Ministers who resign

Every year Christian denominations see a slow, but sad, trickle of ministers leave their ranks by premature resignation. They leave for a variety of reasons, but often because of marriage break-up, serious moral lapses (usually sexual), and severe disagreement over denominational (but not necessarily gospel) distinctives like baptism and the like. It is a waste, in both human and Christian terms. It is a waste, not only of three of four years intensive training at tertiary level, and ten years or so of practical ministry, but it also means starting again near the bottom of life, around age forty, with incredible heartache and pain amongst family, friends and congregation, and mud on the public face of the gospel.

And it provokes the question, who cares for these people before they fall?

Discounting for a moment the obvious element of wilful sinfulness in these cases, it has to be observed that preceding such resignations is often a crisis described as an emotional breakdown. Why else, by way of hypothetical example would a person resign over whether the water in their font was consecrated or unconsecrated? They would have thrashed out the theological implications of this during training. What we are really seeing is the tip of an emotional iceberg. Ministers who run off with their organists can sometimes be said to have done so as a crazy and desperate act of turning their back on long-standing problems, cutting themselves off dead from their past, and grasping at some elusive El Dorado across the horizon.

Who cares for these people before they fall? Who is there to detect the emotional pressure building up within and around them which will lead to a most horrid, premature resignation?

Often, no-one. Although denominations have official caring structures like Bishops, Archdeacons, Rural Deaneries, Sessions and Presbyteries and the like, these problems often remain undetected and unhelped. Two reasons are too evident.

First, professional risk. For a person to unburden themself, or to be assisted in that operation by peers, means that they place themselves at professional risk. That is, these peers, and superiors, are the ones who will give advice to others about job places both now and in the future. Also, there is loss of professional face. As one magazine article put it, “The best person to share your ministerial burdens with? A minister in another denomination.” But for most of us, for various reasons, this is not possible.

Second, law before grace. Now church law must often, especially when it reflects the gospel, come into serious situations and say ‘no’. And, of course, the higher someone is in the denominational structure, the more it rests on him to wield the law. However, the Bible’s order is grace, then law. “Obey men, obey canon law” should be preceded by gracious negotiation as the leader involved tries to expose and alleviate the real, underlying problem. Often, thankfully, this is the case.

What then of professional risk, which causes men or women to hide themselves and their problems? Three solutions can be advanced to help. First, the grace before law approach must always be kept in mind. People who are unable to put this attitude into action are best not put in charge of others.

Secondly, existing caring structures can sometimes be ‘democratised’. For example, as in some Anglican Dioceses, Area Deans can be elected for a fixed period by the ministerial members of the deanery and not appointed from above. When such deaneries are able to cultivate an open and accepting atmosphere, and keep their reporting back to the denomination to the legal minimum of houses and drains, many members will feel less at risk. However, assistant ministers, who are in the same group as their bosses, will not. Further, even with the best of intentions, some Area Deaneries will be unable to create the right atmosphere.

Thirdly, like-minded ministers can form groups to specifically care for their peers. Two rules need only apply to these groups: “Will you love your fellow ministers?”, and “Do you love the gospel and its ministry?”, and in that practical order. On the basis of trust and fellow feeling, groups thus formed can conceivably serve all sorts of ministers, the weak and the strong, the talented and the mediocre, liberals, anglo-catholics and evangelicals. In these associations, where broad matters of daily ministry are discussed, we can look out for each other, and endeavour to give assistance before a point of no return is reached.

It is the responsibility of all ministers to look around them at their neighbours and ask whether they are able to express tension without professional risk. Will you love your fellow ministers?

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