Denominational Governance: Time to Get Back to Reformed Basics

Talk about church governance and denominational structure is dull as dust. Yet it is important enough so that the past three decades have seen as many debates about structure at synod (the annual leadership meeting of the Christian Reformed Church) as there have been about hot-button issues such as women’s ordination.

Why? Because how our structure and governance function relates directly to how responsibly and effectively we, as churches, carry out our mutual ministry.

In this extended editorial we contend that, over time, the CRC has drifted into a centralized model that is in danger of losing its Reformed genius.

Dull as it may be, we believe it’s time for our denomination to do the hard work of carefully reexamining that structure. With the recent resignation of our executive director, this is definitely the time to do it—before we appoint somebody else.

How Did We Get Here?

Let’s be clear—the CRC’s move toward greater centralization has never been a power grab.

No one set out to deliberately erode the authority of synod and/or the churches. Changes were made by people of good will with good intent for a church they love. And it happened so gradually over three decades that only occasionally have voices of caution been raised, warning about the negative consequences.

Part of the problem is that no one ever planned the structure that governs the denomination’s ministries in the first place. The late Rev. John Kromminga, former president of Calvin Theological Seminary and a former interim Banner editor, wrote in a 1993 editorial, “The agencies were not part of a master plan. They ‘jest growed’” (Banner, April 26, 1993).

Churches saw ministry needs that couldn’t be met locally, so they banded together with the denomination to carry out ministries they couldn’t do alone. By the 1980s, after a span of more than 125 years, the CRC sported two schools of higher learning, five major ministry agencies, 14 standing committees, and one synodical interim committee with a general secretary to keep the daily business of the church running between synods.

As one report to Synod 1987 stated, “Brought together, the resulting structure is like a house in which each room was designed during a different period, by a different architect, working with different materials.”

The ministry agencies each had their own boards and executive directors, functioning independently. Each came annually to synod with its own report, its own requests for funds.* But, as Kromminga pointed out, “Uncharted as it was . . . it enabled churches to provide valuable services . . . and gave local churches a sense of ownership of the programs.”

Dis-integration in the 1980s

However, that uncharted structure had pitfalls. Throughout the late 1970s and into the 1980s, synod after synod heard about fractious relationships on the mission fields where both Christian Reformed World Missions and the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) had personnel. It seemed that no one could decide who was in charge and how the two agencies would operate in an integrated fashion. Synod after synod told the interim committee to promote coordination, but didn’t give it the authority needed to effect real change, fearing too much centralization.

Throughout that decade, synodical committees and commissions studied the CRC’s structure and wrote lengthy reports. In 1985 synod created a Board of World Ministries with authority over both World Missions and CRWRC, hoping in that way to coordinate their efforts.

The same period saw a strong desire to run churches and denominations with more businesslike efficiency. Well-intended people who thought a lot about organizational forms derived from corporate life pushed to apply those to CRC life as well, hoping to provide better support for our mission work and to spend ministry dollars more wisely.

But as Rev. Roger Greenway, a veteran of church agencies and first director of that newly created Board of World Ministries, wrote later, “We expect sound management, [but] ministries do not run like businesses” (Banner, April 26, 1999).

The 1990s

In response, Synod 1990 decided that what was good for the two overseas agencies would be good for all the agencies. In 1992 it replaced both the fledgling Board of World Ministries and the synodical interim committee with what we now know as the Board of Trustees of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (BOT).

The boards of the agencies and institutions remain in place, still in charge of those ministries, but they are now also subject to the authority of the BOT. The result is an uncomfortable and lingering ambiguity in the lines of authority—in trying to nail down who exactly governs what.

With the formation of the BOT, an executive director of ministries (EDM) was appointed to look after administrative functions of the denomination, including that of coordinating the work of the agencies, institutions, and ministries. The CRC’s general secretary continued to look after ecclesiastical matters, such as ecumenical relations, synodical study committees, preparations for the annual synods, and the like.

The Board of Trustees managed its workload by meeting four times per year and dividing the work between two committees: polity (the work associated with the general secretary) and program and finance (the work associated with the office of the executive director of ministries).

Overall, the CRC got what it had asked for: greater accountability, more ministry coordination, cost savings from single-source support services, and, for a few years, a lot less griping at synod about inefficiency or confusion about who was in charge.

Efficiency at What Cost?

But there has been a price to pay for those results. For example, Canadian ministry, which had for 25 years flourished in its unique setting under the Council of Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, morphed into the Canadian Ministries Board. But after three short years that was folded into the bi-national Board of Trustees and now exists pretty much in name only. So the formerly close structural connection between the Canadian churches and these ministries has been allowed to dissolve within the more centralized structure.

Another cost has been the staff time and financial resources spent on crafting and managing the goals of a Denominational Ministries Plan and enjoining agencies to work together to fulfill them. While those goals have been laudable, they diverted agency personnel from their own specific missions. Cross-agency teams were convened to find projects to do together, which in practice made collaboration the goal, rather than a means to fulfilling the respective mandates the agencies received from the churches.

But perhaps the greatest cost has been the ongoing difficulty that agencies and their boards experience working within such a centralized structure, with its multiple levels of administration and accountability.

As Kromminga presciently pointed out in that 1993 editorial, “The [agencies] are doing what the churches appointed them to do, and the work is dear to their hearts. Centralized authority must concentrate on coordinating, not managing the ministries.” He warned that any central authority should not presume to know more than the agencies themselves about how to carry out their mandates.

We find it ironic that as local churches are learning to start with the giftedness of their members for ministry rather than with filling unyielding administrative pigeonholes, the denomination seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

A central board has not proven to be a definitive solution for getting cooperation and integration, either. Getting multiple previously-independent boards and agencies on the same denominational ministries page has been akin to herding cats.

In September 2000, the BOT invited all the boards to convene in one place. The keynote speaker was Calvin College President Emeritus Anthony Diekema, who had participated in study committees regarding the CRC’s structure. He told board members the CRC structure was “the most bizarre organization I’ve ever seen. . . . The governance is redundant, competitive, independent. Administrative authority is shared at best, nonexistent at worst.” Diekema said the agencies would need to shift from a culture of independence to one of common cause (Banner, Dec. 4, 2000).

Building Common Cause

A key way for the agencies to build common cause was through a Ministry Council (initially called the Ministries Coordinating Council). That council comprised directors of the larger agencies and educational institutions, one director selected from the smaller agencies (Specialized Ministries), the director of personnel, two staff members from the Canadian office, and the general secretary of the CRC. It was chaired by the executive director of ministries.

While retaining passion for their individual ministries, as a group they were charged to look toward the common goals of the denomination. They brainstormed ways to work together, ironed out spats, and eliminated inefficiencies and overlap.

Because it was chaired by the EDM with the general secretary in an advisory position, the two people working most closely with the Board of Trustees were also closely tied to the work of the individual ministry agencies.

Centralization with Checks and Balances

In 2002, as the retirement of both the EDM and the general secretary approached, a plan for leadership succession was needed. Out of that came a proposal to further improve efficiency by combining the positions of EDM and general secretary. The report supporting that merger said, “It is an established fact that a dual-headed organization is inherently unstable and less efficient” (Agenda for Synod 2004). Thus the two were joined into one position, now called the executive director (ED).

Because no one person could do all the tasks formerly done by two people, the executive director would have a deputy: the denominational director of ministries (DDM). The agency directors would now report to the DDM instead of the executive director. The intent was to free up more time for the executive director to interact with the churches to lessen the perception of a growing distance between the churches and the denomination.

Concerns about centralization were addressed in the rationale accepted by Synod 2004: “To avoid placing too much authority and leadership responsibility in just one position . . . it is being proposed that the [structure] include a cabinet” (Agenda for Synod 2004, pp. 44-45).

That "cabinet" would be the Ministry Council, which would now include not only agency directors but also the DDM, the director of finance, the director of personnel, the Canadian ministries director, and the director of Race Relations (non-voting). In early 2008, the latter was given a vote. The council was to be chaired by the executive director.

The senior denominational leaders, functioning as a group, would provide the checks and balances for the additional authority placed in the office of the executive director. If the Ministry Council disagreed with the ED on major proposals or budgets, that disagreement would be formally communicated to the Board of Trustees.

So the structure continued to grow more vertical, with the agency directors now reporting to the DDM, who reports to the ED, who reports to the BOT, which reports to synod. The administrative steps between the agencies and the churches increased—precisely the concern Kromminga expressed a decade earlier.

Still, with the executive director chairing the Ministry Council, there was a direct link between the BOT (synod’s agent) and those ministries.

However, in late 2008, the executive director—with agreement from the Board of Trustees—reduced the Ministry Council to less than half its original size and put the DDM in charge of chairing it (see Banner, June 2009). Now called the Ministries Leadership Team (MLT), the former council is made up only of directors of the main ministry agencies plus a few directors of the smaller programs. The directors of finance, Canadian ministries, and personnel, as well as representatives of the college and seminary, are no longer members of MLT. The move also excluded from the table the director of Race Relations, who was at that time the denomination’s only ministry director who is a person of color.

It is unclear whether BOT members fully understood the scope of the change they were making. Had the proposed change gone before a full synod, more people might have studied it in the agenda for Synod and more questions might have been raised.

Synod 2009 accepted the change after the fact, but wanted to know how the BOT would handle significant structural change in the future. The board’s response was based on its opinion that the change was not significant (Banner, May 2010).

We respectfully disagree with that response. As we have already observed, the change removed the checks and balances that Synod 2004 specifically put in place.

Who Has Time for Due Diligence?

In the meantime, something else happened to amplify the effects of all this restructuring.

In 1997, synod went from being two weeks long to one week, primarily to allow for a younger and more varied delegation of elders than was possible with a two-week synod.

In the decade and a half since, many delegates have complained that synod is now too rushed and that they don’t have sufficient time to provide due diligence for many items on synod’s agenda.

High profile topics such as women’s ordination and the church’s position on various ethical issues tend to occupy synod’s time. With the shortened schedule, synod depends more and more on the Board of Trustees to run the shop. A phrase now heard often at synod is “We just have to trust our leaders.”

While synod has defaulted increasingly to top denominational leadership, so has the BOT. Because the BOT consists of volunteers, it has cut the number of its between-synod meetings to only three. And board members are no longer divided into committees for program and polity, which allowed them to focus on at least part of their pages-long agendas.

All board members now need to cover the entire agenda, which is a Herculean task. More often than not it exceeds what volunteers, however capable and willing, can process. Nor do the time constraints of the meetings allow board members sufficient time for careful deliberation.

In summary, without the former Ministry Council there are no longer the checks and balances envisioned by Synod 2004. And the BOT, entrusted by synod to exercise due diligence, grows even more distant from the ministries of the church because its executive director no longer has a formal point of contact with those ministries. And, finally, the BOT itself is swamped with an unmanageable agenda.

The Result

We offer a few recent examples to show how such factors conspire to further distance agencies from the decision-making process:

Last year the budget process became problematic when, after two years of remaining flat, the amount of ministry share contributed by the churches was increased by 3 percent by the BOT’s finance committee—after the Ministries Leadership Team had signed off on a budget that had no increase. That additional 3 percent went not to the agencies but to the denominational office’s budget, which meant that senior staff would recommend to the board how to spend it, rather than synod allocating it, and so far, only 23 percent has been allocated to a ministry.

Because the rather significant change was never sent back to MLT, to the agency directors, or to their respective boards, they had no opportunity to weigh in on it or to act as a check and balance to the process. When agency directors were queried by The Banner at synod, none of those we interviewed knew of the increase.

The denominational office now controls nearly 28 percent of the ministry share dollars contributed by the churches, as compared to 18 percent 10 years ago. Ministry initiatives like The Network (valuable though it may be in connecting people and churches) are given funding even though they originate with staff and have not been identified as ministry needs in or by the churches. At the same time, synodical directives are not being completed for lack of funding, funding which should have been allocated by the denominational office, such as the increased tasks given to the Safe Church Ministry in 2010 (Banner, April 2011).

We wonder if, in effect, the office of the executive director is becoming burdened with the task of serving as the de facto interim committee of synod. Again, there is no longer the check and balance of a Ministry Council. With that point of access to the executive director removed, the line of accountability between the denominational agencies and the people in the pew grows ever longer. And with the BOT overburdened by huge agendas, it too can do little else than rely, in most cases, on the guidance of the very person whose work they are to guide.

More than 10 years ago, Greenway warned, “If it ain’t broke, we’ll fix it till it is.” We fear that is what is happening.

What Can Be Done?

It is neither possible nor desirable to turn back the clock to pre-1980. And those who agree that the current structure is showing too many stress fractures don’t know or can’t agree on what would fix it.

Some suggest going back to the two-headed model, with one person in charge of ecclesiastical matters and another in charge of administrative matters. Some say agencies should be free to do what they have the passion and expertise to do, and that the authority of the senior staff and BOT should be no more than what is needed to ensure there is no overlap or duplication of services. Still others think the current structure is fine, as long as enough people working within it have enough institutional memory to understand how we evolved into what we are now.

We believe a more fundamental study should be made, one that more globally addresses the concerns raised in this extended editorial. The changes made to make our denomination more efficient have caused more problems than they have solved.

Somehow all this just doesn’t feel like church anymore. We need to find creative new ways of getting back to what has worked very well for more than 500 years: a Presbyterian/Reformed way of doing church that keeps us all praying, planning, and participating.

That can only happen if we, as churches, make it happen. It will require our best minds and some solid study on all our parts—even though it will force us to wade yet again through all that dull-as-dust structural stuff. And we believe the time is now, before another person takes up residence in an executive director’s office that is heavily overloaded.

That’s a sacrifice we’ll need to make because, truly, how we do church together matters a whole lot.

* The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee has never received ministry share funds, only donations and government grants.

The CRC’s Main Ministry Agencies and Educational Institutions

  • Back to God Ministries International (formerly the Back to God Hour)
  • Calvin College
  • Calvin Theological Seminary
  • Christian Reformed Home Missions
  • Christian Reformed World Missions
  • Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC)
  • Faith Alive Christian Resources (formerly CRC Publications)

The CRC’s Specialized Ministries

  • Chaplaincy and Care
  • Disability Concerns
  • Ministries in Canada
  • Office of Social Justice
  • Pastor-Church Relations
  • Race Relations
  • Safe Church Ministry (formerly Abuse Prevention)

About the Authors

Bob De Moor is a retired Christian Reformed pastor living in Edmonton, Alta.

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

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