(First in a series.)

(Correction: Text has been added to correct what was originally stated concerning who and how the vote of a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America (Tenth Presbyterian’s own denomination) reports to its presbytery what actions it took concerning a call or resignation of a pastor.)

Most members and officers of presbyterian churches have trouble understanding what happens when a pastor resigns his call. The balance of powers unique to reformed and presbyterian church government is crucial to that understanding.

First, a solo or senior pastor/minister cannot take up any call from a church without first receiving that call by vote of the congregation; and then, subsequent to that vote, having the congregation elect commissioners to represent their vote and will to the presbytery with that presbytery then confirming or not confirming that call.1

Second, the pastor cannot extricate himself (resign) from that call without going through the reversal of the above process. This reversal must be followed whether the pastor is being fired, resigning his call with the voted concurrence of the congregation, or resigning his call without the voted concurrence of the congregation. As the congregation has to vote on the original call to this man to come and serve their church as their pastor, so the congregation has to vote on the termination of that call they extended to him, which he accepted.

Following the proper congregational debate and vote on a resignation of their pastor, according to the PCA Book of Church Order, the congregation elects representatives (“commissioners”) to attend the meeting of presbytery in order to report on the circumstances surrounding their vote, the tone of the meeting, and the vote of the congregation.

It is not the prerogative of the session to appoint themselves to represent the congregation. Their commissioners are to be chosen by the congregation:

When any minister shall tender the resignation of his pastoral charge to his Presbytery, the Presbytery shall cite the church to appear by its commissioners, to show cause why the Presbytery should or should not accept the resignation. If the church fails to appear, or if its reasons for retaining its pastor be deemed insufficient, his resignation shall be accepted and the pastoral relation dissolved.

If any church desires to be relieved of its pastor, a similar procedure shall be observed. But whether the minister or the church initiates proceedings for a dissolution of the relation, there shall always be a meeting of the congregation called and conducted in the same manner as the call of the pastor. In any case, the minister must not physically leave the field until the Presbytery or its commission empowered to handle uncontested requests for dissolution has dissolved the relation. (PCA Book of Church Order, 23-1)

What are the pertinent circumstances surrounding the resignation and congregational meeting, what was the tone of the debate during that meeting, and what was the tally of the vote?

Having received (and often, inquired further into) this report, it is the presbytery’s obligation to take all the facts under advisement and vote aye or nay on whether or not the call should be terminated.

There are a host of circumstances that may complicate the presbytery’s debate and vote on the termination of a pastor’s call:

  • Does the congregation want the pastor’s call terminated or not?
  • Does the session want the pastor’s call terminated or not?
  • Does the pastor want his call terminated or not?
  • Is there sin or violation of proper process on the part of any or all three of the parties—the congregation, session, and pastor?
  • Are there complicating factors not addressed by a simple report on the vote of the congregation, the session, and the request of the pastor himself?
  • For instance, is there another pastor of the church who is also a member of the presbytery of jurisdiction, is an antagonist of his head of staff/senior minister, has helped push him out and aspires to succeed him as the new senior minister?
  • Are there pastors of the church holding membership in the presbytery who, thus, must recuse themselves from the debate and vote, particularly when there is controversy. (The same must be done concerning the elders of the particular church who are delegates to, or serve in leadership of, that presbytery.)
  • Have any interested parties who are members of presbytery been circularizing the court. Have there been pastors talking among their friends in the presbytery, trying to give their spin on, and thereby influence, the matter privately?
  • Is there prior history between the presbytery and the church, session, and pastor(s) which requires the entire presbytery to recuse itself? Should they formally request another presbytery to send in officers (who have no previous or personal involvement) to lead them (or men to serve as a Commission) to which they will delegate all decisions in the matters at hand?

Things can get quite complicated quite quickly. Our sins are many, and the Biblical wisdom of the presbyterian form of government is to have a plurality of elders who debate among themselves, and having done that hard work, experience the power of the Holy Spirit among them such that, in the end, after protracted debate and seeking outside counsel, they can announce their decision as the first council of Jerusalem announced theirs, prefacing it with that blessed statement I first heard and understood when my own mother repeated it to me in my teenage years:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us… (Acts 15:28)

What is required is mutual submission between the congregation, the session, the pastor, and the presbytery. No party may act summarily, without respect and submission to the other parties, each of whom hold authority over him.

To do so is contumacy. It is to renounce jurisdiction, at which point that man either repents, or is recognized as having removed himself from the presbytery (which in presbyterian polity, is the pastor’s own church).

In other words, such a pastor demits his office and, without repentance, becomes subject to the necessary actions of his presbytery in both removal of his office (defrocking him) and his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Presbyterian polity works only as well as its officers and judicatories submit their decisions and divisions to one another for examination, prayer, debate, and judgment. Thereby they acknowledge individually and jointly that they are not to be trusted, themselves, and must be under authority.

So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.

Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.

They judged the people at all times; the difficult dispute they would bring to Moses, but every minor dispute they themselves would judge. (Exodus 18:24-26)

In our MAGA, Covid, social media age, no one wants to be told to submit to the proper authorities placed over us by our Heavenly Father. We are manufacturing machines producing exceptions and excuses as to why our authorities cannot and must not be trusted.

But consider all the reasons the Sons of Israel had to refuse the authority of the elders Moses appointed. Consider how the rebellions against Moses worked out for the rebels there in the wilderness. Are we really so confident that presbyterian principles of church order and government are another ancien regime needing the mob’s revolution?

So to the members of Tenth Presbyterian Church, the way forward which honors God is to hold your officers accountable to obey their ordination vows by submitting to the rules and processes of your own church Bylaws, Westminster Standards, and Book of Church Order.

Ask for God’s mercy on you and your officers as you pray your way forward.

NOTE: Few men or women read the presbyterian book of church order (“bco”) for entertainment. Yet, when arguments and fights break out among us, as they did in Antioch (for only one instance), it can be helpful to open it up and read.

Do word searches for “call,” “jurisdiction,” “congregational meeting,” “session,” “concur,” “concurring,” “concurrence,” “resignation,” etc. Check out 25: The Dissolution of the Pastoral Relation. Also helpful concerning the dissolution of the call of a pastor in extraordinary circumstances: 38. Special Rules Pertaining to Process against a Minister.

Linked above is our own Book of Church Order in Evangel Presbytery. Most presbyterian denominations have their own version of this same book of church order, the largest part of which can be traced back to the first presbyterian general assembly here in America held in 1789. For more on the history of different segments of presbyterian preliminary principles, forms of government, rules of discipline, and directories for worship, see this helpful page by Archivist Wayne Sparkman of the Presbyterian Church in America.

(First in a series.)

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1PCA Book of Church Order 20-8 through 20-10: “Prosecution of call: One or more commissioners shall be appointed by the church to present and prosecute the call before their Presbytery.”

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