From One Church to Another
A minister, once lawfully called, shall not leave the Church to which he is bound to take up the ministry elsewhere without the consent of the consistory with the deacons and the approval of classis.
On the other hand, no Church shall receive him unless he has presented a proper certificate of release from the Church and the classis where he served, or of the Church only, if he remains within the same classis.
When a minister accepts a call to a church, he has to realize that he will stay there and serve this church for as long as he is in active service. This shows that he must know very well what he is doing when accepting a call. It shows also that a church is to act very cautiously, too, when extending a call. No call should be extended unless the consistory has made some thorough investigation. It is not nearly sufficient or adequate to go by a recording of one or two sermons or by a list of questions answered by one brother.
It happens repeatedly that a call is extended after the consistory and the congregation have listened to a few sermons and after a reply has been received from a member of the minister's congregation. This is an insufficient basis on which to extend a call. Too little it is realized that the bond between a minister and a church is a bond for life. Things should be considered in a thorough manner. It is better to spend quite an amount of time and money to send two brothers to investigate in person than to go by a few pieces of information as mentioned above.
Two brothers delegated to gather information can speak with several members of the congregation and thus can “examine” a cross-section of the members and receive a better overall picture. There are always members who will defend and praise their minister irrespective of whether he is to be defended and praised or not. Likewise, on the other side, there will always be members who criticize whatever the minister does, and in whatever manner he does it. Personal visits and investigation will enable the consistory to receive a better, more accurate picture.
Besides, when a list of questions is sent, a consistory will never receive complete information. The reason is not in the first place that the brother who answers the questions is not able to give complete and accurate information, but that he is not prepared to entrust his honest opinion to paper. Archives have the nasty habit of preserving and producing at the most inopportune moment information and letters that should have been reduced to ashes as soon as the addressees had taken note of their contents.
Oral communication and personal discussions are far more fruitful than a few cassettes and letters. So much depends on factual information: once
a minister is there, he is there to stay, and a consistory should never have to accuse itself of having neglected gathering accurate and sufficient information, if things turn sour.
Ministers of the Word are not infallible; they are just as sinful in themselves as the congregation they are serving. For this reason it is wise to gather as much information as possible before extending a call. If things turn sour, a minister could say, “They could have asked all sorts of information about me; they could have known or even did know who I was and how my work was; yet they called me. Now that they are stuck with me, they have no right to complain.” Such a saying, though it may show a lack of true piety, may have more than a grain of truth in it.
On the other hand, a minister should gather as much information as he is able to collect about the church from which he received a call. He, on his part, is to be aware of it that, if he accepts, he does not go there for just three or five or ten years, but that it is for life. The fact that he may receive a call from another church after some years should be not be an element in his considerations. The congregation does not know whether their (new) minister will ever be called by another church; the minister does not know whether he will have a possibility of “moving on.” For the present both have to live with what is known at the moment: the bond is to last for the rest of the minister’s life.
Sometimes, when a congregation was not all that enthusiastic about its minister and saw that there was little chance that he would ever receive a call, it used to be said, “He brought his shovel along.” This meant: he will stay here till his grave is dug and he is buried. In essence, this applies to all ministers, and they, too, had better realize it.
Permitted to Leave
From the above it has already become clear that a minister is allowed to leave the church he is serving to take up the ministry elsewhere. This does not mean, however, that it may happen that on a certain morning the congregation discovers that their minister is gone, lock, stock and barrel, and hears later on that he is now serving the church at A. There is more to it.
The decision to accept a call is the minister's and his alone. He does not need any permission from anyone to accept a call.
Still, upon receiving a call a minister will not only consult the consistory of the calling church but also “his own” consistory. A minister who takes a call seriously will desire as much input as he can obtain. When accepting the call to his present congregation, he confirmed thereby: “I believe that this is the place where the Lord wants me to work in His vineyard.” Thus he cannot ignore the input from his congregation and its consistory now that another church has called him. From both, the congregation and the consistory he will request arguments and reasons why he should decline or accept the call.
The decision, however, is and remains his alone. Once he has come to the conclusion that he must accept the call, he will submit his decision and reasons for it to the consistory and request the consistory to release him
from his service in that church. The consistory does not have to agree for the full 100% with its minister's reasons for accepting the call; all they have to do is see whether there are overriding objections to their acquiescing in their minister’s decision.
This is not the place to elaborate on various reasons a consistory might have for a refusal to do so. Let it suffice to state that they must be quite serious reasons. Trying to convince a minister that he should stay and adducing all sorts of arguments for that is by far not the same as refusing permission to leave once the decision has been made. Depending on the circumstances, such a refusal might even render a fruitful further cooperation practically impossible.
When the consistory has given its approval to its minister to follow up the call, it will ask the convening church for the next classis to place on the agenda: “Approbation of acceptance of the call to A. by the Rev. B.” If it takes too long before a classis is held, a “classis contracta” will be requested.
Why is classical approval needed? In the first place, when classical approval is needed, the sister churches keep watch over each other to see whether any irregularities are found either in the acceptance of the call by the minister or in the acquiescence by the consistory.
Secondly, living within one federation together brings its privileges but also its obligations. Some of the privileges are that a church may have a counsellor during a vacancy or that a church may receive pulpit supply from ministers in a classis. These privileges affect the other churches, too. It could very well be that there are quite a few vacancies in the classis and that the loss of another minister would have rather serious consequences for all kinds of work. Taking an extreme case: if of the eight churches seven were vacant, would it then be a responsible act if the one remaining minister accepted a call and left? In such a case classical approval should be refused, unless the situation elsewhere is even worse.
Privileges and responsibilities always go together. There are always two “parts” in a covenant. The sister churches will experience the effects of a minister’s departure from the area: one may have to permit its minister to become counsellor of the vacant church, perhaps to teach catechism classes there; pulpit supply will be requested by and given to the vacant church, etc. Briefly, the sister churches have to judge also whether a departure will not affect them too adversely.
If there are no overriding objections, classical approval of the minister’s departure will be given. As proof that he is allowed to take up the ministry elsewhere he receives a document from consistory as well as from classis. There is, understandably, contact between the two consistories affected by the acceptance of the call. Various matters will have to be arranged, the most important one being the moment at which the minister will be released from the one church and come to the charge of the other church. Everyone will realize that this moment has to be determined precisely. A ministerial family) may not be “in limbo” for a few days or even hours. Who is to provide for his needs if he should become disabled in the interim period between his “farewell sermon” and his installation in the new church? Who would take
care of the family if he passed away in that period? These are distinct possibilities. Usually the moment of the “switch-over” is set at 12:01 a.m. on a mutually agreed-upon date.
Generally speaking, once a minister has accepted a call, he should not wait too long with following it up. The awareness that he is going to leave anyway will affect his ability to work effectively in every respect. This is not to say that there will be an express and conscious neglect of duty. It is a simple truth that the impending departure dominates his whole position and thoughts from the moment of acceptance on.
Besides, the longer he stays, the more he may affect the efforts to obtain another minister.
What happens when a minister says, “Yes,” and a consistory says, “No?” In case of a conflict the matter will have to be brought to classis, to ask the judgment of the sister churches, and thus to get out of an impasse. Things must have gone quite far when such a situation arises, but the possibility is there. Submitting the whole matter to the judgment of the classical sister churches may solve the difficulties in this respect.
Although classical approval is needed also when a minister accepts a call from a church within the same area, no certificate of release is to be issued on the classical level: the churches in the region are not affected by the change to the same extent as they would if he had left the region. The minister remains in their midst.