Synod 2009 was a real stretch. It took a lot of stretching to maintain unity while including so many diverse voices, so many differences of opinion. And sometimes that stretching hurt.
Synods have been stretching quite well lately. In 2007, delegates stretched to walk together whether or not they supported delegating women to synod. In 2008, male and female delegates on each side of the issue worked side by side for the first time with total graciousness.
This was one of the most diverse synods I’ve seen in 13 years of synod watching. There were 17 female delegates, fewer than last year’s 26, but their presence didn’t feel like a novelty even though it’s only the second year they’ve been included.
There were 24 ethnic-minority delegates, more than ever before. There were also delegates with physical disabilities, representing a new kind of inclusion. And the age spread of delegates was probably the greatest it has ever been, from 25 to 82 years old. Throw in the youth observers and the spread grows even larger.
Right off the top, Synod 2009 set its sights on diversity, electing an executive inclusive of both youth and experience, black and white, American and Canadian (see p. 31).
The theme of the Synodical Service of Prayer and Praise held Sunday at Elmhurst (Ill.) Christian Reformed Church focused on the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17, that all may be one (see p. 44). “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me,” Jesus prayed.
That unity was visibly present at the worship service. Seeing our white synod president and our black synod vice president serve communion to each other at that service brought tears to my eyes.
However, during that same opening weekend, while celebrating the ethnic diversity within the denomination, delegates to the Multiethnic Conference expressed disappointment regarding lack of inclusion of people of color in the denomination’s senior leadership (see pp. 28-29, 34).
They had to stretch their patience to remain gracious despite their frustration. Rev. Paul De Vries, Classis Thornapple Valley, acknowledged that when he told synod, “The reality is that the position of people of color has been set back.”
Theological differences also required stretching. The discussion on the Belhar Confession showed a wide range of opinions. While many expressed appreciation for its themes on racial reconciliation and unity, delegates remained far apart about whether the Belhar should be given full-fledged confessional status in the CRC or adopted as a testimony or as an ecumenical confession (see p. 32).
Rev. John Algera, Classis Hackensack, saw the Belhar as a tool for unity. “I believe that racism and prejudice is one of the deepest unconfessed sins of the church, and I believe the Belhar will help us to face this,” he said.
Delegates, CRC Board of Trustees members, and senior denominational leaders all stretched to find common administrative ground regarding what the Board of Trustees may do on its own and what it must bring to synod for approval first (see p. 34).
The new Network for Congregations, already up and running, ran into some questions and confusion in an advisory committee, so Rev. Michael Bruinooge, interim director of the Network, was asked to better explain it to delegates (see p. 46).
Some delegates expressed concerns about the restructuring of denominational administration that caused so much discussion throughout synod. But by the time Executive Director Rev. Jerry Dykstra explained the restructuring, delegates thanked him for his work and gave him a prolonged standing ovation. As Elder Tobias Lewis, Classis Atlantic Northeast, told him, “It must be daunting to have more than 180 micromanagers.”
At the same time, Synod 2009 did instruct the Board of Trustees to develop guidelines on how to involve the broader church community, through synod, when significant structural changes are being considered.
Synod tried to stretch far enough to include deacons in future synods, but didn’t quite get there (see p. 39). Synod did stretch far enough to bring young people into the room, but not quite far enough yet to have their voices heard (see pp. 6 and 43).
Are We There Yet?
We clearly have not yet arrived at a place of both unity and diversity. Discussions over the next three years about the Belhar Confession will, one hopes, move us forward. A strategy for including people of color in denominational leadership, which synod requested, would represent good progress.
How will we know when we’ve arrived? Well, when the number of ethnic-minority delegates more closely matches their representation in the denomination (presently about 1 in 4) and when the number of women delegates is equal to their representation in the denomination, we’ll be a lot closer.
When deacons are delegates (or at least advisers) to synod, we will have the kind of word and deed representation seen already in many classes (regional groups of churches).
And if young people can be given full advisory status so that a hugely important part of today’s church is represented—well, that will put a real bounce in our step.
It’s a big job to stretch far enough to include and enfold everyone. I think the CRC is up to it.
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