Retirement of Ministers
If a minister of the Word retires because of age, or because he is rendered incapable of performing the duties of his office due to illness or physical or mental disability, he shall retain the honour and title of minister of the Word. He shall also retain his official bond with the Church which he served last, and this Church shall provide honourably for his support. The same obligation exists towards a minister’s widow and/or other dependants.
Retirement of a minister shall take place with the approval of the consistory with the deacons and with the concurring advice of classis and of deputies of regional synod.
Article 13 speaks of the “retirement” of ministers. Two possibilities are mentioned.
In the first place there is the case in which a minister reaches an age that is considered sufficient reason for retirement. Unfortunately, Synod 1989 did not speak of “retirement age,” but mentioned only “age.” In the sphere of the secular courts such a term might give occasion to various courtcases as it is ill-defined or, better, not defined at all. What is this “age?” Is it what is generally considered to be the “retirement age?” Is it up to the minister to determine the moment when he has reached this “age?” It would have been better when the term “retirement age” had been used. The second possibility is that a minister is no longer able to fulfil the duties of his office because of disability or failing health.
Let us first speak about the possibility that a minister is no longer able to fulfil the duties of his office. Reasons for this can be of a physical or a non-physical nature. Physical illness may permanently disable him. Perhaps not all parts of the ministerial service become impossible for him to perform, but he is no longer able to function fully as he should and the congregation will suffer as a consequence. If, for instance, he should be blinded either by an accident or by a disease, he would be able to talk with members, to comfort and encourage them, to admonish and guide them, but how is he to reach their homes or to find his way around in a hospital? This handicap would force him to retire from the active ministry.
When dealing with the previous article we already referred to the possibility that he could no longer bear the burden of responsibility and, for instance, is plagued by severe headaches, brought on by tension. Thereby he would be practically disabled. However reluctantly, he would ask the consistory with the deacons to release him from his obligation to do the work of a minister, to declare him “minister-emeritus.”
The second part of this term is pure Latin. We all know the word “merit,” which means: what one deserves, or: a service which one performs. The word “emeritus” may be translated as: one who has completed his service, a soldier who has completed his time in the army. Hence it can also mean: someone who has become unfit for use, unemployable. Speaking of a minister-emeritus we refer to a minister who has served his term of office, who has completed his required time as a minister. In the case we are speaking of at this point, this “required time” is determined by his being incapacitated as a result of illness or accident.
In Art. 13 the churches agreed that, even though the bond with the church remains in force, the obligation to do the work ceases for this reason. When physical disability is the cause, it will be obvious that release from active service must be given. It is more difficult in the case of non-physical disability.
Again we take into account that by nature we all are inclined to all evil. For this reason we have agreed upon safeguards to curb possible abuse. In case the disability is of a non-physical nature, it would be wise to obtain the testimony of two qualified physicians to ensure that a demand to continue the work would be demanding something the brother is unable to do. Expert advice would also make it easier for the consistory with the deacons to decide whether they are justified in granting the request. They will have no problem in cases where it is obvious to every one. They will be greatly helped by expert opinions in cases which they find hard to judge.
If a minister has to retire because of disability, the consistory with the deacons have to judge this first of all. Classical approval is needed, too, as well as concurrent advice of regional-synodical deputies. All this is necessary in order to prevent abuse of the possibility provided for in Art. 13. This possibility could be grasped as an opening to escape difficulties. The human heart is subtle, more than anything. Involvement of the federation does not provide iron-clad guarantees; on the other hand, it certainly helps to assure everyone that here is a genuine “case” of disability.
This is the only reason for involvement of the federation. Since no release from the call is involved, only from the obligation to do the work, no approval or concurring advice would be needed if it had not been for this reason that the churches wish to ascertain that there is a genuine disability. Involvement of the federation would not be needed at all if a minister retires upon reaching retirement age. We’ll speak more about this later.
Because a minister is called for life and is not leaving the church to go and take up the ministry elsewhere, the bond with the church remains. He, therefore, retains the honour and title of minister of the Word. Retaining the title and honour of “Minister of the Word,” he also is still entitled to do what belongs to the work of a minister. Although he is no longer able to fulfil the ministry in its totality, it is quite possible that, having been relieved of the pressure of serving a congregation, he is (again) able to conduct worship services in the churches. There is nothing that would prevent him from accepting invitations to do so.
Even if he were unable to do this, and, for instance, a baby had to be baptized in a service in which an elder reads a sermon, he could exercise his right as a minister by administering baptism to this infant even if, so to speak, the child had to be brought to him while he was sitting in the pew or in a wheelchair.
When a minister retires because of having reached retirement age, it is clear that he will be able to do all sorts of work. Many retired ministers do remain active for many years.
Upon retirement a minister does not become a “minister-in-general-service” but retains the bond with the church. To prevent misunderstanding we add the words “that he served last.” As he was no “minister-at-large” before his retirement, so he does not become one upon his release from the work. By the same token, he does not come to the charge of the churches in general, of the federation, but it remains the responsibility of the church which he served last to provide honourably for his needs, and of this church alone.
Some seem to be of the opinion that it is the duty of the federation to provide for the needs of a retired minister, seeing that the whole federation benefited from his service in one way or another. Others seem to think that at least the churches that he served during the years of his active ministry should share the burden. All of these are wrong. The bonds with the churches he served before — if he did serve more than one church — were severed when he was released from the call by these churches in order to take up the ministry elsewhere. This put an end to the minister’s responsibility for these churches; it also terminated the responsibility of these churches for the proper support of the minister.
Should a church be unable, in addition to the support of its retired ministers), to carry the burden of the support of a “new” minister, this church can ask for help from the sister churches, as discussed in connection with Art. 10. At no time does the proper support of a retired minister become the responsibility of more or of all of the churches. This is not to say that the churches should not combine forces and take measures together to cover the extra costs incurred by the retirement of their ministers. If they do so, however, it should not be arranged via the ecclesiastical assemblies, since this would lead to making the care for retired ministers a federal obligation, whereby the bond with the church to whose call he remains subject, would be obscured and ultimately wholly obliterated.
With their efforts to help one another in “carrying the risks,” the churches have formed a Foundation for Superannuation. This Foundation has been set up on a business-like basis, and the churches each pay a certain amount per year into the fund as a “premium.” The size of their contributions is determined each year anew, as are the benefits they receive. These benefits are not remitted to the retired ministers but to the churches that have a retired minister to take care of. The fund is not a pension fund but, essentially, nothing but a piggy-bank of the churches, expertly administered, from which the churches can draw when they need it.
The church remains the body which determines what is needed each year for the proper support of the retired minister. The consistory with the
deacons will take into account what he receives from other sources for which a premium was paid, such as Old Age Pension, Canada Pension, or perhaps an insurance policy which the church took out to prepare for the future. In the last-mentioned case the church was most likely the body named as the beneficiary.
As the church should take the needs of the whole ministerial family into account when determining what the “proper support” is, so it remains its obligation to provide for a minister’s widow as well as for any dependants he may leave behind. The regulations of the above-mentioned Foundation also contain provisions for minister’s widows and other dependants.
For many years and decades it had been the custom that ministers could retire upon reaching retirement age, although this was contrary to the text of Art. 13. The churches to which we trace back our origin even had a synodical decision which provided that ministers could retire at 70 years of age or after having served in the ministry for forty years. This was, in effect, an unlawful decision. It was contrary to the Church Order which spoke exclusively of retirement due to inability to continue in office. A general synod is allowed to change the Church Order when proposals to this effect have come its way from the churches. It definitely is not permitted to decide that the age of 70 or forty years in the ministry is just as good a reason as disability. When Art. 13 speaks of retirement only in the case of disability, no general synod is allowed to pronounce that some other reasons may be substituted for this disability.
There have been more strange practices in this respect. It was — and still is — customary that, when a minister is appointed as professor at the Theological University of our sister churches in the Netherlands, he is declared minister-emeritus, even though he is healthy and able to pursue a teaching career for many more years. When a minister becomes an army chaplain, he is in the same manner declared minister-emeritus according to Art. 13 CO., even though it is for the very reason that he is still very capable of performing the duties of a minister that he has been asked to accept that position.
For these reasons it was decided to include in Art. 13 the provision that ministers of the Gospel are permitted to retire upon reaching a certain (retirement?) age. Everyone will agree that, when it is stipulated in our Church Order that ministers are allowed to retire upon reaching retirement age, no additional provisions are needed either for consistory involvement or for classical involvement or for that of regional-synodical deputies. These brothers need not confirm a right fixed in our Church Order, nor would they have the authority to forbid or prevent making use of that right.
This is not to say that the federation should be prevented at all cost from having any input in the matter of retirement of ministers who reach retirement age. There may be circumstances that compel the federation to request the minister not to make use of his right to retire at a particular time
or under specific circumstances. It could be that there is such a large number of vacancies in the specific classis where the minister serves that the sister churches feel obligated to ask him to continue for a while in active service, at least until the greatest dearth is past. This is one case in which such a request might be made. However, no ecclesiastical assembly or deputies are allowed to prevent a minister from making use of the possibility given in the first line of Art. 13. Rights given in our Church Order cannot be taken away by anyone or any assembly.
Allowed to Retire?
One could ask whether ministers of the Word are allowed to retire at all unless they have become disabled. Is a minister not bound to the service of the church for life, as Art. 12 stated so clearly? He is, indeed. That is why a church remains responsible for his support, as Art. 13 maintains. But would the churches act contrary to the will of the Lord or would they factually deny that the bond is a bond for life, if they stipulated that a minister has to serve only until the time when he reaches retirement age?
Ministers do not have the same position as the priests and the levites in the Old Testament dispensation. However, if anyone would wish to claim that the position of a minister forbids retirement at a certain age, he had better learn from the Lord who is more merciful than he. In Numbers 8 we read that the levites had to serve from their twenty-fifth till their fiftieth year. Even if, after that, they still wished to help and assist their brethren, they were allowed to do so, but they should definitely refrain from the actual service, from the work itself. A compulsory retirement at age fifty! And would then ministers not be permitted to retire when they reach retirement age while everyone else has that right? It is hard to imagine.
Taking into account that the average age in Israel in Old Testament days may have been lower than in our days, we may say that the age of sixty-five — which is the generally accepted age for retirement — is not too low. No specific age is mentioned in Art. 13, but the general term “age” is used. It would have been better if the article had contained the word “retirement” in conjunction with “age.” Even if, however, the term “retirement age” had been used, this still would not have fixed a precise date or year, since the term as such is a floating concept.
This provision would certainly not compel or obligate a brother to retire upon reaching that milestone, the day he becomes sixty-five. He is fully entitled to serve for as long as he is able to do so; this apart from the question whether it would be wise and to the true edification of the congregation, if he did. Much will depend on the local situation, while also the classical and, perhaps, even federal conditions have to be taken into account.
In the first place, it would not be proper to discontinue the work in mid-season. Consultation with the consistory and the deacons will take place and a definitive date will be chosen such as would cause the least inconvenience for filling the pulpit, teaching catechism classes, and so on.
Secondly, a minister would also have to reckon with the situation within
the classis. If there are many vacancies in the classis, he will hesitate to increase their number by retiring right away. He does not have to keep working, but the classical situation may make him postpone the date of retirement. A similar situation could be found in the federation as a whole. The advice of the consistory with the deacons will be a welcome input. Although released from the obligation to do the work of a minister, the brother remains the minister of that church. His successor will be the church’s second minister. The bond remains.