Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
“A minister, once lawfully called, may not leave the congregation with which he is connected, to accept a call elsewhere, without the consent of the consistory, together with the deacons, and knowledge on the part of the classis; likewise no other church may receive him until he has presented a proper certificate of .dismission from the church and the classis where he served.”
Church Order, Article 10.
There are several articles of the Church Order which deal with the calling of a minister. Articles 3 and 4 warn against the evil of men preaching without a call and without proper examination. Article 5 stipulates how a minister serving in one congregation may be called by a vacant congregation. Article 9 warns against the calling of novices. Article 10, now, lays down the stipulations that must be met when a minister accepts a call to a new congregation.
It is worthwhile noticing the original form of Article 10:
A minister, once lawfully called, may not leave the congregation which unconditionally received him, to accept a call elsewhere, without the consent of the consistory and the deacons, and those who previously held the office of elder and deacon, together with the magistrate, nor without the knowledge of the classis; likewise no other church shall be permitted to receive him until he has presented a lawful certificate of dismissal from the church and the classis where he served.
In distinction from our present article, the original article made reference to a minister who was called “unconditionally,” In the early history of the Reformed churches it was not uncommon that ministers received “conditional” calls, that is, calls that were not indefinite, but temporary, limited tenure. Conditional calls were extended usually under two circumstances. First, conditional calls were often extended to ministers who had been forced to flee their previous congregation because of persecution. Such a man might be called conditionally by the congregation in the place to which he had fled. He would serve as the pastor of that congregation until conditions made it possible for him to return to his previous flock, which he would then be free to do. Conditional calls were also sometimes extended when a congregation was unfamiliar with a man. He would be given a period of probation during which his gifts could be examined. If after the probationary period the consistory was satisfied that he possessed the necessary qualifications for the ministry, they would call him unconditionally. If they felt he lacked the necessary qualifications, they would withdraw the call. This practice of “conditional” calls is no longer followed in Reformed churches.
The original article, in distinction from our present article, also calls for the consent to a minister’s accepting of a call, not only of the serving elders and deacons, but of those who previously served in these offices. This practice was laid aside in the revision of Article 10.
The original article also makes reference to a consenting role of the magistrate in the matter of a minister’s accepting of a call. This was deemed unlawful interference by the magistrate into the affairs of the church and was also dropped from the article in later revisions.
Especially in the early centuries of the Reformation, this article was interpreted in such a way that the power to decide a call was placed almost entirely with the consistory. The judgment of the consistory was considered decisive. Consistories even forced ministers to stay against their will or to appeal to the classis for permission to accept calls.
Dr. H. Bouwman in his Gereformeerd Kerkrecht, vol. I, pp. 444, 445 cites several examples. In 1601 a Rev. Vosculius of Epe wanted to accept a call from Steenwijk, but the classis ruled that he should stay at Epe. In 1604 a Rev. William Crynsz, preacher at Maasland, accepted a call from Den Briel. The consistory of Maasland and the Classis of Delft ruled that he should stay. It was only after the Synod of South Holland reversed the decision of his consistory and classis that Crynsz was permitted to go to Den Briel. In 1620 a Rev. Hanecopius of Breda accepted a call from Gouda. Contrary to the advice of the Synod of South Holland, the consistory of Breda insisted that their pastor should stay. In the end, Hanecopius honored the decision of his consistory.
Later the pendulum swung in the other direction, and the decision with respect to a call came to rest almost entirely with the minister. More and more the consent of the consistory became merely a formality. In our day, it cannot be denied that the consistory plays little active part in the matter of their pastor’s calls, unless there is some very serious reason to prevent him from considering a call. In our own churches this is often the case. The consistory has little input into the decision that is finally made, but for the most part simply acquiesces to the decision of the minister.
The first important principle implied in Article 10 is that the “connection” between a minister and a congregation is established by Christ Himself. The exalted Christ gives pastors and teachers to His church (Eph. 4:11, 12). This is true not only of the church generally, but of each church in particular. Since it is Christ Himself who establishes the bond between a minister and his congregation, this bond must not be easily broken. Both the minister and the consistory must be sure that it is Christ Himself who breaks the existing bond in order to establish a new one.
The second principle that is implied in this article is that, since the bond that unites a minister to his congregation is not of his own doing, it is not either entirely a matter of his own doing to break that bond. Christ called him to that particular congregation. The congregation voted to extend a call to him. The consistory approved his being called and, on behalf of the congregation, actually issued the call. Since the minister did not all on his own establish himself as the pastor of the congregation in which he is serving, he may not all on his own leave the ministry of that particular congregation for another.
Thirdly, the office of the ministry is under the supervision of the consistory. This is stated explicitly in Article 23 of the Church Order: “The office of the elders . . . is to take heed that the ministers, together with their fellow-elders and deacons, faithfully discharge their office . . . .” The fact that the elders have supervision over the minister implies an active role in the calls which their minister receives.
In the fourth place, the minister himself is responsible prayerfully to determine before the face of God whether his work is finished in his current charge and God calls him to take up labor elsewhere. The minister must discern the Lord’s will with respect to every call that he receives. It is through prayer that he is able to learn God’s will and is thus able also to make a proper decision on each call.
Even though the consistory ought to be involved in the calls that their minister receives, the right to decide a call conclusively belongs to the minister, not to the consistory. He is the one called, and he is the one required to make a decision ultimately on that call. Rev. G.M. Ophoff writes:
In fine, the only one to conclusively decide whether the call should be accepted or declined is the minister called. From the very nature of things, the right in question belongs to him alone. He must choose which of the two churches he will now continue to serve. What his choice ought to be is a matter to be settled between him and the Lord. (Standard Bearer, vol. 9, p. 308)
The Synod of Vriesland took the following decision to guard ministers against the encroachment of consistories on their consideration of calls:
A minister shall be at liberty to specify the conditions under which he can accept a call extended to him, provided he has any that are in agreement with God’s will and with His Word, and in all such instances he shall be allowed to follow the voice of conscience if the reasons he advances for deciding to depart are fair and cogent.
This does not conflict with the role given the consistory by Article 10. The article speaks of “consent” of the consistory. This is not the same as “to decide.” One can give consent or agree with a matter that has already been decided upon. The act of deciding precedes the act of giving consent. The very fact that the consistory is called upon to give its consent implies that the decision with respect to the call rests with the minister. It would be foolish to state that a consistory must give consent to its own decision.
Nor does this minimize the role of the consistory in the matter of the calls received by its minister. Although the minister must make the ultimate decision, he must obtain the “consent” of the consistory. Rev. Ophoff also writes:
But we believe that the consistory . . . should in conjunction with its pastor weigh the call and reach a definite conclusion respecting it, which conclusion it should lay before the pastor not with a view to setting itself up as an overruling factor that takes no account of solemn convictions, but with a view to aiding the pastor in choosing the right course. (Standard Bearer, vol. 9, p. 308)
In conclusion, we may make a threefold distinction with respect to the calls received by a minister. First, there is an active and decisive role belonging to the minister himself. Second, there is an advisory and consenting role belonging to the consistory. It stands to reason that the question for the consistory members is not whether personally they like the minister and want him to stay or not. But the question is whether there are weighty grounds for the consistory to judge that the minister either should accept or should decline a call. There may be reasons why the consistory should judge that he must decline the call, or not even consider it. There may be reason in the minister himself, some charge pending before the consistory concerning the minister’s doctrine or life. Or there may be reasons in the congregation, such as some trouble which demands the presence and help of the minister. Or there may be reasons for the consistory to judge that the minister’s work is finished in the congregation and he ought to accept the call to labor elsewhere. Third, there is a supervisory role belonging to the churches in common and exercised by the classis. The article speaks of “knowledge on the part of the classis.” This does not simply mean that the classis takes cognizance of a minister’s decision to accept a call to some new congregation. But the classis too must give its consent. It does this by approving a document known as a “Ministerial Certificate Of Dismissal And Testimonial.” This may be done by the classis itself or, if the classis is not in session, by the classical committee on behalf of the classis.
Proper procedure for considering calls is that, after he has received a call, a minister ask permission of his consistory to consider the call. Permission may be granted, or permission may be denied for weighty reasons. If the consistory grants the minister permission to consider the call, he considers the call, usually for a period of three weeks, during which time the consistory gives the minister its advice with respect to the call. At the end of the three weeks, the minister reaches a decision and informs his consistory. The consistory then must acquiesce to the decision of the minister, or disapprove his decision. If there is disagreement between the minister and his consistory, the way of appeal to classis and even to synod, if need be, is left open. If the minister accepts the call, and his consistory acquiesces to his decision, he is granted the necessary certificate of dismission, which must receive the approval of the classis he is leaving as well as the classis he is entering before he can be installed in his new congregation.
Two decisions have been appended by our churches in Article 10. The first is:
When a minister accepts a call he shall ask of the consistory dismissing him to grant him a fitting testimonial bearing witness of faithful service performed, according to Article 5 of the Church Order, and expressing acquiescence in his departure, according to Article 10 of the Church Order. This testimonial shall be sent to the classical committee for examination and approval; thereupon it shall be delivered to the counselor who, upon finding it in good order, shall only thereupon proceed with the installation.
The second decision is:
A minister who moves to another congregation becomes the charge of that congregation (for salary, etc.) immediately after he has preached his farewell to the congregation he is leaving (unless other arrangements have been made, e.g. for the taking of a vacation).