Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Christian Reformed Church’s annual synod was canceled for the first time in its history. The CRC’s Council of Delegates, which acts on behalf of synod in between the annual meetings, will process a small portion of the agenda at a special meeting in June. The Banner will report on that meeting. Much will be deferred to Synod 2021.
Who decided what should be deferred? The program committee, made up of the officers of Synod 2019, made those decisions.
In the meantime, the Agenda for Synod 2020 and its supplement have been published. They are available online, but if you are new to the Christian Reformed Church or to synod, or if you’re a veteran who doesn’t feel like wading through a 335-page book plus its supplementary material, this is the place to find an easy-to-read overview.
Before we dive in, have a look at the front of the Agenda for Synod 2020. It says “Called.” The content of the Agenda shows how the Christian Reformed Church, in so many ways, through its ministries, committees, agencies, and congregations, responds to God’s call. As you read this guide, we hope you will find a new appreciation for this home we call the Christian Reformed Church.
Note that this is not an exhaustive guide to everything in the Agenda. For that, you need to read the actual Agenda. This year, the guide is published by The Banner in collaboration with the CRC’s Office of Synodical Services, fulfilling the assignment Synod 2019 gave to that office to produce a guide.
Gayla R. Postma, Banner news editor
Table of Contents
Let’s talk a minute about some basics. Synod is the annual leadership meeting, or general assembly, of the CRC. It is the broadest authority in the denomination.
In normal circumstances, synod meets annually in June, usually in Grand Rapids, Mich. Each of 49 classes (regions) sends four delegates to synod, where they will learn, celebrate, and make decisions about matters that concern the denomination.
As you read this guide, you will find several references to the Church Order. That is the rule book, so to speak, that governs the denomination, its classes, and its congregations. We have all covenanted together to follow these rules, making decisions in good and decent order. The rules were made over the years by people with long experience and for good reasons. They get changed only through extensive deliberation and consensus. Church Order changes require two synods to act. One synod can propose a change, but a subsequent synod must adopt it before it is enacted. (The Church Order is also available in Spanish and Korean. You can find these translations in the Synod Resources section of the CRC’s website.)
Page 13 is where we get to see who was delegated to Synod 2020. With Synod 2020 canceled, they won’t be traveling to Grand Rapids. However, we can still give God thanks that so many people were willing to give up a week in June to consider the business and ministry of the CRC.
The heart of the Agenda for many synod-watchers is
● what the Council of Delegates has done over the past year, particularly in fulfilling the assignments given to it by previous synods;
● the recommendations from synod-appointed study committees and task forces;
● the overtures (requests) coming from church councils and classes.
The Council of Delegates Report (pp. 21-134)
First, what is the Council of Delegates? The Council is the governance body that conducts the business of synod for the denomination in between the annual meetings of synod. One delegate from each of the 49 regional groups of churches (known as a classis), plus a few at-large delegates, meet three times each year. More technical information about the Council’s mandate is found on pp. 21-22.
On to page 23. The Council report includes a myriad of information, some of it mundane, that must be reported for the sake of transparency in governance. It is here that Agenda readers both new and vintage can get bogged down. The COD report covers so many things: it communicates to synod delegates what the Council has done since the last synod; how it has responded to assignments from previous synods; provides a separate list of recommendations; and includes several appendices to explain the background to much of the above. Hopefully this Guide will help you navigate those connected pieces.
This year, because there is no synod, much of what is in the Agenda won’t get dealt with until Synod 2021. Instead, the Council will convene in special session to deal with matters that cannot wait until Synod 2021. It may seem odd that the Council is making recommendations to “Synod 2020” when it is the group that will also adopt some of the recommendations. But then, many things are odd in these strange times. The actions at the specially convened session will be taken on behalf of Synod 2020 and then reported to Synod 2021.
Electing church members to participate on various boards and committees is necessary. Some of the current members have finished their terms, and new members must be elected to begin terms on July 1.
On page 28, you’ll see who currently serves on the Council of Delegates. These are our folks, delegated to make decisions on our behalf. Pray for them! If you have questions or comments, call them!
Pages 30-31 show the names of those who have finished their term on the Council and who is being nominated to serve in the coming years. Because they act on behalf of synod, the people nominated to these bodies must be elected by synod. So you’ll see reference to the nominations again on p. 52, as recommendations D, E, and F. Scattered throughout the Agenda and its supplement are other nominations for various boards and synodical standing committees.
Following the February resignation of the executive director, Colin P. Watson Sr. was appointed acting executive director. The recommendation to appoint him interim executive director through June 2021 is mentioned on p. 3 of the supplement and found as recommendation C on p. 14. Recommendation D on the same page concerns other pending leadership vacancies. See “CRCNA Executive Director Resigns.”
The year 2021 marks 25 years since the CRC allowed the ordination of women to church offices. There is a proposal for a number of activities to recognize that milestone. The first mention of it is on p. 37 of the Agenda. The proposal itself starts on p. 59 (Appendix B). The recommendation that Synod 2020 adopt the proposal is L on p. 52. Classis Minnkota has requested that the proposal not be adopted (p. 314). See “Council of Delegates Aims for Balance in Recognizing Women’s Ordination.”
Synods 2018 and 2019 dealt at length with the issue of abuse of power by church leaders and assigned a myriad of tasks to the Council. Much of the material related to abuse of power will wait until Synod 2021. One thing that will be discussed by the special meeting of the Council will be the training program for pastors. It is mentioned on p. 7 of the supplement. The report about the training program is found in Appendix C of the supplement, and its adoption is recommendation K on p. 15.
Synod 2019 made a groundbreaking decision to adopt in principle the Reimagining Ministry Shares proposal, and it sent it to the churches for consideration. The Council is now recommending that Synod 2020 adopt the proposal.
For most of its history, the denomination has set a per-member or per-family ministry share amount that each congregation should send to support the ministries we have covenanted to do together. The adoption of this report would see churches and classes decide together how much they can pledge to support those shared ministries, and the budget for fiscal year 2022 will be planned based on the amounts pledged.
The agenda supplement contains a communication from a southern Ontario church proposing a one-year delay in implementing the plan in Canada, in part due to the changes in governance structure taking place.
The Agenda contains condensed financial statements found in Appendix K, p. 110. These are provided as part of the transparency mentioned earlier. The recommendation to accept the financial statements is Z on p. 57.
In the supplement (p. 17), recommendations P and Q ask the Council, on behalf of Synod 2020, to receive the unified budget for the denomination’s ministries and educational institutions and approve a ministry share amount of $346.48 per adult member for the coming fiscal year. More detail can be found on p. 10 of the supplement.
Remember where we are? We’re working through the Council of Delegates report—a good chunk of the Agenda. One major item that arose for the Council of Delegates this year concerns restructuring the governance of CRC agencies and ministries to be in compliance with Canadian charitable law requirements. The first reference is on p. 28 of the Agenda for Synod 2020. The Canadians on the Council, who also serve as directors of the Canada Corporation, after being advised by legal counsel, made changes to ensure that the Canada Corporation has complete direction and control of CRC resources in Canada.
As initial steps to adjust to the changes, the Council identified distinct leadership for each ministry in each country; defined distinct budgets in each country; and created structures so that human resources are managed within the relevant country. Those arrangements are in place for a year, giving time for Council members and senior denominational leadership to address the ecclesiastical, structural, and legal implications for the Council and future synods.
Since the Agenda came out, the Council took more steps in the restructuring process. (See p. 4 of the supplement, item G. That material will be deferred to Synod 2021.) See also “Still Bumps in the Road for CRC’s Restructuring.”
Additionally, the councils of two churches in southern Ontario sent a communication citing many objections to how the process has occurred, including what it calls “an egregious lack of transparency,” claiming bylaw and Church Order infractions, and requesting a second legal opinion be obtained before making the changes permanent. That communication will be addressed by the special meeting of the Council.
Okay, we’ve covered the parts of the Council of Delegates’ report that can’t wait for Synod 2021. It’s time to hop back to page 23.
The tasks assigned by Synod 2019 included the following:
Synod 2019 instructed that The New City Catechism be reviewed for potential use by the churches. The review is found in Appendix A in the supplement. Recommendation H regarding the report is on p. 15 of the supplement.
After Synod 2019 declared Kinism to be a heresy, it asked the Council to address “the proper and ongoing definition and application” of the word heresy. The assignment is mentioned on p. 23. On p. 38, the Council reports completing that task. The report on heresy is Appendix E, found on p. 68. The formal recommendation is O on p. 55.
Synod 2019 requested historical research on past synodical decisions on political statements and a rationale for making those decisions (p. 26). Skip ahead to p. 40. There (in point 19), the Council recommends that synod itself appoint a study committee to address the issues, due to the gravity of the work. The formal recommendation is S on p. 55.
Other items you will find in the Council of Delegates’ report include salary disclosure information at the top administrative levels (p. 34), interim appointments (p. 35), and the annual report of gender and ethnic diversity on denominational boards (also p. 35). Why is all this here? So the work of our people on the Council is transparent to the people sitting in the pews from New Jersey to Vancouver Island. The remaining recommendations from the COD are found on pp. 52-56.
Whew! We’ve reached the end of the Council of Delegates report. These people do a lot of work!
Our Shared Ministries (pp. 135-234)
This is the section where you can read about our shared ministries—the agencies and educational institutions that we all support. It’s got the same name and a similar purpose as the “Our Shared Ministry” section of The Banner. It can be tempting to skip over this in the Agenda. Those who do will miss out on knowing the kingdom work happening in our ministries.
Some of the annual ministry reports (such as from congregational services ministries and affiliated educational institutions) will be compiled in a special report to be shared with classes and churches.
An advisory committee of the special COD meeting will view the video presentations prepared by several of the ministries and will recommend \the videos be promoted for churches and classes.
At a normal synod, each of these ministries would be discussed by an advisory committee. The reports would be received for information, and then all the delegates would pray for those who do the work of those ministries.
We invite you to choose a ministry or two each day that Synod 2020 would have met (June 12-18), and spend some time in prayer for them.
Synod has three standing committees: The Candidacy Committee, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee, and the Historical Committee. These three committees work together in collaboration with the other ministries in the CRC, but they report directly to synod, not through the Council of Delegates.
Other than appointments of committee members and presentation of candidates for the ministry, the material from these standing committees will be deferred to Synod 2021.
Candidacy Committee (p. 237)
The Candidacy Committee report requires some hopping around, similar to the COD report. The Candidacy Committee is the gatekeeper of entry into ordained ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. Whether a prospective pastor comes from Calvin Theological Seminary, another seminary, another denomination, or is entering ministry as a commissioned pastor, the requirements and expectations are kept consistent through the work of the committee, with the approval of synod.
The presentation of the candidates for ministry is a highlight of each annual synod. A very moving ceremony bathed in prayer sends men and women forth to embark on their career in ministry. This year, the presentation of 2020 candidates will be recorded during the special Council meeting and be posted to the CRCNA Vimeo channel by 7 p.m. EDT June 17.
In 2020, there are 36 new candidates (Candidacy Committee Supplement). You’ll notice there is a person identified only by initials. This happened for the first time last year, when Synod 2019 allowed some candidates to be identified by initials, for their own safety because they are involved in ministry where security requires their identity to remain unknown. See “Candidates 2019: Anonymous?” and the Candidacy Committee’s proposed future protocol (p. 237 of Agenda for Synod 2020).
This past year, the committee looked at the use of Church Order Article 8. That article allows congregations to call ministers from outside the CRC, provided that the congregations have conducted a “sustained and realistic” search for a new pastor. In cases where the committee thought the adequacy of the search was debatable, the committee has been using a Modified Ecclesiastical Program for Ministerial Candidacy (MEPMC) as a condition of proceeding in the Article 8 process. (At The Banner, we try not to use acronyms, but that title is a real mouthful. Try saying it three times fast!)
In 2019, the committee reported that six pastors engaged in an MEPMC learning plan. The committee continues to receive requests where it seems debatable that an adequate search was conducted. So it is recommending that, in select circumstances, the use of the MEPMC would be a wise approach, and would like Synod to endorse a formal protocol for that (p. 238). The recommendation is D on p. 240.
The committee also reviewed its original Ecclesiastical Program for Ministerial Candidacy (EPMC), required for graduates of seminaries other than Calvin Theological Seminary. The review is first mentioned on p. 239. The overview of the current program starts on p. 246, an addendum to the report’s Appendix. The recommendations for suggested changes to make the program more flexible are on p. 242. They are also found on p. 240, as E, F, and G.
Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (p. 248)
The Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (EIRC) plays a role in reminding us that we are part of a worldwide Christian church, not just a small denomination in two countries.
Synod 2019 proposed to Synod 2020 that the categories of our relationships with other churches be reduced from four to two: Churches in communion (the churches with whom we are ecclesiastical fellowship) and churches in cooperation (all the other churches with which we have a relationship). See Agenda for Synod 2019, p. 323. Since Synod 2020 is canceled, the proposals will instead go to Synod 2021 for approval.
For those interested particularly in the CRC’s relationship with the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken (NGK), you can find that on p. 250. (The EIRC noted it “deserves special mention” since the NGK is in merger talks.)
The Christian Reformed Churches of Australia is no longer considered in ecclesiastical fellowship with the CRC in North America.
The Reformed Church in Argentina split in two. The CRC remains in ecclesiastical fellowship with the original Reformed Church in Argentina. There has been no communication from the new group, called the Evangelical Church of River Plate. See p. 250.
Historical Committee (p. 255)
This committee does what its name implies: it keeps the repository of historical records of classes, congregations, and more. When your church has a special anniversary, be sure to send the commemorative material to the Historical Committee. The next time you have to find information for an anniversary your church is celebrating, you’ll thank these people.
Want to know which ministers and congregations are celebrating milestone anniversaries in the coming year? See p. 257-258.
Who Runs Heritage Hall? (p. 262)
Because of problems brought to the attention of Synod 2019, the Historical Committee worked this year to clarify its mandate. The committee disagreed with the Synod 2019 approval of the recommendations from the boards of Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary to take over Heritage Hall management. (Acts of Synod 2019, p. 625.) Synod instructed the committee to meet with members of the Council of Delegates to draft a statement that would clarify the relationship between the Historical Committee and all its partners. That work is not yet complete, but a draft of the clarifying statement is found on p. 267. (See also “Synod Changes Management of Heritage Hall.”)
Each year, several educational institutions with strong ties to the CRC send greetings and mission updates to synod. You can find these starting on p. 275. As with our ministry agencies, we invite you to spend time in prayer for each of these organizations, too.
And finally that brings us to:
Overtures, Communications & Appeals (p. 291)
Overtures are basically requests that synod take an action (or not). Anyone can bring an overture, but it must first be processed through a local church council and then the classis before appearing here. Here is a partial list:
Overtures 4, 6, and 7 request changes to the Church Order regarding how ministers come into, are disciplined by, or leave the denomination, and Overture 5 requests a study committee review these same articles.
Overture 8 asks that the proposal for recognizing the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women not be adopted.
Overture 12 wants synod to declare as a heresy denials of penal substitutionary atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against our sin at the cross.
Classis Minnkota sent a communication (p. 331), noting that even though Synod 1995 declared that complementarian and egalitarian views each are faithful interpretations of the Word of God, synodical practice since that time has become markedly egalitarian, making it difficult for complementarians to participate in good conscience.
Classis Minnkota sent a communication to Synod 2020 (also p. 331) supporting the use of the Great Lakes Catechism on Marriage and Sexuality (Agenda for Synod 2019, pp. 438-444).
Classis B.C. North-West communicated (p. 330) its appointment of a team to consider if a realignment of Christian Reformed congregations and congregations of the Reformed Church in America might be a way forward for our two denominations through the divisive issues of marriage and human sexuality.
There is one personal appeal in the Agenda. Personal appeals are almost always heard in closed sessions at synod. This year, the personal appeal will be addressed by the special meeting of the Council of Delegates.
We hope you have enjoyed this walk through Agenda for Synod 2020 and its supplement, finding it useful, even inspiring! And we hope you will pray for the Council of Delegates as it works through a small part of the Agenda.