separations.  I think I hear you saying, and I totally agree - "There has to be a better way - and there is".  In light of the above, I hope we can move ahead and give evidence of Christ's Love and reconciling Spirit among us; plus we are not ignorant of the Devil's devices who rejoioces in unresolved pain, bitterness, abandonment, displacement, and casting aside of many who still desire to serve the Lord and just don't understand what happened.  Lord, give us Wisdom, Love and Unity.


  I guess that's where the Mental Health Toolkit comes into play.  Of course, it's unfair to blame everything on the pastor.  I forwarded the Guide to my church council.

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