If a minister of the Word is judged unfit and incapable of serving the congregation fruitfully and to its edification, without there being any reason for Church discipline, the consistory with the deacons shall not dismiss him from his service within the congregation without the approbation of classis and the concurring advice of the deputies of regional synod, and not without proper arrangements regarding the support of the minister and his family for a reasonable period of time.
If no call is forthcoming in three years, he shall be declared released from his ministerial status by the classis in which he served last.
With Art. 11 we deal with one of the sad and deplorable fruits of our fall into sin. Although we are told in God’s Word that we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, yet we discover time and again that we live in a broken world and that even in the church of Christ there are situations in which we have to come to the conclusion: “Here fruitful cooperation is no longer possible.” Most of the times when such a situation occurs it will be impossible to determine where the larger part of the cause for it is to be sought.
Generally speaking, the churches are very patient with their ministers and the congregations bear very patiently with the weaknesses and shortcomings of their pastors and teachers. In every congregation there are members in whose view almost no one can do any good and who criticize practically everything a minister does. We are not speaking of them, but of the large majority of the membership. Reformed people have learned to esteem their ministers highly because of their work. That is the overall picture.
In spite of this it can happen and does happen that the relation between a congregation and its minister deteriorates to such an extent that fruitful cooperation is no longer possible. Perhaps the minister could serve elsewhere with good results, but in his own congregation it cannot be done. Everything the minister says and does rubs all but a few in the congregation the wrong way, and every word or deed on the part of the large majority of the congregation ruffles the minister’s feathers.
One could say, of course, that this is sinful and that repentance is needed — and no one will deny this. Everyone can also be assured that both within the circle of the consistory as well as with the help of Church Visitors and others it has been tried to remedy the situation, but ultimately the conclusion must be: “We are faced with an impossible situation.” Continuing under the present circumstances would practically amount to self-destruction for the minister as well as for the congregation, to put it bluntly. No one can bear such tension.
The minister has to prepare and deliver two sermons every Lord’s Day, has to face and teach the young people at catechism classes, has to visit
and meet the members in their homes. If he feels that there is a general animosity towards him, it will become utterly impossible for him to continue. Who would be able to proclaim the Word of God from the pulpit with joy and dedication if he were faced with an essentially hostile audience? Delivering a sermon from the pulpit is not the same as delivering a speech at a political rally with a booing and jeering audience! The congregation may not interrupt a sermon — although this has happened as well — but a minister senses it whether there is contact with his hearers and whether the hearts are open to the message.
On the other hand, the congregation has to listen to him twice a Sunday and they may detect personal barbs in what he is saying from the pulpit. They may have had serious clashes with him during the week and then discover that in the sermon they are being castigated from the pulpit in a very personal manner. They have to receive the minister in their homes, to submit to his admonitions if he has to admonish, while his words of comfort will not hit home either because of the personal relationship.
Such a situation does not arise overnight but is the result of a long and sad development. When it does exist, there is not much human beings can do. Our conclusion must be: the only solution is that their ways part.
If there is reason for discipline, if there is false doctrine on the part of the minister, or if there is a serious sin in his life, the way of dismissal may not be chosen. Then the only course open is disciplinary action: suspension and, if no repentance follows, deposition from office. What Art. 11 refers to and covers is a situation in which no specific sin is present which would warrant and necessitate disciplinary action.
As everyone can understand, a deteriorating situation also brings with it that not all words that are spoken to each other are pure and that not every gesture is of a friendly nature. Many sins will be committed when things go from bad to worse. These are not the things meant here. What should be clear is that the way of dismissal is not permitted to be a method of escaping discipline and the need for suspension. It may not be a pretext.
If there is no reason for discipline because of a specific sin which renders one worthy of suspension, release or dismissal is the only solution. Certainly, a minister is called for life, but when a consistory has come to the conclusion that for both parties the way of separation is the only solution, the minister is released from his call and will, from the moment when the dismissal becomes effective, no longer be subject to the call from the church. In fact, from that moment on he no longer has a call. A consistory does not issue a call to be “minister-for-life.” It has no right to do so. A consistory issues a call to serve as minister in that particular church, there to serve for life, indeed, but only for as long as he is subject to its call, not as a minister-for-life regardless whether he has a bond with that specific church or not. Thus, when the minister is released from the call by that particular church, he no longer has a call to be a minister.
A consistory with the deacons will not lightly come to such a decision and will have explored every other possible avenue to bring about a reversal of the situation. However, the consistory not only has the responsibility for the
minister, it also has to keep the welfare and interests of the whole congregation in view. The brothers are not allowed to sacrifice the minister for the sake of the congregation, but by the same token they are not allowed to sacrifice the congregation for the sake of the minister either.
Certain safeguards must be observed. Before a decision to dismiss the minister becomes effective, classical approval must be obtained. Regional-synodical deputies must be present as well and they must agree that this is the only solution. Most likely the sister churches were already well-informed about the situation and church visitors will have reported at one or more classes about their efforts to help remove the difficulties. A thorough examination of the situation is needed when the request for approval is received.
When an agreement and consent have been achieved, the minister is released from the call of the congregation to serve as its pastor and teacher, and the bond which was established with his installation is severed. The minister no longer has a congregation and the congregation is vacant.
For a long time it could be expected that this would be the end of a long and sad development. Perhaps the minister, seeing the “solution” coming, and realizing that he would have to provide for his own needs and those of his family, has already been thinking about ways and means to do this. He will realize that the possibilities of receiving a call from another church are very slim indeed. The Reformed pattern of church government does not allow for an hierarchically arranged transfer to another church. Thus the moment will come that he is completely on his own.
A Reasonable Period of Time
The moment after which he has to provide for his family does not arrive right away. Since no one-sided blame is laid on either party, it would be unjust if the ministerial family were left without any support as of the moment of dismissal. The churches have therefore made the provision that proper arrangements are to be made for the support of the minister and his family for a reasonable period of time.
Here we speak of “proper arrangements,” no longer of “proper support.” Strictly speaking, from the very moment of his dismissal the brother has no longer any right to support. He is no longer subject to the call of the church, is no longer its minister, and in this case it no longer applies that “the labourer is worthy of his hire.” For the sake of preventing hardships, however, and in order to give him time to adjust to the new situation and earnestly to look for other employment for which some preparation may be necessary, he will be supported for a reasonable period of time.
No definite period of time is set. Much will depend on further developments. Should the brother be able to obtain employment right away, the support ceases as soon as he receives income from that employment. In case he prepares himself for another position by further study, it is reasonable that he receives such a support which enables him to complete these studies. What should definitely be avoided, however, is: making his position a permanent one and providing him with support for the rest of his life. This is
something that the churches warned against in the past. It would be unjust towards the church as well.
Since no one-sided blame was laid on the brother, it is fair that he should receive some support for a reasonable period of time. However, the same applies to the church: since no one-sided blame was laid on the church either, it is fair that the obligation to support should end after a reasonable period of time. In the world they would say, “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” In the church the rule applies: “No different measures, no different weights.”
The best method would be to apply a sliding scale, with the support being reduced according to a fixed schedule. A period of three years appears reasonable, although in exceptional situations it could either be extended for a year or two, or reduced, depending on the circumstances of both the church and the brother.
What is the brother's position after his dismissal? Is he still a minister or has he lost all the rights and privileges that come with this office? In our discussion of previous articles we already pointed to the fact that the Reformed confessions do not know of an ordination which keeps its power irrespective of whether the call is still there. No “indelible character” of priesthood or of ministerial status is imparted when one is ordained. When the call to serve is taken back or has expired, one is no longer an elder or a minister.
Strictly speaking, therefore, one who has been dismissed can no longer be considered a minister. The Reformed Churches know neither ministers-in-general-service, nor ministers who retain their status their life long even though they are not (or no longer) subject to the call of a church.
Yet the churches have agreed that the brother who has been dismissed shall retain his ministerial status for three years. One could justly call this an inconsistency, and ask what basis exists to support such a provision. The consideration behind this provision is, again, the fact that no one-sided blame was put on the brother on the one hand, and that his position should definitely not become a permanent one, on the other hand.
Three years is a reasonable period of time. It provides the opportunity for him to become known to the other churches (if this was not yet so), possibly to change the things which were a reason for the alienation in the first place, and to prepare himself for another position. At the same time it gives room for the bitterness which undoubtedly did arise during the years of controversy and clashes to subside, and for both parties to look at the whole development from a distance. Time may not heal all wounds — only the grace and mercy of our Lord and Saviour and the power of the Holy Spirit can achieve that — but time certainly has a mitigating effect.
Three years also give ample time for other churches to call the brother, if they so desire. If, however, no call is forthcoming in those three years, he “shall be declared released from his ministerial status.” No permanent position should be created.
Since it was a classis that declared the brother eligible for call, and since it was a classis that admitted him into the ministry and approved the call extended to him, it is a classis that is to declare him released from his ministerial status. No one will be surprised that it has been stipulated that this must be done by a classis of the district in which he served last. This classis is not called upon or allowed to discuss the question whether they shall make this declaration. It is clearly stated here that it shall be done if the condition exists that no call has been received. No classis would have the right to extend a period which has been fixed by the churches in general.
The possibility always exists that later on a church desires to call the brother to become its minister. In that case he would have to be declared eligible for call again and to be examined with a view to this. Having lost his ministerial status, he finds himself on a level with all other members and will (again) have to follow the regular path to the ministry.