When annual synods take important actions, do future synods remember those decisions and the context for them? (Synod is the annual general assembly of the Christian Reformed Church.)
Here is one such decision and what the result was.
Synod 2016 instructed the Board of Trustees (now the Council of Delegates) to evaluate and prioritize all existing denominational programs and ministries with the goal of “reducing the institutional footprint [of the denomination].” One of the reasons for the decision, noted in the grounds, is to allow churches and classes to better support their local ministries. The result of the efforts were to be reported to Synod 2018. (See Acts of Synod 2016, p. 858.)
Synod 2016 was responding to both a request from Classis Iakota (a regional group of churches) and a report from a task force commissioned by the Board of Trustees (BOT) to look at the ministry shares system.
Iakota was concerned about the amount of money that flows from local churches to the denominational ministries and administration. It suggested that some of that money would be better left with the congregations to invest in local ministry.
For example, in 2016 each congregation was asked to pay an assessment (called “ministry shares”) of $339.48 for every member over the age of 18. A congregation of 100 members would pay $33,948.
Many churches have simply reduced the amount they pay for ministry shares in order to expand local ministry. Rather than accepting that, Classis Iakota’s request to synod was to radically overhaul the ministry shares system itself and reduce the amount flowing from churches to the denomination.
Alternatively, the task force report also studied the system, not with an eye to reducing the overall budget but by making ministry shares mandatory on each classis. With everyone participating, ministry shares could be reduced from $339 to $239 and still raise the same amount of money as before.
Much of the impetus for the Iakota overture came from Kory Plockmeyer, then pastor of Covenant CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa. At the time, Covenant was discussing how both to pay for new congregational ministries and cover its share of classical and denominational ministry shares.
Under the Iakota proposal, by 2021 some denominational agencies would no longer receive ministry shares and others would receive sharply reduced amounts. The total denominational budget would be cut in half. With radically reduced ministry shares, every church would be expected to participate. Ministry shares per person would go from $339 to just under $70. That 100-member congregation would pay $7,000, rather than nearly $34,000.
In response to the two proposals, delegates to Synod 2016 came up with their own plan, endorsing the task force report and also giving the board and denominational leadership a directive that included the goal of “reducing the institutional footprint.”
Compared to the Iakota proposal to radically reduce ministry shares, “reducing the denominational footprint,” is not specific. In an interview with The Banner, Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRC, called it “ill-defined.”
Even so, some people—including Plockmeyer—interpreted it to mean that the BOT would develop plans to reduce the overall denominational budget substantially to leave more money in local churches for its ministries, as mentioned in the grounds for the decision. Timmermans and the board interpreted it differently, as a call to to economize where possible within the bounds of the current system.
Timmermans pointed to actions taken since 2016 to reduce the denominational footprint. He mentioned selling the building of Back to God Ministries International in Palos Heights, Ill., reducing overall denomination staff by the equivalent of 15 full-time positions, and eliminating some programs, such as Sustaining Congregational Excellence and World Literature Ministries.
He pointed out that the ministry shares assessment (increased to $346.48) for the next fiscal year is not actually what churches pay, since many underpay the assessments. Plockmeyer, however, would argue that it is better to radically change the system than assume some churches won’t pay their share.
When Synod 2018 received the report on the results of the 2016 instructions, there was no discussion. Delegates encouraged the denominational staff to continue to do what they have already been doing, economizing by “combining program functions and infrastructure,” exploring ways to save physical plant costs, and implementing a “robust evaluation strategy.”
That missed the point of the 2016 decision to reduce the denominational footprint, according to Plockmeyer. “There needs to be a conversation about how to do our mission as the church.” That conversation would have included the Iakota desire to rebalance the relationship between the denomination and congregations.
That larger conversation did not happen—not at Synod 2016 nor at Synod 2018. When delegates, many of whom were first-timers, decided that continuing to do what the staff had already been doing was fulfillment of Synod 2016’s instruction “to reduce the denominational footprint,” did they realize that “prioritization and evaluation” was meant to be in service of that goal? Plockmeyer thinks not.
In response to the question with which we began, Plockmeyer said, “Synods tend to forget.”
About the Author
Clayton Libolt was the long time pastor of River Terrace Church in East Lansing, Mich. Since his retirement, he has served in a variety of interim positions. He is presently serving as the interim senior pastor of Sonlight Community CRC in Lynden, Wash.