Fractured flocks: A leadership crisis in the CRC?

Why pastor-church separations are escalating, and how to move beyond the hurt to healing and hope.

Pastor Y was called to a particular CRC to replace a long-serving minister. He and his council were leading the congregation through some necessary changes.

“I just got burned out, dealing with more and more negative feedback,” says Pastor Y. “I even had some elders say to me, ‘Whatever you do, you can’t be a minister.’ Others came and visited me and swore strong support of my ministry. It was very confusing and discouraging. After the Article 17, I was plagued by self-doubt, asking myself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and asking God, ‘What do you have to say about this?’ My wife felt helpless – wanting to make it better but being powerless to do so.”

“Article 17” is a section of the CRC church order that describes the process for the release of a pastor from ministry in a congregation. While colloquially assumed to be a “no-fault divorce” following a breakdown of relationships, former Canadian Ministries Director Rev. Bruce Adema reminded me “not all Article 17s are unhappy; sometimes it’s a matter of a pastor moving to a different calling, with no negative implications on either the congregation or the minister.”

However, if the number of such ministry releases ebbs and flows over the decades, we are currently experiencing a tidal wave in the CRCNA. Data obtained from the Candidacy Office in Grand Rapids reveals a stunning 580 percent increase since the 90s in ministers ending their tenure with a congregation via Article 17a. There were 24 such incidents through the 1980s, 25 in the 90s and 146 in the 2000s. Statistics for the next decade are looking even more dreary.

“There have been a dozen Article 17s in my seven classes in the last year,” said Eastern Canada’s Home Missions Regional Leader Rev. Adrian VanGiessen, “and there are three more potential separations that I am aware of in process right now.” These statistics do not include those leaving their charges via Article 14, which indicates, perhaps more seriously, that the minister’s calling itself is in question and involves both honourable and dishonourable forms of discharge (these numbers tripled in the last decade from 11 to 30 cases). The statistics furthermore do not reveal – and thus Synod and CRC congregations do not know – of the many instances in which a pastor leaves his church on bad terms without going through Article 14 or 17. They escape through a call to another church or retire.

This journalistic essay, however, is not about church articles as much as it is about the pastor-church tensions they reflect. We know church conflicts are not a new thing. Paul admonishes the body of Christ in Corinth: “You are still worldly. As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, you are worldly and living by human standards, aren’t you?” (1 Cor 3:3 ISV). And Corinth wasn’t the only New Testament church upset by internal strife.

Why a crisis now?

Why the sharp upswing in failed church-pastor relations? The issue is certainly complex, and interviews with denominational leaders, pastors and members reveal numerous reasons, indicating more of a crisis of cultural expectations than of leadership per se.

For one thing, the denomination as a whole is in decline, and a sinking tide rocks all boats. “Anxiety in congregations too often leads to reactionary and uncharitable behaviour,” says Jack Tacoma, a Home Missions church coach in Eastern Canada. Pastors can be scapegoats for demographic shifts, generational change and downturns in the life-cycle of a congregation. It’s easier to appear heroic when standing on the helm of a ship that is riding the wave of growth and expansion.

Some would insist that pastors bear more responsibility for current troubles. They are lingering longer in congregations, sometimes because of the needs of their children or spouse’s job rather than the needs of the congregation. “The days of the itinerant ‘Suitcase John’ are gone,” said one church leader. Pastors want to buy and sell real estate with a good market; they want more benefits and less pastoral care work.

“It wasn’t his preaching,” said a congregation member. “It was his attitude. He just didn’t seem to care about the people in the congregation. He cared more about his boundaries. We lost half our members under his watch.”

In fact, a pastor’s release from ministry may be a symptom of congregational issues rather than a reflection of a pastor’s abilities. Mark Chaves’ book on religious trends has a graph illustrating “confidence in organized religion” and since the 1970s the graph line just plummets down – more so for religion than for other institutions. People are more skeptical and the church has been culturally marginalized. The old denominational loyalty has been challenged by consumer preferences, and congregational members are leveraging their wishes more and more with their wallets and feet. Pastor Y said to me: “There are so many differing expectations from members – some even completely contradictory – I emptied myself out trying to be all things to all people.”

David Brooks, a popular and wise New York Times columnist, has opined about a general “Follower Problem.” That is to say, our culture is quick to “question authority” (as the bumper sticker says) bypassing the notion of legitimate authority. “People are cynical and like to pretend they are better than everything else around them,” he remarks. “Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.” A narcissistic celebrity culture infiltrates both pulpit and pew and eclipses the servanthood model of Scripture; we swim in anti-institutional currents.

We can lament this cultural shift, as many clergy did in my interviews. “The church is not just a business and the pastor is not just an employee,” they said. “We have lost the authority of ministerial office.” Still, we ought to equally consider that the congregation is not just an audience, and Jesus is not just a figurehead. We are all priests under Christ.

Besides, it would be difficult to call people back to a reinvigorated clericalism, reminiscent of the entitled “dominee.” One denominational leader suggested to me that some seminary professors may be instilling ministry candidates with the notion of “positional leadership” – a deferential view of authority based on hierarchical assumptions. Ministers, however, are no longer the sole educated member of the congregation, and may even have less education and experience in church order or leadership than many lay members. John Witvliet has said on occasion that we are experiencing a monumental change in 3,500 years of Judeo-Christian religious history: the rise of the lay leader in worship. If a pastor approaches leadership as an “expert” who leverages his or her positional authority, he is often setting himself up for a power struggle. Many congregations are steeped in the new network culture, and pastors need to learn collaborative “relational leadership” skills (EQ) if they want to thrive in a “priesthood of all believers” congregation.

The authors of Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Eerdmans, 2005) surveyed over 900 ex-ministers to find that church conflict is a leading cause for pastors to leave the ministry, and the most common cause of conflict is the “pastoral leadership style.” Authoritarian or arbitrary leadership styles have become less acceptable: “Clergy who are new to a given community need to prove their wisdom and leadership through their actions; they cannot expect to be accepted as community leaders a priori.”

An internet age undoubtedly exacerbates these tensions. Redeemer University College chaplain Dr. Syd Hielema pointed out that in an electronic world, seekers can live-stream or podcast their favourite all-star preachers, making it “hard for the local Joe to compete.” CRC folks electronically connect with resources outside their tradition – whether they have a preference for evangelical, liberal or Catholic spiritualities, they can nurture what Hielema called “niche identities” on-line; this makes a local CRC congregation a very diverse group!

One pastor reported that a critical congregation member sent him sermons from the mega-pastor Charles Price, saying “Now this is anointed preaching!” Couple that virtual spiritual influence with the dissolving of ethnic glue, and the preacher is the only symbol of unity left for a congregation: he or she is the pressure point for a group of people with less in common than they assume.

Mark Chaves’ book offers some sobering conclusions at the end of his chapter on leadership: “I would not say that religious leadership faces a time of acute crisis. I would say, however, that the broad picture portrays a professional group that has lost ground in recent decades when it comes to its reputation, social prominence and attractiveness as a career choice for young people. These trends are long-term, and it is difficult to see how they might be reversed.”

The positive side is two-fold: first of all, leadership implosion is not just a CRCNA ailment – it’s symptomatic of the mainstream church in the West. Secondly, I would argue that the de-professionalization of the clergy offers an opportunity for shared servant leadership in the church.

The hurt

The statistics do not reveal the gut-wrenching hurt that is caused when relations between congregations and their ministers break down. Morale takes a nose-dive, and the energy is zapped from the congregation as additional meetings pile up and ministry takes a back seat. Council members are flooded with letters laced with grief, anger and even threats. Marriages are tested as spouses return from recurring late night meetings. Says one leader: “A few of our elders almost lost their businesses while managing the conflict.” A dark cloud hangs over Sunday mornings, and the lack-luster singing reveals the strain.

“It’s been so hurtful,” reported one female member of a congregation that released their pastor under Article 17. “I’m crying inside because some of the outreach things we worked so hard on are dying. It’s not the way God wanted us to live together.” A member of the local community of another church asked, “Why are you letting your pastor go? Will you still help with our neighbourhood program?” Church witness suffers.

Another woman spoke of the shock and anger in some members who were not part of the process. Then she was elected to the council and “it became quite clear that it is in the best interest of all not to make details of the conflict public.” Personnel matters require confidentiality to mitigate gossip and protect reputations.

Ministers tell stories of members accosting them right after the service with their complaints and at times crude remarks. Anecdotes are easy to find of pastors being bullied, harassed and stymied by councils or individuals who cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. A retired colleague shockingly told one young pastor: “De dominee is het piespaaltje van de gemeente” meaning “the minister is the fire hydrant [‘pisspost’] of the congregation.” They feel over-worked and underappreciated, and still they have to go up to the pulpit and maintain grace and composure while teaching about the good news of God’s redeeming work in Jesus. Ordained ministry can be a very lonely experience.

One CRC congregation is working through the aftermath of a messy end to their pastor’s tenure. A transition team has been doing congregational surveys, hosting meetings and sending reports to the membership. One section of a report is entitled “Bullying,” and it claims the topic was often named in congregational feedback. “Bullying rears its ugly head when insults wound another, when intimidation occurs or someone tears another down, and when hurtful words are spoken . . . . Bullying negates the Biblical model to love one another and build one another up, to think of others better and higher than yourself and to sacrificially serve them as Jesus did.” Fear – of change or of no change – casts out love.

The healing

The story doesn’t always end with hurt. Some congregations bring as many resources to bear as they can find, including denominational help from the Pastor-Church Relations Office, Shalem Mental Health Network, external leadership reviews and classis visitors. Sometimes this extends the process and pain, but often it clarifies things and moves them forward. Severance packages can be offered and both sides part ways with less rancor than would otherwise happen. But money is not a solution to these struggles.

One pastor told me how he resigned due to exhausting irresolvable conflict about leadership expectations. After classis sealed his parting with the congregation, a few people felt remorse, and formal reconciliation circles were engaged with specific members that had caused hurt. Reconciliation does not require that employment continue; sometimes it’s easier after the dust has settled on the practical issues.

Wounded pastors have many options in terms of restoring their sense of vocation, confidence and soulfulness. Retreat Centres are available for those with the time and funds to rehabilitate: CRC pastors can get assessments at Pine Rest in Grand Rapids or attend retreats at places like Quiet Waters and Pastors on Point, both in Colorado. There are also “Epic Fail Pastors Conferences” at different locations in the U.S. On a more preventative note, Dr. Syd Hielema says many pastors today are intentionally seeking a coach or mentor to “sturdify” them for the challenges they face.

Wounded congregations can become pastor-shy and become extremely cautious after a difficult experience with a pastor. They limp along, seeking time to heal and re-evaluate their vision and mission before trying again. This is a good idea – it’s better than catching another pastor on the rebound, but if done systemically, it slows the circulation of pastors through congregations.

“We need to covenant together to do things differently,” explained Rev. Martin Contant, Home Missions leader for Western Canada. “Many churches fuss around with technical change (tweaking this, slightly changing that) when they need to engage in adaptive change (where we know we need to change but don’t have all the answers yet).” In other words, technical change means writing up a congregational covenant of restorative practice and passing it through council. Adaptive change means shifting congregational culture so that members naturally live out the values of restorative practice in their regular church life.

The hope

Pastor Y (mentioned at the beginning of this article) is doing some healthy post-mortem reflection on his life and God’s church.

“Since the article 17 process, God has affirmed in a variety of ways that he has further ministry in store for me. No one is going to be a perfect pastor. I look at the characters of the Bible, like Joseph. He was pretty arrogant, and I don’t think God wanted to use him with the attitude he had growing up. He needed to go through the experience in the pit, in slavery and in prison, so God could use him in great ways. I am a work in progress, and I’m confident that God still has better things ahead.”

Life beyond the pit comes by grace and involves earnest soul searching. Institutionally speaking, denominational leaders need to sound the alarm and impress ministers and congregational leaders with the urgency of the issues, although ironically denominational leadership itself has been in the throes of conflict and transition. The disease is perniciously systemic: the stories described here are intensely local in their experience, but the painful reality is a widespread pandemic of leadership breakdown. The CRC church in North America is mixed up in the brokenness of the world, and we urgently need to align ourselves and our communities with God’s redemptive power in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

We may be inclined to mine the wisdom of business management, offer therapeutic advice or borrow ideas from other traditions we see flourishing. To truly thrive, however, we need to be energized by our own confessional, missional, kingdom of God tradition. How does our Reformed institution-building DNA translate to a networked consumer age? We are being invited in this crisis to bring our Biblical imagination to bear on a new cultural landscape. As we experiment, where do we resist, where do we embrace and where do we transform our context? Regardless, we must trust that our identity and mission as the body of Christ will strengthen us for the adaptive challenges of the day.

Practically speaking, we can put additional supports in place to help minimize the damage. Former Canadian Ministries Director Rev. Bruce Adema says that the CRC may needs a more robust system for handling church-pastor conflicts. “We might benefit by having a bishop-like figure, someone with an accountable form of authority to enter and defuse these situations. They could meet with the council and pastor and gently remove the pastor if necessary. Presbyterians have it in the power of their classis (presbytery) to do so; in the Salvation Army, they have a higher ranking officer with that role. We only have two specialists in these matters. We need one for every classis.” Former CRC campus ministers Neil and Virginia Lettinga, for example, have worked with congregations in B.C. that are between pastors.

Most importantly, on the level of congregational culture, we need to learn how to manage conflict in a healthy way. The old CRC consensus on worship and ministry has given way to a new internal pluralism and we can anticipate encountering differences on every aspect of church life. Yet a diverse unity can replace the old uniformity – if we explicitly negotiate our expectations; if we make prayer, listening and trusting our first reflex rather than protest, power-brokering and blame; and if we take the posture of each other’s teachable student. This may be the greatest test of our Christian practise: if in spite of the pain we forgive each other in love and move forward in ministry.

“The Scriptural call keeps on telling us, ‘Do not fear,’” encourages Bill VanGroningen, chaplain at Trinity Christian College in Chicago. “And to instead sow in tears now so that we may reap with joy later. That takes courage of conviction. A living in faith and hope.” 

Each Art. 17 unique

“Someone once commented, ‘When you’ve seen one Article 17, you’ve seen one Article 17.’ It’s true that no two situations are precisely alike. The range of situations covered by this single article in the Church Order is immense: from painful and lamentable to simply circumstantial or purely personal.”

– Cecil Van Niejenhuis, “The Scarlet Number” (The Banner Feb. 17, 2012)

Priesthood of believers

“Open the pulpit to laity,” said one male congregant. “The clergy is too possessive of the pulpit.” Statistics show pastors are no longer “the brightest and best” among us: Mark Chaves writes in American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton, 2010) that the GRE scores of ministers are way down from decades ago. Apparently the ministry is a less attractive profession (20 percent of freshmen expected to go into clergy during the Civil War, in 1960 it was 1 percent and now it’s 0.3 percent in the U.S.). The clergy is aging (on average, with more women and more second career candidates). To be sure, a minister’s intelligence and age are not as important as his character, competence and conviction, but the profession is radically changing.  

P. Shuurman

Return to your ‘Call’

The frequency of dismissing a pastor has certainly increased and this is a lament. In order to prevent this from happening it is important for a council to have an annual and ongoing review of the “job description,” the Letter of Call, to evaluate the actual performance of the pastor involved. This particular excellent tool is often ignored or overlooked because in many cases councils do not know exactly how to go about such evaluations. Please consult in this case with Church Visitors assigned by classis in order to come up with a good review system.
A growing awareness needs to be developed in order to stem the tide that has resulted in so many Article 17 cases. We need continued wisdom, willingness and a desire to function as a solid team where true shepherding can take place in order that the “flock” can be edified and built up to be and become a mature body in Jesus Christ, the Head and Chief Shepherd of the Flock.

– Henry Numan is pastor emeritus in Vancouver, B.C.


  • Peter Schuurman

    Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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