“If any minister, for the aforesaid or any other reason, is compelled to discontinue his service for a time, which shall not take place without the advice of the consistory, he shall nevertheless at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.” Article 14 D.K.O.
Not infrequently there are circumstances which make it compulsory for a minister to temporarily cease to perform the duties of his office and work in the congregation. This was especially true during the latter part of the sixteenth century during which time our church order was formulated. It was during this time that severe persecutions occurred which in some cases scattered the congregation arid in other instances compelled the minister to flee for his life to some place of safety. In either case the work of the ministry was temporarily stayed.
It should be remembered that it was upon this background that the fourteenth article of the church order was written. On the surface this article does not seem to be very important. It appears to merely express that a minister who for sundry reasons desires to be relieved of his office for a time shall obtain such a release from his consistory. This is also the way that the article is interpreted, at least in practice, by a goodly number in our day so that the reasons why ministers are on leaves of absence from their congregations today are multifarious. And, if some of these reasons are carefully examined it will become evident that many ministers and consistories no longer grasp the principle laid down by our fathers in this article.
The fathers understood that the tie binding the minister to the congregation is of such a nature that it is not easily severed either for a time or permanently. It is established through the lawful call which consists of four things mentioned in Article 4. They are “the election, examination, approbation, and ordination.” This call is for life according to Article 12. This does not mean that the minister is bound to the service of one particular church for life but it does imply that once a man enters into the ministry of the Word he may not by caprice sever himself even for a time from his office. He is a servant. He is called by and bound to the service of the church. And whereas Christ, in the Spirit, dwells in the church it is in the final analysis Christ Himself who calls him and binds him to the office. Only He, therefore, can give release which He does through the consistory, the offices of the church.
Sometimes such release is given so that the minister may take up labor in another congregation. (Art. 10). Then there may be instances where it is necessary to dismiss the minister altogether from the service. (Arts. 11 and 12) And there are those cases where the minister is relieved of active duty and given an emeritation. (Art. 13) In each case, however, the consistory must judge the merits or demerits of the case. As office bearers they must speak the mind of Christ with respect to severing the bond.
Thus it is also with respect to those cases where it is necessary for the minister to be relieved of the duties of his office for a time only. We should notice that Article 14 speaks of reasons which “compel” one to discontinue his, service for a time. This language is carefully chosen. A leave of absence from the ministry necessitates compelling circumstances. This is quite different than if the article read: “If any minister, for the aforesaid or any other reason, desires to discontinue his service for a time . . .” The mere desire to discontinue labor in the congregation for a time does not validate a leave of absence. The idea stressed here is that there are circumstances of a temporary nature which make it necessary to discontinue the work. No consistory should grant a leave of absence unless this is cogently shown. These circumstances are created by Christ and are, therefore, indications that He wills the tie between the minister and the congregation to be temporarily severed. Where such circumstances do not exist, the work of the ministry in the congregation must continue unabated. When things do arise which seem to indicate that a leave of absence is in order, the consistory must judge whether they are valid enough to warrant a leave. The reasons must be weighed in all seriousness because subsequent action involves the temporary severing of a tie which Christ has bound.
There are various reasons which justify a leave of absence. To catalog them is quite impossible and also unnecessary as every case must be judged in the light of its own merits and circumstances. Article 14 speaks of “the aforesaid or any other reason.” This is very broad and general. Usually the word “aforesaid” is interpreted as referring to the reasons given for emeritation in the preceding article. Monsma and Van Dellen, i.e., write: “Doubtless the expression first of all refers back to Article 13 which speaks of old age, sickness, etc.” (pg. 68) However, this is not correct. First of all it ought to be evident that old age would not serve as a reason for a temporary leave. It can very properly be a valid reason for emeritation because this means permanent retirement. If a minister becomes old and by reason of his age is compelled to discontinue his services, it stands to reason that a temporary leave of absence is not going to make him young again and able once more to become actively engaged in this work. His time of service is expired and he is entitled to permanent retirement. In the second place, according to the original redaction of the church order (Dordrecht 1578) the word “aforesaid” referred to the persecutions of that time. Because of these the flocks were sometimes scattered. Ministers had no congregation to serve or they themselves were compelled to leave the congregation temporarily. Who would deny that such circumstances necessitate a leave of absence? Permit me to state here that it seems to me that our churches would have. acted more correctly in the case of our own Rev. H. Veldman and his persecution in Hamilton, had they referred to Article 14 instead of to Article 13 and given him a temporary leave of absence with support from the churches when he was without a congregation. The fact that Hamilton deserted both him and our denomination would justify such a provision.
Sickness may also be the occasion for the granting of a temporary leave. The duration of the leave in such cases will naturally depend upon the nature of the illness. In cases of overwork or strain due to dissension and trouble in the congregation, a couple weeks of rest may be sufficient for recuperation. In other instances the time may have to be extended to months and, perhaps, to a year or two. In cases where there is little or no indication of recovery ah emeritation would be better. Where there is hope of recovery a leave of absence is proper.
In the past there have been cases where ministers have been given leaves to work on Bible translations, engage in missionary work, assist another congregation for a time, pursue some postgraduate work, travel, serve in the government, etc. In each case the consistory must determine whether these reasons are such that they “compel discontinuation of the work in the local church.” Of course, that “compulsion” can be looked at from both an objective and a subjective point of view so that it is quite possible that a consistory that weighs these reasons objectively and the minister who considers them subjectively arrive at opposite conclusions. Then the advice of the Classis must be sought although this should be done only as a last resort and after every possible attempt has been exhausted to decide these things locally. A minister who is personally involved in the matter, ought to remember that his consistory is more able to look at the matter impartially and objectively than he is. Their judgment should have considerable weight with him.
The article speaks of the “advice” of the consistory. The Dutch has “advies.” This does not mean that the decision rest with the minister and the consistory gives counsel which may be accepted or rejected. Dr. Bouwman cites that “advies” here has the signification of “consent” or “approval.” He writes:
“Het woord ‘advies heeft hier de beteekenis van ‘bewilliging’, ‘toestemming’. De normale weg in dezen is, dat de dienaar, die tijdelijk ontheffing van zijn ambtelijk werk vraagt, hiervoor aan den kerkeraad de reden opgeeft, dat daarna de kerkeraad deze beoordeelt en zich over het verzoek uitspreekt. In de samenspreking tusschen dienaar en kerkeraad kan nader vastgesteld worden de tijd en de wijze van het ontslag. Indien de dienaar zich niet met het oordeel(italics are mine, G.V.B.) des kerkeraads kan vereenigen, staat hem het beroep op de classis open.” (Vol. 1, pg. 480)
When a leave is granted there are two things especially that should be taken up in the “samenspreking”. The first is the time or duration of the leave. This should not be left indefinite. A certain period should be designated and, in the case of sickness, if this time proves inadequate an extension can always be added. It is better to do that than to leave things indefinite. In 1928 the Synod of the Christian Reformed Churches ruled against the granting of indefinite leaves of absence. In the second place there is the matter of support. Sometimes it lies in the very nature of the case that the minister on leave will receive support from the church. In other cases, however, this is not so. There should be a definite understanding made to avoid difficulties at a later date. The time to do that is when the leave is granted.
We would call attention yet to the meaning of the last phrase in this article which reads: “he shall nevertheless at all times be and remain subject to the call of the congregation.” This, however, will have to wait until next time.