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Who are we? What precious things do we bring to our North American cultures that without us would be lost?

Should the agencies of the Christian Reformed Church be radically restructured so that all of them come directly under a single large board—a 60-person Council of Delegates (COD)? Should the current boards of such agencies as Home Missions, World Missions, and Back to God Ministries International be dissolved and advisory councils be created in their place as committees of the Council of Delegates with no independent authority? And should these various councils and other entities under the COD be required to come together in “ministry collaboration committees” to work on “five streams of ministry”?

These are a few of the proposals to Synod 2015 by the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC), appointed in 2011 in the aftermath of a debacle involving the executive director, the denominational director of ministry, and the Board of Trustees of the CRCNA (BOT). What it proposes is important and potentially of great consequence for the denomination. We should be paying attention.

The task force has not made it easy to do so. It is reporting to Synod 2015 via the Agenda for Synod 2015, which appears in April. For many classes (regional groups of churches), this is too late. Practically speaking, that means Synod 2015 could approve a far-reaching restructuring of the denominational ministries without anyone noticing until it’s too late. For a restructuring of this size and importance, we should ask for more time to consider. If what the TFRSC recommends is good, another year won’t matter; if not, the price will be high.

The Plan

Let me lay out the proposal in a little more detail—or, at least, as much detail as the TFRSC has included in its report. 

First, a bit of background. A long-time dream of many denominational officials has been centralization of the agencies. The idea comes back synod after synod. There are, I think, two reasons for this dream. The first is rooted in a long-ago problem—and in the solution to the problem. 

The agencies, in particular World Missions and the “upstart” Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew), were not getting along on some mission fields. This issue simmered for several years. In 1983, Classis Hudson petitioned synod for a committee to study the structure of denominational ministries. Synod appointed a committee, which led to another committee, which led, by a series of steps, to the present structure.

The present structure is based in the idea of collaboration, although that original idea has shifted over the years toward more and more centralization in the Board of Trustees. The approach was to set up a central committee, the BOT, and a central office, the office of executive director, with a mandate to bring the agencies together in a shared vision and ministry plan. More coordination than command.

This has sometimes worked and sometimes not. The agencies and agency directors retain some direct access to synod. Their directors report to the BOT but also to their agency board. The task force calls this “dual accountability” and “dual administrative authority.” It says that this has “led to confusion, duplication, suspicion, and tension.” We should note that these are characteristics of human organizations in general, and it’s unlikely that a new structure will eliminate them. But that’s the hope.

For a long time people working on the BOT side of this structural issue have wanted to fix the problem by centralizing the administration and governance of the agencies. The proposals of the TFRSC are very much of this sort. The task force complains that the denominational ministries are, at present, “a confederacy of non-profits rather than a union of ministries” and that the various agencies are “siloed.” It suggests that its plan will finally bring the agencies and other ministries together.

But this is not the only impulse toward centralization. Second, and perhaps just as important, the ministries of the CRC, like many congregations, have been under the influence of central planners—consultants, church growth gurus, and the like—who have sold the idea that if we just had a plan, everything would be better.

That sounds right, does it not? Hence its appeal. Wouldn’t we be better off all pulling in the same direction? Wouldn’t we get a lot more done if our structures were more rational, more cohesive, more visionary? The TFRSC proposals for restructuring denominational ministries have about them the lure and promise of central planning. It sounds good: together, at last. But will it deliver on what is promised? 

What exactly does the report propose? First, a 60-member Council of Delegates, a mini-synod. Forty-eight delegates would come from the 48 CRC classes; 12 would be at-large, bringing various kinds of expertise to the Council. This Council, and only this Council, would report to synod each year for all the ministries and agencies of the CRCNA, except for World Renew, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary, which would retain their separate boards.

One might ask how often this Council will meet, how it will be organized, and the like, but all that and much else the task force has left to a transition committee to be headed by the executive director.

Within the structure of the Council of Delegates (COD) will remain the remnants of former agency boards, now called “agency committees.” This and most of what follows is found on a bubble chart, with some additional information in an Appendix. For example, the Home Missions Agency Committee, according to the chart, would have eight members: three drawn from the COD and five from outside the COD. 

In this structure, World Renew and the two educational institutions, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, would retain their boards, but the three mission agencies would be folded into a Global Missions group (nine members from the COD and 15+ from outside the COD). If someone on the Home Missions Agency Committee wanted to bring a proposal to synod, it would require the approval of the agency committee, the Global Missions group, and the Council of Delegates, before it got to synod.

But none of this is really clear, because the report gives no details. The details fall to the transition committee. The whole complicated apparatus is, for the moment, a picture on a page, an organizational dream: Grand Rapids (and Burlington) dreaming.

A long time ago I attended a lecture about administrative and governance structure in congregations by Patrick Kiefert, whose book Welcoming the Stranger is well known in church circles. He said that he started his adult life training to be an electrician. A wise master electrician gave him an important piece of advice: always look not only at what the wiring diagram says but where the juice actually flows. These are not always the same thing, and when they are different, we ignore the difference at our peril.

This is true of all power systems. What the TFRSC has given us is a wiring diagram, but where would the juice actually flow? I can’t be sure, of course, because the diagram is so sketchy, but there are some things that can be seen immediately. 

First, the Council of Delegates with its 60 members will tend to rubber-stamp the work and proposals of staff. A basic principle in organizations is that the larger the board, the less real power it has vis-à-vis staff. The staff will come to the meetings prepared with a deep knowledge of what has been going on, and the Council, drawn from delegates across Canada and the United States, meeting once or twice a year, will depend on what the staff tells them to make decisions.

Second, the executive committee proposed by the TFRSC will have much more power than the COD as a whole. The committee, along with the staff, will control the agenda.

Third, it is likely that the combination of agency committees and “ministry collaboration committees” will prove contentious. The ministry collaboration committees are supposed to “be attentive to ‘management and operational’ aims (or ‘ends’) monitoring programs, resource needs, and the strategic planning of the agencies and ministries within [their] scope,” and report to the COD. The agency committees are supposed to “provide [the] agencies overview of programmatic, resource, and strategic dimensions” and report to the COD. It would seem, even allowing for some imprecise language, that the ministry collaboration committees and the agency committees would frequently run into each other.

The ministry collaboration committees are supposed to bring everything in line with the “five streams,” an idea borrowed from the Evangelical Covenant Church (along with the entire first sentence of the report) which is not well-worked out. If the denomination should be working on five things—the five streams, say—why not align the agencies to reflect these five things? It would save a lot of “collaboration committee” meetings.

I could add that in this structure the agencies will retain their corporate status, their “brands,” and their fundraising staffs, but you get the point. The structure does not seem well thought through. And the problems with the TFRSC proposals are not limited to structure.

The Ministry Arrow

The agencies of the CRC began as joint efforts of the congregations. The model was simple. There were certain things congregations could not do on their own—at least not well. Missions in other countries, for example. World missions requires in-country expertise, support, recruitment, and more. So the churches of the CRC, working through synod, formed what has become Christian Reformed World Missions. The same for church planting (Home Missions), for broadcast ministries (Back to God Ministries International), and for diaconal ministries on a national and international scale (World Renew). 

These various ministries were supported by and governed by the church through boards based on classis delegation: each classis selecting a delegate. If you were unhappy with what the agency was doing, you could tell your local delegate, who would carry your message to the board and to the staff. The ministries were, in every sense of the word, “owned” by the churches.

What was clear in this structure was that the congregations (and classes and synods) were the church; the denominational offices and agencies either extended the ministry of the congregations or provided direct services to the congregations (such as church school materials and ministerial training). But for some time—going back, really, to the time when the denomination began to tinker with structure, there has been less and less clarity about precisely this: are the congregations the church, or are denominational offices and ministries the church? Do the agencies serve the congregations? Or are the congregations outposts of a corporate CRCNA headquartered in Grand Rapids and Burlington? In which direction does the ministry arrow go?

Consider a sentence from the TFRSC report: “The Council [the COD] will speak as one voice entrusted by its congregations and synod as their stewards to lead the CRCNA through effective and collaborative foresight, planning and adaptive change” (italics original). Note that little word its: “its congregations.” Perhaps the language is not as careful as it could be, but the hint is there: it’s the COD that will lead us (its churches and its members) forward.

This comes to worrisome expression in the final two sections of the report, the first having to do with the future role of the classes, and the second with the role of synod. The last two substantive recommendations of the task force are for studies of the roles of the classis and synod, presumably along the lines of their study of the agency structure. This is not the time or place to review those proposals, but they require careful and sober scrutiny before synod approves them. There is much opportunity for mischief here.

Who We Are

That brings me to what I regard as the most important question. Read through the various TFRSC reports from 2012 to 2015 and you will see references scattered throughout to a deeper crisis in the CRC, a loss of membership and—this is related—a loss of identity. More of this is found in a study produced by still another study group, the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team. They conclude that “The direction and overall focus of the CRCNA are no longer clear, and our sense of a shared identity is no longer self-evident.”

We no longer know who we are. Consequently, our message is muted. Located as I am on the border between the Vancouver and Seattle metroplexes, I see churches struggling to hang on, wondering if they should not become more like the evangelical churches near them that are taking away their members. They die slow deaths, fading to gray (or grey) in the ecclesiastical culture.

Who are we? What do we proclaim? What precious things do we bring to our North American cultures that without us would be lost? A part of me says that discussions of this sort—foundational, deep, creative, theological examinations of our message and ministry—are no longer possible. The mildest suggestions for new ways to think old thoughts threatens to bring the house down. 

But another part of me still hopes that we have something here worth saving, if only because in the past and in the present we have done and continue to do such good work together. If we can trust each other to find our identity together in Christ in a new age, neither mindlessly repeating old slogans nor equally mindlessly following the ecclesiastical crowd, we will find ways to continue and extend this work together.

If not, we face an endless series of structure reorganizations, which, as time goes on, will feel more and more like rearranging the pews when the denomination has already hit the iceberg.

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