Ministry Funding Receives New Scrutiny

The funding of the ministry of the Christian Reformed Church will gain attention at Synod 2016 as a result of an overture from Classis Iakota that focuses on the ministry shares system and a report from the Board of Trustees of the Christian Reformed Church that focuses on financial sustainability. Ministry shares are the monies congregations give to support its shared ministries.

Churches are remitting less and less of the ministry shares amount requested. As a result, Classis Iakota (a regional group of churches) sent an overture (request) to Synod 2016 recommending radical changes to the system. A financial sustainability report from the Board of Trustees addresses some of the concerns raised in the Iakota overture. Both support the ministry shares system as a way of raising funds, but both acknowledge the need to make the system work for the next generation.

The concept of ministry shares, which used to be called quotas, and, before that, assessments, goes back to the CRC’s beginnings. Every year, synod (the annual leadership meeting of the CRC) decides how much money to ask from the churches to support denominational ministries. Last year synod approved a per-member amount of $339.48. The board is recommending a 2 percent increase for 2017. In 2002, congregations contributed 71.7 percent of the requested amount. By 2015, the contribution of ministry shares had dropped to 59.8 percent. This despite the fact that it costs the denomination only 20 cents to raise $100 through ministry shares. It costs $25 to raise that same amount of money from individual donors.

Classis Iakota states that many churches are being forced to choose between funding denominational ministries or local ministries. It proposes that the designation of the funds be overhauled. Funding to the current major mission agencies would drop dramatically, or in some cases eliminated altogether, as well as major reductions to congregational services and synodical services. The result would be a per-member ministry share of $67.10, based on 2014 statistics, a drop of nearly 80 percent. In several cases, it calls for either a reduction in costs or an increase in “third-stream giving” to accommodate that loss of ministry shares. A unified missions agency would receive $5 million, divided between foreign and domestic missions, with very little funding for overhead.

The board is sending its own report on financial sustainability, which addresses some of the concerns raised by Iakota, to Synod 2016. Its report acknowledges the stresses on local churches. “As demands on local resources expand, ministry shares, which is often one of the largest single line items in the church budget, become a focus of budget reductions, especially as there are currently no direct consequences of reduced or eliminated support,” the report states.

The report also noted that some congregations see the work of the denomination as being driven “top down” by the denominational leadership. Director of, finance and operations John Bolt said that many people don’t understand that the missions supported by ministry shares are those that came from requests from the churches via synods over the years.

He used the analogy of being sent to the grocery store. The master (the churches) sends its worker (the denomination) to the store with a long grocery list. When the worker arrives at the checkout, the cashier tells the worker what the cost is. But the master decides that he only wants to give the worker some of the money. “I think that describes our situation here,” Bolt told the board. “The churches have given the board of trustees a list of ministry to do through synod, but when we turn to them to fund the ministry, they tell us they need to focus on the work they are doing locally.”

That leaves us with several possible actions, he said. One is to start putting some items back on the shelf (to stop doing some of the ministry), and another is to have the church own the request and fund the ministry. “Like all such issues, the real answer lies probably somewhere in the middle,” Bolt said.

The board endorsed action steps contained in the report on financial sustainability, requesting the executive director to develop a strategy for implementation. A first step is helping churches understand that the work being done is at their request through synod. Another step is to evaluate if there has been “mission creep,” making sure the work is still what the congregations want, rather than ministry growth based on leadership’s desires.

A significant change included in the report is the role of classes in the determination of how funding will be allocated among the individual congregations. The report suggests that the ministry funding request would go to each classis, which would then decide the fair levels of financial responsibility of each of its congregations, sharing the responsibility as a classis. “Allowing each classis to determine the best method of requesting funding from the local churches to meet their allocation may be the best strategy for long-term sustainability,” the report said.

If Synod 2016 adopts the report, the Board of Trustees intends to bring the strategy and implementation plan to Synod 2017 for its consideration.

Synod 2016 will receive both documents when delegates gather at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 10-17. The Banner will post articles on its website throughout the week and keep readers updated via Twitter (hashtag #crcsynod) and Facebook. There will also be a live webcast, live blogging, and press releases from CRC Communications. The July/August 2016 print issue of The Banner will include a round-up of news from Synod 2016.

About the Author

Gayla Postma is news editor for The Banner.

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Comments

Call it "mission creep" if you like (using this article's phrase) but it certainly cannot be shown, in my mind, that the political lobbying now done by OSJ is the result of any request of CRC members or their Synodical representatives.  Sure, the words of any synodical resolution can be stretched beyond recognition if one wants to find justification for turning an agency's actions in a certain direction, but I really doubt that the delegates to any of our Synods decided that the CRC should lobby, for example, for the Senate version of a federal Agriculture bill and against the House version.  Had any Synod included a motion to do that, the motion should have been successfully challenged as out of order because it conflicted  with Church Order Article 28.

This is just one example.  Increasingly, the denominational part of the CRC has decided to become a political lobbying force, following the pattern of most mainline churches, and in spite of CO Article 28.  If the denomination decides only to adhere to the constraints of its own rules (CO Art 28), it can actually reduce its ministry share revenue requirements (OSJ is probably costing around a half-million annually).  Perhaps more importantly, it would also stop the denominational apparatus from contradicting the political positions of, arguably, most of its members.

I have long defended our ministry share process--so many wholesome ministires are thereby supported.  But when you realize those ministry shares are also used for something like the ill-advised Doctrine of Discovery Task Forse, one does being to ask questions.  Like, how much money was used for that Task Force?  How much on airfare, meals and hotels?  How much staff time was used up?  Is there a budget or expense sheet that can be made public?

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