Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pledge statement, or church call agreement

Over at the SBC Today blog, minister Kyle Gulledge posted a thread called Helps for the Pastor Search Committee. The “helps” include a link to a questionnaire and pledge statement in which the prospective pastor is queried whether he is a Calvinist, says he is not and pledges if he ever becomes a Calvinist he will resign and move on. The context or background for such helps are: (1) there are, apparently, Calvinists within the Southern Baptist Convention who, lacking honesty and integrity, accept non-Calvinistic churches with the hidden agenda of bringing them into the fold of Calvinistic soteriology; and (2) there are within the Southern Baptist Convention a number of who are vocally and actively working against the spread of Calvinism. The SBC Today blog plainly and persistently represents in this camp.

That questionnaire and the pledge are clearly about Calvinism, but it brought to me the question of the propriety of a pastor agreeing to such a pledge statement with a church. If the pledge statement were generalized to the broader doctrines of a church rather than just Calvinism, it might read something like this:

“With integrity of heart, I have received the doctrinal statement of this church and the statements of explanation by the Pastor Search Committee, and I pledge that if my theology ever changes to disagree with these views, I will share with the Staff and Deacons my new beliefs and work with them in transitioning to a new place of ministry that is more in line with my newfound theological stance.”

Such a pledge is foreign to my experience of pastoring, but it brought to my mind the following questions.

  • Is a “pledge statement” of this sort is a good idea? Is it biblical? Would you sign one?
  • If you agree, to what areas of belief should this principle of a pledge statement apply? What if there were to major changes in an ecclesiological belief (e.g. from strict communion to open communion, or vice versa)? What if there were to major changes in an eschatological belief (e.g. from amillennial to premillennial, or vice versa)?
  • If this is about honesty and integrity, would you stand behind and support his keeping the principle of the integrity of the pledge even if it something you believe he should change and teach the church to change? (E.g., the church practices segregation and the pastor changes to teach the church is “a house of prayer for all people.”)
  • What if the pastor has been there 20 years before he changes, as opposed to 2 years? (Considering that a pastor who has been at a church that long probably is not tossed about with every wind of doctrine, and has probably earned the trust of his church.)
With hope I asked on SBC Today for someone to comment about the general principle, but the people there wanted to argue about Calvinism. What about the general principle of making a pledge statement?

As I searched the internet, I found that it may be fairly common, at least within certain denominations, for pastors to sign some kind of “call agreement” with the church. At Richard R. Hammar writes, “The relationship between a minister and church is based on contract. One court observed that ‘one becomes pastor of a church pursuant to a contract, made with the person or body having the authority to employ’.” The United Brethren web site cites a signed Agreement of Understanding between the pastor and congregation, of which “The intent is to prevent future problems of misunderstanding.” This one is not about doctrines, but issues such as moving, insurance, housing, etc. United Church of Christ web site contains a link to “an updated sample call agreement.” This agreement is not doctrinal in nature, but deals with scope of work, insurance, termination, intellectual property/copyright agreement, housing, vacation, salary and such matters. It in fact supports the pastor’s “freedom of expression in the pulpit as it pertains to matters of faith and faithfulness, trusting you to be responsible to the insight of scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit, the traditions of the United Church of Christ, and the contexts in which we live our lives.”[i] There probably are call agreements than include subscription to at least fundamentals of the faith, but I did not readily find any when searching the World Wide Web.

It becomes apparent to me and those who minister as I do, that signed agreements are representative of an employer-employee arrangement.[ii] For certain purposes a government may assume pastors are church employees, and many churches and pastors approach their relationship as employer and employee. This is foreign to my experience, and I believe also foreign to biblical faith and practice. A preacher without integrity, who wants to pastor a church for the money, esteem or power, will likely have no qualms about the expediency of signing such a statement to further his ends. A signed pledge or call agreement might have value to wrest power from such an individual, either as a coercive or legal means. Is that reason enough to contract such an agreement?

The calling of a pastor is not to regurgitate and reinforce a church’s doctrinal statement. The calling of a pastor is to teach the word of God (Eph. 4: 9-13; 1 Tim. 4:11-16).[iii] Churches should have doctrinal statements that clarify and announce “those things most surely believed.” But at best they are simply declarations. They are human documents that must yield to the light of biblical doctrine shined upon them. If they are wrong, they should be changed. Neither a church nor a pastor should bind themselves to a human document when the Bible is our rule of faith and practice.[iv]

The position of a pastor is not that of church employee. There are many pastors who have falsely installed themselves as head of and lord over the church.[v] That does not justify rectifying the problem with another false relationship. Both the church and the pastor have responsibility for what is taught in the pulpit. If they cannot agree on that, they should amicably part ways. None of these things justify a pastor subjugating his call from God to become an hireling.[vi]

Two parting thoughts:
  • There are many unethical preachers who pretend to be what they are not. There have been such as long as I have been a preacher. Churches should be vigilant to not be taken in. Pledge agreements may hinder some but will not stop those who have no ethics regarding lying. Exercising spiritual discernment, rather than devising human methods, will go a long way toward resolving the problem. Nevertheless, some fools will fool some people.
  • I would not sign a pledge agreement – not because I do not want to be ethical, but because I neither want to bind my conscience nor enter into an agreement to become a church employee. Ethical preachers can act ethically without either.

[i] The United Church of Christ doesn’t seem to be Confessional (holding to a detailed confession of the Christian faith) and has a rather brief Statement of Faith. Nevertheless, as a liberal denomination it is likely that the pastor’s “freedom of expression in the pulpit” would at some point become too conservative.
[ii] Galatians 1:10 “For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 9:18 “What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.”
[iii] If it is based in the word of God, to that extent one’s preaching will “regurgitate and reinforce” the doctrinal statement. “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.” – John Owen; 2 Timothy 4:2 “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine.”
[iv] 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
[v] 1 Peter 5:3 “Neither as being lords over God's heritage, but being examples to the flock.”
[vi] John 10:13 “The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep.” 1 Peter 5:2 “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre…” Hebrews 13:7 “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”


dave b said...

"I would not sign a pledge agreement – not because I do not want to be ethical, but because I neither want to bind my conscience nor enter into an agreement to become a church employee."

Its the New Calvinist Church Membership Contract in reverse. Instead of making members sign that they'll follow Calvin to hell, make the pastor sign that if he follows Calvin into demonism, he informs the deacons immediately so they can fire him (because obviously the deacons are too stupid to recognize a Calvinist sermon without the pastor telling them "I'm a Calvinist now").

R. L. Vaughn said...

That's a priceless perspective. Thanks!