Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

“Ministers, who by reason of age, sickness, or otherwise, are rendered incapable of performing the duties of their office, shall nevertheless retain the honor and title of a minister, and the church which they have served shall provide honorably for them in their need (likewise for the orphans and widows of ministers) out of the common fund of the churches, according to the general ecclesiastical ordinances in this matter.”

Church Order, Article 13.

This article of the Church Order deals with the subject of emeritation or retirement of ministers, even though the word “emeritus” or “emeritation” does not appear in the article. The word “emeritus” comes from the Latin and means literally “out of merit.” It was a word used by the Romans to refer to a soldier who had served his time in the military, a veteran. With reference to a minister it refers to one who has faithfully given his life to the service of the church and therefore earned the right to retire honorably from active service.

Article 13 is based on the principle that the calling to the ministry of the gospel is for life. The church whom the minister has served claimed all of his time and strength, and did not allow him to pursue any other occupation. Since the church called him for life, the church is also under obligation to support him for life, even when he becomes unable actively to carry out the duties of his office. This obligation for support extends not only to the minister himself, but also to the surviving members of his family. The minister was obliged to care for his dependents during his life, and the church was obliged to furnish him with sufficient means to be able to do this. When a minister dies, his dependents become the responsibility of the church. For this reason the article mentions “the orphans and widows of ministers.”

Decisions of two early Dutch synods form the background for the decision of Article 13. The Church Order adopted by the National Synod of Middelburg, 1581, states in Article XI:

When it happens that a faithful minister, having been handicapped by age or sickness, can no longer fulfill his office, the congregation is responsible to provide as much support as shall be granted him ex bonis publicis (from the general treasury) with which he may be able to survive honorably and capably the rest of his life. Also, the widows and orphans of the ministers must not be forgotten.

The Church Order of the National Synod of ‘s Gravenhage, 1586, states in Article XI:

If it happens that any ministers because of age, sickness, or otherwise become unable to perform their ministry, they shall nevertheless in spite of this retain the honor and title of a minister and shall be honorably supported in their need by the church which they have served (as also the widows and orphans generally).

Reasons for Emeritation

The article mentions two reasons for emeritation: age or sickness.

The first reason for retirement is age. The article is general and does not mention a mandatory age of retirement. In the Old Testament the Levites were required to retire at the age of 50, Numbers 8:23-26. There are some denominations that have a mandatory retirement age.

The Christian Reformed Church Synod of 1956 ruled that “ministers shall have the privilege of retiring at the age of 65 years.” It was not made mandatory for ministers to retire at 65. But ministers were given the right to retire at 65, if they so desired. The Christian Reformed Synod of 1980 decided that “ministers of the Word shall be granted the privilege of retiring at the age of sixty-two, with the approval of the classes involved, under the reduced pension scale adopted by the Synod of 1978.”

Our Protestant Reformed Churches have adopted no mandatory retirement age. As long as a man is able to carry out the duties of the ministry, he ought to remain active in the office. But when his age begins to have its effect on his ability to carry out his work, he ought to retire.

A second reason for emeritation is sickness.

If illness renders a man incapable of carrying out the labors of the ministry, he ought to seek emeritation. The “Constitution of the Emeritus Committee,” Article IV, requires that “If sickness is the cause of his inability, he must furnish proof of this by a statement from two competent physicians.” This “Constitution” further states in Article XV: “A minister (or professor) who has been declared emeritus by reason of sickness or weakness, but later has regained his health, shall no longer have claim to support but is morally obliged to provide for his own needs.”

Two Special Cases

Article 13 adds to the two specific reasons for emeritation a more general statement: “. . . or otherwise, are rendered incapable of performing the duties of their office . . . .” This “otherwise” has been interpreted by our churches to cover two special cases when a minister retains his office, but does not continue actively to function in a local congregation. These two cases are professor of theology and ministers who through no fault of their own are deprived of a congregation. Neither of these cases really fit under Article 13. Article 13 deals with emeritation because a minister is rendered “. . .incapable of performing the duties of his office.” This is not, strictly speaking, the case with professors of theology or ministers who through no fault of their own are deprived of their congregation. Nevertheless, for expediency’s sake these two cases have been included under Article 13.

The decision that has been appended to Article 13 by our Protestant Reformed Churches covers the case of ministers who through no fault of their own are deprived of their congregation.

In the case of ministers who through no fault of their own have been deprived of a congregation, it is both possible and mandatory that pending the reception of a call to another congregation such ministers be temporarily declared emeriti.


1. The minister who through no fault of his own has been left without a fixed charge may apply to a consistory of the classis in which he resides for emeritation, and such consistory may declare him emeritus.

2. This shall not be done, however, without the approbation of the classis and of the deputies of the synod.

Responsibility for Support:

1. Since the minister becomes emeritus not of his own congregation, but of a congregation he has not served, the obligation to support him and to provide honorably for them “in their need” shall not rest upon the local congregation, but upon the churches in common, and he is to be supported out of the common Emeritus Fund of the Churches.

2. In such cases, if the abandoning church has been subsidized from the Needy Churches Fund, the amount of such subsidy shall be transferred to the Emeritus Fund, pending the next meeting of synod. (Adopted by Synod of 1956, Art. 177 and Supp. XVIII.)

Our churches have also applied Article 13 to professors of theology who no longer serve in a particular congregation, but teach in the denominational seminary. Our professors are considered to be emeritus ministers of the congregation they last served. For this reason, although their church membership resides in the local congregation they attend, their ministerial credentials reside in the congregation in which they most recently ministered and from which they have been emeritated.

Procedure for Emeritation

The procedure for emeritation is described in the “Constitution of the Emeritus Committee,” Article III: “The minister shall present his request for emeritation to his consistory who shall decide upon his request with approbation of classis and synod.” The “Constitution” places the initiative for the procedure with the minister. Ordinarily this will be the case. The minister himself will seek emeritation, usually after consultation with his consistory.

But it is conceivable that a consistory would have to take the initiative. It is possible that a minister is incapable of functioning in his office but refuses to recognize this fact. In this case the consistory, for the sake of the welfare of the congregation, would have to take the lead in the process of emeritation.

The Reformed Churches of Holland in 1893 adopted the following policy:

Emeritation, where necessary, takes place upon the request of the parties concerned, (either Minister or Consistory) by action of the Classis, supported by the Synodical Examiners of the Provincial Synod.

Support of Emeritus Ministers

The support of emeritus ministers is not a matter of benevolence, but of right and duty. It is not alms, but a stipend which the church is obligated to pay. The “Constitution of the Emeritus Committee,” Article VI states:

The support granted to the emeriti ministers (or professors) and to the widows and orphans of ministers (or professors) is not a dispensing of mercy but an administering to which the above mentioned have a legal claim . . . .

The responsibility for this support rests with the local congregation last served by the retiring minister. That is the sense of the article: “. . . and the church which they have served shall provide honorably for them in their need . . . .” “Church” here is not the denomination. But “church” is the congregation last served by the minister. This responsibility of the local congregation is also pointed out in the “Constitution of the Emeritus Committee”:

The obligation of giving this support to a minister rests in a legal sense not upon the churches jointly, but, even as the payment of salary, upon the local church, which the minister serves or has last served. (Article VII).

Although the local congregation remains responsible for the support of its retired minister; those congregations unable to meet this support provide for their retired minister through the denominational Emeritus Fund. This fund is supervised by the synod. The members of the Emeritus committee are appointed by the synod.

During the Secession smaller congregations were unable to bear the burden of providing for a serving minister and a retired minister. For this reason some congregations were no longer calling older ministers who were nearing retirement age. The solution to this problem was the establishment of a common fund.

There are good grounds for a denominational Emeritus Fund. For one thing, this relieves what would otherwise be an impossible burden for the smaller congregations of the denomination. Besides this, the retiring minister has not only served the congregation from which he is retiring, but other churches of the denomination. Therefore, the denomination as a whole bears some responsibility for providing for him in his retirement.

Status of Emeritus Ministers

An emeritus minister retains the honor and title of the office of the ministry: “. . . shall nevertheless retain the honor and title of a minister . . . .”, Article 13. By emeritation a minister does not lay down his officeper se. While still retaining his office, he lays aside the labors of the office.

Because he still retains the office, the emeritus minister is still permitted to function in the office. He may still preach in the churches and administer the sacraments. He may still perform weddings and conduct funerals. He may be delegated to the broader assemblies, serve on committees of consistory, classis, or synod. He may serve as a church visitor.

An emeritus minister desiring to re-enter the active ministry of the Word would have to be declared eligible for a call again by the consistory and classis that approved his emeritation. It would have to be shown that the reasons for his emeritation no longer exist and that he is fully capable of discharging the duties of the office.