How do we deal with the tricky matter of pastors moving from one congregation to another?
Some time ago I was in a session meeting with my elders, discussing my salary, and the phone rang (a long distance call). Within a minute of the phone conversation, I was asked about becoming the pastor at another congregation. The thought of putting the gentleman on speakerphone never occurred to me until well after my salary had been decided!
The topic of pastors receiving calls, searching for calls, and transferring from one church to another is exceedingly complex. The Early Church addressed this issue, and made provisions against the practice of pastors carelessly and selfishly hopping from one church to another.
John Owen also addressed this issue. As he reflected back on the Early Church, he writes:
"For when some churches were increased in members, reputation, privileges, and wealth, above others, it grew an ordinary practice for the bishops to design and endeavor their own removal from a less unto a greater benefice."
Owen also explains how the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were strongly against the practice of pastors moving from one church to another due to the aforementioned reasons. These councils "would not allow that a man might be a bishop or presbyter in any other place but only in the church wherein he was originally ordained; and, therefore, if any did so remove themselves, decreed that they should be sent home again, and there abide, or cease to be church-officers" (Conc. Nicea. can. 15,16; Chalced., can. 5, 20).
The concept of "open contending for ecclesiastical promotions, benefices, and dignities, were then either unknown or openly condemned."
While appreciating many of the practices of the early church on this particular matter, Owen admits that there are "just causes" for the removal of a Pastor from one congregation to another. In the case of a "removal" it should be with the "free consent of the churches concerned" and with the advice of other churches, with whom they walk in communion. Owen cites the example of Gregory Nazianzen who was removed from Casima to Constantinople, though with little success.
Owen asks another question: "May a Pastor voluntarily, or of his own accord, resign and lay down his office, and remain in a private capacity?"
Again, this was judged as undesirable, "if not unlawful, by the first synod of Ephesus, in the case of Eustathius." Eustathius was aged and wanted to retire and enjoy peace. He was tired of the opposition he faced from the church where he ministered. So, on his own judgment, and without advice, he removed himself from his office in the church so that they could choose a good man to replace him." The synod, however, condemned his decision.
Nonetheless, Owen argues that "no general rule can be established in this case; nor was the judgment or practice of the primitive church precise herein." Clemens, for example, suggested that ministers should resign their office in the event of divisions in the church. Owen recounts the story of Nazian who "did the same at Constantinople; and protested openly that although he were himself innocent and free from blame, as he truly was, and one of the greatest men of his age, yet he would depart ... rather than they should not have peace among them; which he did accordingly."
It is not permissible, according to Owen, to voluntarily resign on account of 1) weakness for work; and 2) weariness of and despondency under opposition and reproaches. It is lawful, however, "in such an incurable decay of intellectual abilities and in the event of incurable divisions in the church, even when the Pastor is not the cause of them." Moreover, a Pastor can remove himself if the church is "wholly negligent in its duty" to provide for him and his family.
James Durham also has some interesting thoughts on this in his commentary on Revelation. He makes the claim that God has gifted his ministers differently. So, for example, a particularly gifted minister may be in a "lesser Congregation" and yet be "more qualified" to be in a larger congregation. He perhaps should leave for the good of the larger church because of his "larger" gifting compared to other less gifted men.
While Durham's point ought to be carefully considered, I think there are many other factors that should cause us to exercise caution regarding the principle of the "greater good." For example, the "greater good" may require a gifted young pastor to remain in a smaller church for many years before he is ready for the demands of a larger body of believers.
Whatever our views on this important issue - and I think this topic requires a great deal more thought than I am able to give in a blog post - it seems to me that this is an area that requires greater theological reflection in our present thinking on "calling." Not only pastors, but also Christ's sheep may be damaged by unwise, careless "processes" where "pastoral calls" have more in common with high-school dating - apologies to home-schoolers who can't relate - than with biblical principles.
The Early Church and many Post-Reformation Reformed theologians wrestled intensely with these issues. And, I believe, so should we.
Pastor Mark Jones is happy where he is in Vancouver, where, due to the rain, the grass is always green on this side!