(Sixteenth in a series.)
If you’ve ever wondered what sort of things happen in a church that’s being reformed by the Holy Spirit, read the minutes from Calvin’s weekly elders meetings five centuries ago in Geneva. In Elders Reformed, we quote those minutes to provide readers an idea of the messiness of faithful pastoral care.
Geneva’s minutes reassured me about what we went through in the first years of our work in Wisconsin—fresh out of seminary.
In one of our session meetings in the town church during the first year or so, someone brought up the fact that one of the elders off at college was living with her boyfriend. Thus I found out the church had followed general assembly’s constant haranguing of churches to be sure to elect “representative leadership.” In this case, that meant electing a high school girl whom they ordained and installed as one of their elders.
She was now off at college, her father was also an elder, and the session was informed she was living with her boyfriend, without benefit of marriage.
We sent a letter to her expressing our concern and asking to meet with her the next time she came home to visit. She didn’t respond. Her father had nothing to say. We asked a second time (as I remember it), but again, she refused to listen.
We sat on it for maybe a year or so.
Then we received a request from the man who had preceded me as pastor of the parish asking if he could use the church to officiate at the wedding of this woman and her boyfriend?
The request was to come to the next session meeting. I was firmly opposed to the session granting this permission.
While, on the one hand, the wedding would regularize the relationship, her refusal to submit to the session in their attempt at admonishment concerning her fornication would be the context of the wedding, causing a public scandal. Remember, in a small town, everybody knows everything about everybody, and this sin was no secret in the church or community. My predecessor was aiding this woman in her contumacy.1
Prior to the session meeting, I called several older men for counsel. One was my Dad who suggested if the session granted permission it might be time for me to look for another call. This was not due to my call being tenuous or any absence of support for our work in either of the churches. Things were good in other ways, but Dad was pointing out how serious a failure to honor God it would be for the session to approve this wedding taking place in the house of worship under their authority, particularly given how visible the wedding would be at the center of the community both geographically and relationally.
An hour prior to the session meeting to be held in one of the elders’ homes a block from the church, the father of this college woman showed up at my office to talk with me about the matter. He was on the session and really had nothing to say about his daughter at any of the meetings we discussed her fornication, nor did he say anything this evening prior to our meeting. My recollection is he just said this and that and showed embarrassment. My sense was he wanted me to know he was sad about the position I was in, but he also wanted the church for the wedding.
The meeting was called to order. After preliminaries, the request to use the church was read, then moved, seconded, and came under discussion. There were six or seven of us and I was the only one to speak against the motion (to approve).
Not remembering my exact words, I would have pointed out this woman’s refusal to honor the elders’ formal summons concerning her fornication. She had not responded to their several requests, nor had she stopped living with her boyfriend. Her request to be married by the former pastor would have been fine, relationally. I had no objection to his coming back to take part in various official church matters where the souls of the church preferred him to me. This was natural given his closeness to many of them, but I went on to point out that he was certainly aware of the woman’s fornication and refusal to honor her elders’ attempts at admonishing and working with her to repent of this sin, and thus he too had become part of the scandal.
If our young sister had simply met with the elders and apologized for her past unresponsiveness, explaining to the session that she was now repentant and was getting married to correct things, all would be good. Then I would be in full and joyful support of granting her, her mother and father, and the previous pastor permission to use the church. But sadly, that wasn’t the context.
After maybe an hour of discussion, the vote was taken. There was only one vote against the motion, and permission was granted.
At this point, I should explain that this vote was one of maybe five or ten times, total, that I have voted in any session meeting of any of the sessions I have moderated (served on). It’s been my principle to vote only on matters that are so serious that I felt I had to have my commitment recorded, formally. This was usually in cases of great controversy where the honor of God was at stake. Otherwise, I felt my position as pastor/senior pastor was sufficient leadership without trying to add to it by voting.
Then it was time for tea and cake or pie, but I couldn’t. With tears in my eyes, I asked to be excused. There had been no angry words, no breach in relationships, but the decision was sinful and my grief was obvious to all. As I left, the father came up to the doorway and put his arms around me and gave me a long hug. He also had tears in his eyes.
That week, one of the elders told me that, after I left, they sat and discussed their decision, and regretted it. They told each other they’d been wrong to allow the wedding, but they did not reverse their decision or ask me to.
One point for pastors reading this chapter. Following this wrong decision of the session, I noted a growing authority granted me by them. In time, I came to realize it’s often the case that sessions vote against their pastor, and if he responds with grief and love, their respect for him grows.
This does not apply to a pastor whose session approves the marriage of two lesbians in the church, over his opposition. When a pastor votes against the other members of session in matters of basic Biblical truth, usually his vote is best understood as his last formal act prior to his submission of his letter of resignation. I myself cast such a vote, explaining to the session as I did so that I would be resigning my call to serve them, and thus I was voting so that my opposition would be recorded in their minutes.
Still, there are many times sessions go against their pastor’s wishes in secondary matters where he ought not to make a stink or resign over it. Instead, it’s best to be calm and take our blows, continuing to love the elders and the flock despite their personal rejection of you in this matter. If we do so, it’s normal for the respect of the elders and the affection of the sheep looking on to grow so that, in the end, the “no” we suffer becomes capital in the bank of our leadership.
So you want to know if I resigned?
Obviously not because the account of God’s work in our parish will continue.
(Sixteenth in a series.)
|↑1||”Contumacy” is the word used in session meetings for pertinacious rebellion. It sounds more KingJamesish than “stubborn rebellion.” Regardless of the presenting sin, a large number of cases of formal discipline by church sessions end up being for “contumacy” due to the member’s refusal to respond to the session’s summons.|