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Taking Off the Robe

Why are retired ministers treated as second-class?


Without a doubt, the day my wife and I were ordained into the ministry of Christ’s church remains a most unforgettable highlight. I remember it well as many relatives and friends had gathered with us in the country church where we had served as student ministers. It has been a joy and inspiration for us to serve several congregations since that special event. Back then, candidates had to accept a two – year appointment to serve a congregation arranged by the synod superintendents of the Board of World Mission. With our experiences as student ministers and our new black gowns, we moved to Burnaby, B.C., near Vancouver. Upon arrival we found only a handful of people, the few who had remained after a vacancy of seven years. We felt God’s presence and strength, and during our four years of serving, the Lord blessed His work with challenge and growth.
After many years of service with several more congregations, the time came to retire. We moved away from our last congregation to a larger city, where we had purchased a home. The time of relaxation had arrived. I attended my first presbytery meeting in our new area, and as usual my name was placed on the appendix to the roll because I was not active in a charge or other ministry. During that meeting, it was announced that due to an urgent issue, presbytery would move in camera. Much to my surprise, ministers on the appendix were told they had to leave along with the visitors. In all my years of ministry, including my time as moderator, I had never experienced such action. And there we were, standing outside the meeting. A number of ministers went home, and I never saw them back at presbytery. What a loss. There were 25 ministers and diaconal ministers on the inactive roll. If you take a low average, that is more than 600 years of experience, knowledge, leadership and understanding.
Because of a strange ruling in our denomination, the issue of equality came about. For example, if there are 20 ministers in a presbytery on the constituent roll, there must also be 20 elders on the roll. This sounds like a democratic way to deal with the business of the church. In reality, it is only a theory, and a most painful experience for ministers who are inactive. After all those years, has the church ever taken a serious look at this situation? We all know that equal attendance practically never happens.
For some years now, my wife and I have left in October to spend the winters in Florida, returning home in the spring. Attending presbytery meetings is hardly possible for me. But what about all the other retired ministers? Some of them may end up on a committee of presbytery. But if they happen to be the convener they are not allowed to make a motion, second it, or vote on the issue. The same applies if a retired minister is named interim moderator. He or she has to find others to make motions as well as someone to second them.
Over the years, retired ministers have told me they don’t want to attend presbytery meetings anymore because they find it too humiliating. How unfortunate is that? Yes, we often use the words of the apostle Paul (although he spoke these words not for the benefit of a presbytery): “We like to have things done decently and in order.” We have often heard it being said: “We have always done it this way,” which sounds rather pious.
I have checked the above issue with clergy from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in Canada, and the United Church. They find it hard to believe that this is what happens when a minister retires in our denomination. A Christian Reformed minister told me that their retired ministers are often chosen to be delegates to their General Synod meetings. Why are we different? The apostle Paul writes, “We have different gifts, such as preaching, serving, teaching, and leadership.” Does that not also apply to our denomination?
When home again in the spring, I am privileged to preach in many different congregations. One may retire, but the gifts we receive through the Holy Spirit do not. When a servant of Christ retires, why must they lose their status as an active person, and why only in our denomination? Are we not all part of the Reformed church? Can someone explain to me where we find this ruling in scripture?
Our declining denomination is in crisis. Has the time not come for the General Assembly to take a hard look at this outdated ruling? Some years ago, a minister who was moderator of synod retired one month prior to the synod’s annual meeting, and was told he would not be allowed to open the meeting. How callous is that?
I pray God will give us enough grace and understanding to bring retired ministers back into action. ”‘Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for the harvest’ … and because of [Jesus'] words many more became believers.” (John 4:35, 41).

About the author

Rev. Hugh Appel lives in London, Ont. He wrote From Pulp to Pulpit about his nearly 40 years of ministry in the PCC.

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