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Defunding toward Renewal

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As I Was Saying

As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

There is an overture to synod making the rounds through several classes (regional groups of churches) that originated with a small group of mostly millennial pastors. It proposes a radical defunding of various CRC agencies and ministries through a drastic reduction in ministry shares.

The authors and supporters of the overture argue that today’s church members have a much greater sense of identity with the local congregation than with the denomination. Hence, they suggest, the steady decline in ministry shares giving over the last few decades. Out of their professed deep love for the CRC, they offer this proposal as a way of kickstarting a radical change in the denomination's structure and mission that is necessary for its very survival.

While it deals primarily with funding models, the proposal is essentially an attempt to refocus denominational resources to what the authors see as the CRC’s essential task of supporting and strengthening congregations. It contends that the only effective way to bring about the necessary level of institutional change is to reverse the funding stream by putting more resources in the hands of local congregations. With those resources, local congregations can then decide how they want to carry out their mission and what kinds of support they need to do so.

They advocate a total defunding of Back To God Ministries International, while Home Missions and World Missions (soon to be a combined mission agency) are also cut by nearly one half. These agencies would then have to procure much more of their funding by building much closer ties with congregations and classes, understanding their passions and needs, and enabling them to form meaningful and effective action plans. In essence it moves the denomination to a crowdsourcing funding model.

I see some problems in the overture. It compares the funding patterns of the CRC with the RCA, which has a much smaller denominational ministry footprint. Yet it is our denominational footprint that gives the CRC a much greater impact and scope. Also, as ministry shares supporters have long pointed out, the crowdsourcing model typically involves a lot of money spent in getting people’s attention rather than on ministry itself.

In addition, it seems to me that the overture underestimates the funds that will be needed for even their reduced footprint. Calvin Seminary seems the only entity that gets through relatively unscathed, an example of the overture’s focus on essential ministries. The proposed big reduction of Calvin College’s funding might push it to become independent from the denomination, which is perhaps intended. I also think that some of the Congregational Services, like Pastor/Church Relations, actually need more funding precisely to serve congregations better. Also, placing The Banner under Communications may threaten its essential editorial freedom, making it merely another information organ.

Yet this may be exactly the right time for the discussion this overture will stimulate. For several years now, denominational leaders have been working on a restructuring model that is intended to do a better job of resourcing congregations. But is it really possible to radically change the centralized denominational structure toward a more congregation-focused entity without more fundamental change?

There is also a deepening concern on the denominational level that, despite all attempts to sell its advantages, ministry share funding is in a steady decline. At the recent Board of Trustees meeting it was reported that cuts are needed, and everything is on the table.

The question is: are we going to continue to shrink through financial (and membership) attrition, or are we ready to think more broadly and strategically about how we carry our mission together?

I believe this overture belongs on the table alongside the structural changes already adopted by synod last year. I’m not sure the authors actually intend that their proposal be adopted immediately as is. Rather, they seem to be saying that we should engage the problem much more radically than our present restructuring plans envision.

We need to open up a serious discussion that happens in congregations and classes across the denomination beyond the limited confines of the Board of Trustees. I hope this overture will serve to kickstart to that crucial conversation about the shape of our denominational future.

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