Defunding toward Renewal

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.

About the Author

Len Vander Zee is a retired CRC pastor now serving as interim minister of preaching at Church of the Servant CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (8)


Thanks for engaging with this, Len. I'll respond more thoroughly later but wanted to point out one thing right away: the overture does not move Home and World Missions to a World Renew model - it combines them and continues to find them at a significant level. BTGMI is moved to the World Renew model. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!
*fund - apologies!

Soory for the oversight. We will change this next week. Thjankfully it's only online right now, so it's easily changed.


I disagree with the author's claim that "... it is our denominational footprint that gives the CRC a much greater impact and scope."  I would argue that far, far more work of the institutional CRCNA is done at a non-denominational level without global fanfare, or even notice, but that if the output were measured, it would demonstrate that more work done "by CRCers" is done at local and regional levels rather than at the denominational level.  

And then there are the efforts of the "non-institutional CRC" to add to the equation. For example, I would argue that the quality and quantity of good work done by Center for Public Justice, starting by NW Iowan CRC folks (initially headed by Jim Skillen), far outstrips what OSJ does.  Of course, CPJ's work is funded by private donations, even if it has a close relationship with people who are CRC, while OSJ work is funded by ministry shares.

Speaking of real world output and denominational footprint,  World Renew has never received ministry shares but it's real world  footprint is very oversized within the CRC.  Hmmm.  Indeed, it can be argued that WR is more effective because it is not owned by the CRCNA (it is not, but rather it's own corporation with its own BOD) and because it is not funded by ministry shares.

NW Iowa CRC churches (and businesses and individuals) have done a lot of work around the globe, and within the US, even if that work doesn't get the publicity that ministry share dollars pay for.

I support the proposal for greatly reduced centralized funding (ministry shares).  It fits our history and tradition, works with our church order instead of against it, and is an appropriate antidote to the Grand Rapids-centric trend the denomination has been on too long now.

Before we too quickly praise the World Renew model as the ideal, you must remember that World Renew as a Canadian relief agency has one funding stream not available to other agencies, namely the Government of Canada. The Government of Canada has often generously matched funds for specific programs, especially disaster reliefs, in addition to other grants as well. I would love to hear from World Renew folks what would happen to them if that government source of funding is taken away and they have to rely entirely on churches and private donors. I suspect it would be very challenging to sustain their programs/work. Secondly, I have found that the Canadian CRC ethos is such that they proudly and generously give to support World Renew initiatives, probably way over beyond any other ministry/agency. So, just a word of caution in elevating the World Renew "model" as an example. It might not work for other agencies as well simply because of the nature of WR's work, and its location in Canada.

It's not just the World Renew model that gives us guidance.  The CRC tradition includes hundreds of Christian schools (K to 12) that were funded outside the institutional CRCNA, as were as CRC "associated" colleges with the exception (I would say unfortunate) of Calvin.  CRC World Missions has recently been moving toward decentralized funding of overseas missionaries as well. The Center for Public Justice is also funded outside the institutional CRCNA.  This list could go on and on and on and on.

The tradition of Kuyperian "sphere sovereignty" has meant, in the real world, that CRCers have been for decades (over a century even) doing a whole lot of good stuff that other traditions would have done under the authority and public relations umbrella of the institutional church.  The move to copy those other traditions patterns and significantly increase the the role of the central apparatus of the CRC institutional church (i.e., the denominational bureaucracy"), so that "if it ain't happening from Grand Rapids, it ain't happening," is very recent and contrary to our best traditions, not to mention our Church Order (which we've decided to simply ignore instead of change).

This "reduced funding" proposal merely takes us off of a short detour away from our best traditions back to our best traditions. As such, the proposal is not a radical one at all, even if it might seem  so to the very contemporary, "it must come from Grand Rapids" mindset.

Again, before we too quickly jump to these other models of reduced funding - Christian schools and colleges charge tuition as a source of funding. It is not purely donor based. It's a different kind of model. You cannot simply equate one with the other. I do not know enough about the Center for Public Justice in the US to comment. And I am not sure whether the CR World Missions change has been for the better or not. I will need the CRWM folks to weigh in on that, if the new funding model is an improvement or not, before I can say that model works and should be an example for defunding others. I understand there is a anti-GR sentiment or resentment in the rest of the CRC. But do we let that resentment fuel our assessment of ministry shares? Perhaps we have copied other traditions' patterns in over-centralizing. But we need to be careful not to unwittingly copy other traditions' patterns of over-decentralization. Before I joined the CRC, I was from independent Baptist-type local church focused traditions. In my view, we need to avoid both extremes - overly emphasize the local church that we lose sight of the bigger picture of God's kingdom mission OR overly emphasize the centralized denominational work to the detriment of local contextual mission. My experience from local church only type traditions is that there is often a myopic vision of God's mission. Often, a good prodding, even when unwelcome, from a denominational office with a big picture in mind can be healthy to jarring that myopia. Sure, we can "outsource" all those big picture stuff to independent agencies apart from the denomination, but I think we also lose as much as we think we gain. We lose something in that their bigger kingdom work is no longer really ours - whether we like it or not. They become independent bodies that find funding from anywhere and anyone. I think there is something spiritually healthy in owning something or being part of something bigger, even if we don't always like it - there is something healthy in the wrestling with what we don't like. I have a feeling and this is only a hunch, that underlying all this defunding issue, is really a question of autonomy and authority. Local churches are wrestling with wanting more autonomy from centralized authority. Sure, you gain more independence and autonomy to do what you want, support what causes you like, and ignore those you don't like. But the loss is that you now are in danger of falling into a spiritual consumer model, albeit at the congregational level rather than an individual level. There is spiritual gain, I believe, even when we wrestle with causes we don't like but the bigger denominational family thinks is worthwhile. I am just worried that the CRC ends up in the Congregationalist style, as I see the flaws of that having come from within those traditions. I really appreciate the CRC's ministry shares system, and the shared denominational ministries we do. I am proud of the Office of Social Justice and the Office of Race Relations, and the Center for Public Dialogue, and World Renew, etc. So many young non-CRC Evangelical Christians I talk to about these things envy and respect the CRC for precisely that - they wish their local churches are part of something bigger like that. They find their local churches do not preach or speak on these bigger social issues that they see/hear everyday in their classrooms, work and Facebook. Their local churches have myopic vision. I just don't want CRC churches to end up that way.

I can promise you, Shiao, that I am not so naive as to be at risk of "unwittingly," as you say, falling prey to "congregationalism."  I have a great deal of experience with many church traditions, the CRCNA as a lifelong member but also many others providing legal and other kinds of counsel -- for decades.  The CRCNA is in absolutely no danger of becoming congregational at this point, but it has, I would suggest, already exceeded the heirarchical characteristics of its Church Order design, not to mention it's design by decades long traditions.

But let's take an example we've both mentioned in our comment posts, OSJ.  OSJ takes political positions on a variety of matters, and advocates/lobbies for those positions, in behalf of you, me, all other CRC members, and the denominational institution.  Last I was able to get numbers for it, we spend about a half million dollars annually on OSJ.  Now I suppose if you agree with the political positions taken by OSJ, you might like it that my local churches  are required to fund it, but what if you usually disagreed with their political positions, and when you did agree, often disagreed with their advocacy reasoning and strategy?  I'm in the latter camp, along with pretty much my entire congregation, not to mention, I would claim, the majority of CRC members.

OSJ reflects, advocates for, and lobbies for an array of political positions held by the very few who happen to have, by bureaucratic connections, the privilege of deciding the public political posture of all who call themselves CRC.  And none of these political positions are necessarily derived from our commonly held creeds and confessions.  And none of the OSJ staff has particular legal, political, economic, etc, experience that would qualify them as having any level of expertise in the areas of life they get to speak for us in.  So why should the churches in common be required to fund OSJ (even if we assume our CO didn't prohibit that sort of denominational activity, which it does)?

What a contrast CPJ is, in all respects (and CPJ receives no tuition revenue).  They are funded by churches and individuals who decide to fund it, they accomplish much more, and they have staff and agents who are qualified in the work they do.  Again, given this contrast, why should the churches in common be required to fund OSJ?

OSJ is exhibit A for the proposition that the CRC has become far, far more heirarchical than reformed polity (including our specific Church Order) allows and that the CRC is a universe away from becoming congregational.  Indeed, that CRCers, both churches and individuals, created and sustain Dordt, Trinity, Kings, and other Reformed perspective colleges, impossible to create or sustain with only tuition revenue, should be adequate evidence that we are in no danger of becoming isolated individualists or congregationalists.  And these institutions are only the beginning of a very long list of institutions and work done by CRC churches and members in concert, often with support of non-CRC churches and individuals (which is a good, not bad, thing).