I am writing as a pastor. Even though I am retired, I am still involved in pastoral ministry and preaching. As a Synodical Deputy, I have been present at several Article 17 situations, which refers to the severance between a pastor and the congregation he or she serves. Last year there were so many of these separations that two other Synodical Deputies and I sent comments in our report to Synod, which took note of the observations and printed them in the Acts of Synod.
In such situations, the pain for pastors and their families is immense. I cannot even begin to imagine the hurt and disappointment. The hurt in congregations going through these severances is equally painful. It affects all relationships in the congregations involved, and I always shudder at what this does to the young people in such circumstances.
Our Presbyterian form of church government has severe limitations and does not help us much in these situations. Whether it is church visitors, regional pastors, mentors, Pastor-Church Relations or Classes, none have much authority. The primary authority rests with the local consistory. When consistories are weak or inexperienced, difficulties in the congregation are hard to address. Too often when dissatisfaction with the pastor begins to surface, consistories do not address the situation quickly enough. Gradually more and more people leave the congregation, sometimes even the Christian Reformed denomination. Finally Classis gets involved, but the damage is done. When I was ordained, my father said to a few elders, “Now that he is ordained, you still have to make a minister out of him.” Elders, you are in charge and early involvement and mentoring may help in avoiding Article 17 situations.
The increase in pastor/church severance is sometimes attributed to cultural changes. There may be some truth to that, but I do not think it explains everything. Problems usually start with the leadership, not with people at the grassroots level. Thankfully, we have many fine pastors who do their work faithfully. In troublesome situations, however, the pastor bears a large responsibility, and often it comes down to a deficit of people skills. When you do not know how to relate to people, pastoral ministry is not a good fit. At times some have authoritarian attitudes, rather than a servant-like demeanor. Why be called pastor if you want to function like a CEO? Even terminology, such as Lead Pastor and Senior Pastor, hardly fit a Reformed understanding of office. You do not find this language in the Church Order.
General Eisenhower would demonstrate the art of leadership with a simple piece of string. He’d put it on a table and say, “Pull, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push, and it will go nowhere at all.” It works the same way when it comes to leadership. People need and want to follow a person who is leading by example. People do not care how much we know until they know how much we care and love them.
Be ‘Preoccupied with People’
“I am disturbed by the distinction that is consistently made between ‘evangelistic’ and ‘maintenance’ ministry, with a clearly critical attitude against maintenance ministry,” Rev. Martin Geleynse says in The Canadian Story of the CRC (Hofman). I take that criticism rightly to refer to outreach at the expense of the local congregation. It should be both/ and, not either/or.
“Consequently,” Geleynse continues, “young ministers have no clue how to be pastors of the flock. Pastoral visiting is rare or is given to a ‘pastoral care committee’ consisting of an elder and a number of members of the congregation. These fellows do not know what they are missing. We drank gallons of coffee and tea, and I know that not every visit we made was spiritually meaningful. But we knew our people personally, we knew where they lived, we had them into our homes, and we tried our best to build them up in the faith, to help them walk the walk and get them to repent and return to the Lord (when they wandered). We were not preoccupied with ‘mission statements’ and reorganizations. We were preoccupied with people and I firmly believe the church was the better and the stronger for it.”
This is an age where many people often feel lonely. I am pleading with pastors to tune in to this need for belonging. If, as a pastor, I visit someone during the week, that person will listen differently — more openly, more receptively — the following Sunday. If you have difficult people in your congregation, visit them more. Many faithful shepherds already do this. Others need to be reminded that the whole congregation needs pastoral care, not just the sick, shut-ins, seniors and youth.
“A recent social media post by a friend asked whether or not people would be offended by a visit from their pastor,” Michael W. Campbell, professor of historical-theological studies, shared in the July 2013 issue of Ministry, a Seventh-Day Adventist publication.
“Within a short time, more than 100 responses uniformly agreed that some of their most meaningful spiritual moments came from caring pastors during a pastoral visit. Most went on to deplore the fact that pastors today do not visit them at home anymore. Pastoral visits were incredibly influential in shaping my own Christian experience; and now, as a pastor, I see them as essential for staying in touch with the heartbeat of my congregation.”
Pastoral care, of course, must be balanced with solid, biblical, exegetical preaching. Sermons should see the Bible as the covenantal salvation history of redemption with Christ at the centre of every message (Luke 24:27). Preachers, preach enthusiastically (it is a sin to bore people with the Word of God), prophetically, pastorally and in a comforting, encouraging and also challenging way. Topical preaching and especially moralistic preaching impoverishes a congregation. Preach the word faithfully and get to know your people, and everything else usually takes care of itself.
Think of what Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church “. . . we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children” (I Thes. 2:7). And “for you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (I Thes. 2:11, 12).