When a minister and a church decide to separate from one another, they often use a separation agreement to name and commit to key details of the separation. They often build the agreement using a separation agreement template, provided by the denomination. That template went through a number of key changes at Synod 2022.
Curious about the changes? Here's what you need to know:
1. More clarity on what is, and is not, covered by the agreement to confidentiality. A change to article 5, which deals with confidentiality, narrows the confidentiality requirement so that, for both minister and church, it covers only the terms of the separation agreement rather than all of the circumstances and discussions that led up to the separation. This change permits parties to share pertinent and helpful information without disclosing the specific terms of separation that have been agreed upon. It also frees both the church leadership and the minister to be open about whatever mistreatment, misconduct, and abuse may have led to the separation, without worrying about violating the separation agreement.
- New article 5: Minister agrees to maintain the confidentiality of the terms of this agreement and of the non-public matters of Church that came to his/her attention during the course of his/her ministerial service. Church, through its Council, agrees not to disclose the terms of this Agreement.
- Old article 5: Minister agrees to maintain the confidentiality of this agreement and of the non-public matters of Church that came to his/her attention by virtue of his/her ministerial service. Church, through its Council, agrees not to disclose the terms of this Agreement.
2. More clarity on what churches and ministers can say about one another publicly.
Article 6 of the original template was entitled “Non-Disparagement”, and required that the minister and the church not make disparaging comments about one another. Makes sense, right? The problem was that this provision had the effect of closing down a lot of public communication that could have actually been helpful. Councils in particular were afraid to speak clearly with their congregations about why they were separating from their ministers for fear of exposing themselves to legal action. They wondered, “Could this or that statement about the minister violate the non-disparagement requirement?” That ambiguity forced councils to remain silent. For similar reasons, when councils were sorting through situations of pastoral misconduct, they were afraid to speak openly with those who were investigating allegations against the minister (or former ministers). Again, they were concerned that anything they said might qualify as disparagement.
In addition, those who had experienced mistreatment by churches or ministries felt silenced by this provision, unable to expose the harm that had been done to them and the need for institutional reform out of fear that they might violate the non-disparagement clause. For some ministers, in being asked to sign such an agreement, it felt like their silence was being bought.
The new article 6, entitled “Public Communications”, narrows the prohibition against all disparaging disclosures, and now focuses only on false disclosures. This change allows councils to speak truthfully and forthrightly with, for example, their congregations about the reasons for the releases of their ministers. It certainly can reduce the amount of fear that councils can experience in such situations. It also allows ministers to speak truthfully and forthrightly to others who might wonder about the circumstances of their leaving.
- New article 6: Public Communications: Minister agrees not to make, or encourage others to make, false statements about a church, classis, or the CRCNA. The church, through its council, agrees not to make, or encourage others to make, false statements about the minister.
- Old article 6: Non-Disparagement: Minister agrees not to make disparaging comments about a church, classis, or the CRCNA. The church, through its council, agrees not to make disparaging comments about the minister.
Of course, this change comes with a tradeoff. The proposed revision might permit public disclosures that, while thought by ministers or councils to be true, may actually be false. After all, sometimes understandings of what is “true” and “false” can vary from person to person. However, the benefit that is gained by this change seems to outweigh the risk that comes with it. Furthermore, this provision compels pastors and councils to seek to do their best to act honorably toward each other.
3. Expanded introductory materials.
The revised template also has an expanded introduction, primarily in the form of some basic principles to guide the use of the template. Legal experts consulted in the drafting of the new template indicated such principles could explain the goals of the separation agreement template. In addition, the few principles now offered provide a Biblically-shaped vision that takes the place of what might otherwise be pages of detailed legal sounding text.
4. A new name!
The old template was called a “termination agreement template” while the new version is called a “separation agreement template”. Why might “separation” be a better word? Because it seems to align more closely with our understanding of ordination and the intent of Church Order article 17, the article under which such separations are usually processed. Article 17 provides a way for an ordained minister to continue to live under the call of God to ministry in general (and to retain his/her ministerial credentials) while concluding the specific call to a particular congregation. The word “termination” might better fit a situation in which a minister actually leaves ministry altogether, not just a particular congregation, usually after being placed under special discipline (Church Order articles 82-84).
Why the changes?
This revision has its roots in an overture to Synod 2018, which raised awareness about abuse of power in the church, and asked synod to act on behalf of victims and potential victims (Agenda for Synod 2018, pp. 282-307). Synod 2018 responded by appointing a small team to “bring recommendations through the Council of Delegates to Synod 2019 regarding how the CRCNA can best address the patterns of abuse at all levels of the denomination.” (Acts of Synod 2018, p. 523)
That small team did so, and Synod 2019 then asked the executive director to “develop good practices and protocols on the use of NDAs [nondisclosure agreements] for distribution to classes and councils when faced with situations that might lead to the use of a nondisclosure agreement.” (Acts of Synod 2019, p. 797)
The new Separation Agreement Template, now approved by Synod 2022, is one of the ways to accomplish this task. It addresses the fact that the original template contained a provision, the original article 6, that had the effect of being a nondisclosure provision. By simplifying the requirement, so that churches and ministers are simply prohibited from speaking falsely about one another, it creates space for the kind of honesty and transparency that leads to repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and ultimately, healthier ministers and churches.
To see the new separation agreement template, please click on this link: Separation Agreement Template
For more information on the Article 17 process, the process in which this template is used, please click on this link: Article 17 Guidance