How to divorce your minister

Towards a theology of pastoral breakdown

20 years ago in the class room, Broughton Knox predicted that it would be our generation of ministers that would have to deal with the problem of total pastoral breakdown. That is, we would have to work out what is to be done when the congregation no longer has confidence in its minister and his ministry and, from the congregation’s point of view, the situation is irremediable.

Whatever denomination or church tradition you are affiliated with, there is most likely some form of legislation governing how a church leader is employed. In Anglican circles, resolving pastoral breakdown takes place against the concrete background of a series of church laws guaranteeing ‘parson’s freehold’. This is the legal reality of a rector’s security of tenure. At present, such tenure may only be broken if some gross offence against canon law, or mental or physical incapacity to discharge canonical duties, is proved.

However, the interests of this article are not with the legal questions, but the theology of ministry, which is relevant to the question of pastoral breakdown—that theology that the New Testament attests as normative for our thinking and action. As we approach this issue, which affects both clergy and lay people, we ought to seek God’s revealed will on the matter. Let me suggest four important notions which provide a framework for a theology of pastoral breakdown.

1. Missionaries, then elders

Many ministers are accustomed to thinking of their ministries in terms of ‘eldership’. This perception is strongly reinforced in Anglicanism by Thomas Cranmer’s Reformed ordinal, and the Reformation tradition it mirrors. So in the order for ordaining priests, the candidates are handed a Bible as a sign most suitable to the occasion of giving authority to teach sound doctrine and administer the sacraments. Furthermore, the legal-political structures of national and church law reinforce that authority in ways we now almost take for granted. Our Reformers, of course, saw these structures as ‘supportive’, and not of the essence of ministry. In this way, ordained clergy have certain inalienable rights—controlling the pulpit, appointing Sunday School and choir personnel, and the like. Putting the supportive legal framework to one side for the moment, there is an assumption operating here about the relationship between the minister and his congregation that bears further examination. That assumption is that the priest as incumbent is ‘an elder’, and more often, the ‘chief elder’. Furthermore, since he is chief elder, he has the authority of such a person.

But it seems to me that both theologically and sociologically, ministers are first missionaries, then elders.

As New Testament scholars now almost universally acknowledge, there was no fixed order of elders in the early church. By and large, an elder was an acknowledged leader of a community, and therefore was often an older man—to whom was also entrusted, from time to time, spiritual leadership. This can be seen, for example, in 1 Peter 5:1-5ff where presbyteroi (which means, literally, ‘old men’) are contrasted with neoteroi (young men). There is no order of neoteroi in the New Testament, so it would appear that it is ‘older men’ who exercise the paid offices of teaching and leadership in the churches addressed here. 1 Corinthians 16:15 has a similar stress on spiritual leadership resting with the longest standing, and thus, the older converts.

What then was the stance taken by the apostles who variously founded, visited and sought to nurture these churches in the gospel? I want to suggest that they did not exercise any judicial power or rights given to them by the communities they ministered to, but saw themselves as missionaries, and then, sometimes, elders. That is, they ministered, like modern missionaries, as those who came in as outsiders—who came in and stayed and ministered only by the goodwill of the host communities. This they did, above all, for theological reasons. Let me refer you to four passages which expose the ministry mindset of Peter and Paul, and briefly draw attention to the first of them: 1 Corinthians 9; 1 Peter 5:1-5ff; 1 Timothy 4:1-16; 2 Timothy 3:10-4:6.

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul has rights that flow naturally from his responsibility. These are evident in:

  • natural law and religion: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? … Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?” (vv. 7, 13).
  • the Old Testament: “For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ …” (vv. 9-11).
  • the sayings of Jesus and Paul’s apostolic commission: “… This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me … In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” (vv. 1-6, 14).

However, in the context of Paul’s wider understanding of ministry (e.g. 2 Cor 10-12), and the controversy he is addressing in 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10 on ‘food rights’, the rights of the minister must of theological necessity be subordinated to the needs of the neighbour, so that clear gospel ministry may occur:

If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (v. 12).

That is, to pick up the phraseology of a later dispute over his ministry style, Paul must of gospel necessity be “too weak to slap people in the face” (2 Cor 11: 20-21)!

The conclusion we ought to draw from these passages is that, although in their kindness and generosity, the denominations and the lay people in our churches dignify ministers with such titles and entitlements that give them the external status of ‘chief elder’, they ought more appropriately think of themselves as missionaries—there solely at the continued permission of the community. In due course, as we settle down into the community, we may become in reality ‘elders’, but that is a later development, and not the primary theological plank of our ministry. Even with advanced status, we ought always remain missionaries because of the nature of gospel ministry itself: God works in the world through persuasion, not coercion.

2. Persuasion, not coercion

In the teaching of the New Testament, the church is not a legal or political entity, but is formed by the word. Karl Barth expressed it this way: the church is the “crater formed by the explosion of a shell”. That shell is the word of the gospel. The gospel is God working in the world to establish the kingdom of his Son, through persuasion, not coercion.

In the following extracts, consider Paul’s emphasis on persuasion through gospel preaching. God works to bring about the most radical and far reaching changes through the agency of his word, not by human force:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor 2:14-17)

… knowing the fear of God, we try to persuade others. (2 Cor 5:11)

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:17-20)

It is well worth while going on to read chapter 6:1-13. It ought be no surprise then that the principle of persuasion, as against that of coercion, carries over into exhortations to elders who are also in spiritual leadership:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. (1 Pet 5:1-4)

Now an overseer must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher; (1 Tim 3:2)

If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths. Train yourself in godliness …These are the things you must insist on and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity. (1 Tim 4:6- 5:2)

The remarkable thing about these instructions is that in the traditional communities of the ancient world, the elders governed by coercion. But here, because of the nature of God’s rule through the gospel, because of Christ’s dealings with us, spiritual leadership is to be exercised not by coercion, but by the persuasion of gospel preaching and teaching.

3. Confidence, not legal status

It follows fairly closely then that we can only minister when and where people have confidence in our ministry. When that confidence fails, they will not hear, and thus not be persuaded.

What should we do, then, when a church no longer has confidence in its ministers, given that our best efforts and those of others to remedy the situation have failed? The traditional answer from church history has been to stand on legal status, and force the congregation to comply, or, since the 18th century, force them to move on and find another Christian community and another minister. Thus stated, it is clear that the traditional answer involves a resort to coercion that is contrary to the spirit of the gospel. Jesus focuses for us the appropriate response:

And if any place will not receive you and they refuse to hear you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet for a testimony against them. (Mark 6:11)

These, I take it, are missionary instructions.

In practical terms, then, what ought to be done in a situation where there is irretrievable pastoral breakdown—where, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, the congregation has irrecoverably lost confidence in its minister, whether by fault of the minister or fault of the congregation, or of both?

Given that the coercion of insisting on our legal status is not in accord with gospel ministry, it seems to me that we are left with only three options:

  1. First, and best of all, the minister follows Jesus injunction and moves on.

  2. What if he will not? Then, the congregation ought ‘move on’, make other arrangements, and leave the minister to the judgement of God. The New Testament’s word about persuasion, and not coercion, is a word to lay people too.

  3. But if like my denomination, you live as a fellowship of Christian congregations, the wider fellowship also has a responsibility. This wider responsibility for each other’s welfare is well recognized. Thus we usually train and ordain ministers from central locations for the welfare of all; we have rules which we apply to ministerial conduct for the good of all; and we have mechanisms to discipline those ministers who fall into gross violations of the Ten Commandments. What ought we do as a diocese, assembly or larger fellowship, when a minister will not move on, and a Christian community faces dissolution? There are, I believe, two things for which we need to take some responsibility.

    The first is justice—where a congregation may be in the situation of being unjustly dominated by an incumbent. The second is the nature of the gospel and its ministry in the world to which, at least in theory, all members of the denomination are committed—God works through persuasion, not coercion. The third option then, which I believe the nature of gospel ministry forces on us, is to make rules which allow for a congregation to divorce a minister when it has irremediably lost confidence in him.

4. Justice

One theological factor which needs to be foundational to our thinking is justice. Our God is the God of righteousness, and if “righteousness exalts a nation” (Prov 14:34), it also exalts a denomination.

Justice is rendering every person their due (Rom 2:5-11), and therefore to perceive what is the just thing to do, we need to pay close attention to circumstance and context. Allow me now to become a little partisan and suggest three features in my Anglican context that particularly stand out as necessary to justice when a congregation seeks to divorce its minister. In no particular order they are as follows:

  1. Given that the cause of pastoral breakdown is not some matter of moral or doctrinal failure punishable under canon law, the minister needs to be appropriately compensated. In our history, we have arrived at the notion of ‘parson’s freehold’, not just for legal-political purposes, but also because we observe that ministry is such hard and often lonely work that it needs protecting. Ministers risk a great deal in taking on parish leadership, and give up a lot in order to devote themselves to the best of their ability to preach the gospel. Therefore, it is only just that either re-location or re-training costs be paid. Primarily, of course, that ought be the obligation of the Parish which invited him, but as we are a fellowship, it would be important for the rest of the diocese to bear some of the burden for poor parishes.

  2. A parish ought not judge in its own case. For the sake of justice, outsiders ought to judge whether or not irretrievable breakdown has occurred. Perhaps a small panel of both clergy and lay people, from outside of the parish of course, ought to make the judgement and decide the future course of action. To help preserve equity and to have the confidence of the wider denomination, the members of this panel ought to be appointed by Synod.

  3. The bishops ought not be given a judicial role in this. Up until the Reformation, the bishops of the western church tended to act as both legislators and law-enforcers or judges. Quite rightly, on the grounds of equity and the way the gospel is given to function in the world, at the Reformation these powers were split. Lay people—in city councils in the city-states of Switzerland and South Germany, or national parliament in England—became the pre-eminent legislators and the bishops the judges or law-enforcement agency. However, the powers of legislator and judge were reunited in the office of bishop in the theology and practice of the High Church movement of the 18th century and the Tractarian Movement of the 19th. Furthermore, both because of the influence of this theology on many of our early colonial bishops and their successors, and because the colonial governments would not establish the church at law, this understanding has become all but the usual situation in Australia.

    It is clearly not equitable for the person who seeks to set the course of a diocese to also be the one who judges in individual cases. We are all earthen vessels, and personal agendas, however noble, easily cloud our judgement. The experience of other dioceses in the Anglican communion who already have mechanisms for dealing with pastoral breakdown bears this out. Furthermore, having to act as judge is pastorally disastrous for a bishop, who in this situation needs to be free to act as an honest broker seeking reconciliation.

The foundation is grace

We face a very difficult task in coming to grips with irretrievable pastoral breakdown. Someone recently commented to me that over the last 30 years, the spiritual maturity of congregations has greatly increased. Lay people are much more aware of their Christian responsibilities, and much more engaged in spiritual ministry because of it. All that is the result of sound Bible teaching and modelling by a very large number of hard-working ministers. When a congregation loses confidence in its ministers, the question that has to be faced is whether, through the common fellowship expressed in congregational and denominational structures, we will meet the need within the foundations laid down by the gospel of grace.

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