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In the era of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, the Christian Reformed Church may be on the cusp of beefing up its policies to prevent and respond to abuse of power in the church community. The report “Addressing Abuse of Power in the CRC” is coming to Synod 2019 (the annual general assembly of the CRC) with 11 recommendations calling for training and accountability. (See the task force’s recommendations, abbreviated below.)

“Effective prevention and response requires focused attention and intentional actions on all levels of the church, from the local church to the denominational offices,” wrote the task force formed to address this issue.

The recommendations include the following: mandatory training for all persons entering vocational ministry in the CRC; a code of conduct that must be signed by ministry personnel employed at all levels of the church; and ongoing training for officebearers at the classis level.

The task force wants to strengthen the church’s response to abuse of power when it happens, including tracking enquiries about abuse situations to prevent transfer of abusive leaders to other churches. And it wants non-disclosure agreements limited to those that include the best interests of both the survivor of abuse and the church.

Expanding the Definition of Abuse

The task force was formed at the behest of Synod 2018. That synod spent many hours considering the impact of abuse on the church’s mission. It consequently mandated  the creation of a task force to recommend strategies for prevention and improvement of the response to those who suffer harm as a result of such abuse. (See “Synod 2018 Confronts Abuse.”)

The task force report focused on gaps in current policies, building on previous synodical reports to respond to “the repeated call during Synod 2018 to also address the deeper factors that contribute to incidents of abuse and cause harm. . . .”

What sets this report apart from those affirmed by previous synods is its expansion on the range of abuse, broadening the focus from physical and sexual abuse to abuse of power, which encompases those forms of abuse but expands the definition.

The term abuse of power, the task force wrote, is often defined as using power and influence for personal gain at the expense of another person. It encompasses a wide range of types of abuse, from bullying and harassment to emotional abuse, physical abuse, and sexual assault. In the church context, abuse of power draws attention to the responsibility of those with power to be mindful of the dynamics of relationships in which the other party has less power.

The task force noted the spiritual implications of abuse for the church as the family of God and quoted Philippians 2:3 as a biblical picture of how power is to be used, “in service to the other and not for ‘selfish ambition or vain conceit.’”

Not Just Leaders

And lest church leaders be portrayed only as potential perpetrators, the task force noted that pastors and other ministry personnel can also be vulnerable to abuse of power. “Abuse of power by lay leaders puts pastors in vulnerable positions under our current systems of governance,” the report stated. The committee heard about experiences of abuse of power by pastors from other pastors. The contexts include internships, senior pastor/associate pastor relations, and dynamics between pastors at classis or synod. “Harm can be done when the line between appropriate exercise of authority and abuse of power is crossed.”

The committee also heard of cases in which staff within the CRCNA office have been subjected to harassment, name-calling, and attacks on their personal and spiritual integrity by elders from individual churches. “The behavior goes beyond disagreements over specific actions or policies to harmful personal attacks. These cases present complexities in relation to our governing structures, especially in the context of the current focus on being responsive to local churches.” 

The task force consulted with CRC members from the Korean, Chinese, Latino, African-American, and Indigenous communities and noted that in addition to the patterns of abuse found in the dominant culture, culturally specific differences are also present. In some contexts, such as Chinese and Korean churches, the task force wrote, different life-experiences by immigrant parents and children born in North America contribute to misunderstandings that can lead to abuse of power. Also, in some culturally diverse churches, “there are incidents of powerful lay members both taking advantage of their positions within the church and engaging in abusive treatment of pastors.”

At an institutional level, leaders from the dominant culture may dismiss or silence concerns raised by minority members and leaders. The task force suggested that an effective strategy to fight that would be to include examples from specific cultural contexts in training materials.

No Accurate Data

The task force reported that the CRC lacks accurate data about the patterns of abuse. “Abuse of office, sexual misconduct, and ‘ungodly conduct,’ the generic term in the Church Order, are found as the reasons for removal of pastors, other officebearers, and hired staff from their positions each year, but more specific records are not kept,” the report stated. “A repeated complaint from churches is that they find out about previous patterns of abuse by a pastor only after a repeat incident because there are no notations on personnel records, and churches do not share that information when a pastor is called to a different church.”

The CRC’s Office of Pastor-Church Resources does report an increase in requests for advice and workshops to deal with bullying and emotional abuse. And data provided by the Safe Church office over the last three years indicate an increase in significant incidents of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse: 42 situations in 2016, 46 in 2017, and 76 in 2018. The incidents range from inappropriate contact and harassment to sexual abuse by a pastor.

The CRC’s Safe Church Ministry responds to enquiries about a wide range of abuse issues. However, the approved protocol for responding to abuse is limited to allegations of physical or sexual abuse against a church leader. Safe Church responds to the calls with advice but does not have a mandate to follow up and does not have records of whether further action was taken.

Some Action, But Not Enough

It isn’t that the CRC hasn’t been active in abuse prevention for a long time. There has been a dedicated denominational Safe Church ministry in the CRC for 25 years (formerly known as the Office of Abuse Prevention). Since 1997, classes have been encouraged to have Safe Church teams.

Year after year, synods have recommended ways for classes and churches to prevent abuse. Denominational leaders at synod have advised, recommended, even pleaded with delegates to have their classes (regional groups of churches) create Safe Church teams, create and enforce Safe Church policies, to develop protocols to respond to allegations of abuse, and incorporate training into church educational programs.

There has been progress. In 2011, 56% of the denomination’s 1,000+ congregations had a policy; in 2017, that percentage was 72. In the most recent Yearbook survey of churches, 760 churches provided Safe Church data:

  • 86% reported having a policy
  • 36% have response protocols in place
  • 28% have a Safe Church team
  • 16% require training for officebearers regarding use and potential abuse of power
  • 7% include provide prevention training

The classis statistics show less improvement. Out of 48 classes, only 12 have an active Safe Church team, while 28 are working toward that.

If Synod 2019 adopts the task force's final recommendation to ensure implementation, those statistics could show improvement in time.

The final draft of the report was finished too late to make it into the Agenda for Synod 2019. After review by the Council of Delegates in May, the report will be posted online and included in synod’s supplementary agenda.


The task force’s recommendations, abbreviated:

  • Require that all persons entering vocational ministry in the CRC receive training on the dynamics of power.
  • Require that a code of conduct be signed by all ministry personnel who are employed by the CRCNA, local churches, and classes, to be reviewed annually.
  • Encourage all classes to develop a strategy to train officebearers and church leaders to be alert to power dynamics within the communities they serve, including appropriate training resources and reasonable time allocation for training.
  • Encourage all classes to monitor implementation of the training strategy, and consider adopting policies to include completion of training possibly as a requirement for being seated at a classis meeting.
  • Mandate appropriate measures to respond effectively to emotional abuse.
  • Mandate a review of Safe Church policies for follow-up in reported cases that involve church leaders, to help prevent repeat occurrences or transfer of abusive leaders to other churches.
  • Develop criteria for non-disclosure agreements to limit their use to cases where it is clearly in the best interests of the victim and the church.
  • Encourage all classes to ensure that survivors of abuse within their classis have access to appropriate counseling services.
  • Provide information for abuse prevention and response in forms that use the language, examples, and styles of learning that are culturally appropriate for the Korean, Latino, Chinese, African-American, and Indigenous communities.
  • Keep records of cases reported at all levels of church authority, to allow analysis of patterns and trends over time, without compromising the confidentiality of individual persons.
  • Affirm as core values within the CRC mutual respect for every person, an understanding of servant leadership that emphasizes mutual submission, with mutual accountability through checks and balances built into governing structures.
  • Monitor progress at each meeting of the Council of Delegates, reporting to synod each year on progress made toward specific objectives.

Synod 2019 is meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 14-20. For continuous coverage while synod is in session, download the Banner app on your mobile device or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook or @crcbanner on Twitter. You can find more tweeting by following hashtag #crcsynod. News stories will be posted at several times daily. Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are by Karen Huttenga.

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