New Leadership Structure Recommended Amid Much Disagreement

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The Council of Delegates of the Christian Reformed Church voted to recommend to Synod 2022 a new leadership structure that it hopes will solve issues of compliance with Canada Revenue Agency rules for nonprofit organizations. The decision comes after more than a year of discussion about how the denomination’s leadership should be structured. (The Council serves in the interim of synod, the CRC’s annual general assembly. It met May 5-7 via video conferencing.)

The new model was brought forward by the structure and leadership task force (SALT) appointed by the Council last October after members of the Canada Corporation (the Canadian delegates of the Council) learned in late 2019 that the current structure was not compliant. The Council implemented interim changes while seeking a long-term restructuring plan. At issue is the requirement that Canadian nonprofits retain direction and control of all resources acquired in Canada. That duty is not met if decisions made by the Canada Corporation are subject to approval of the entire Council, where U.S. delegates hold a majority.

“The CRA compliance issue is not the main point. The main point is partnership.”

—Bev Bandstra, Classis B.C. South-East

After various task forces made recommendations during 2020, the SALT report was expected to solve many of the issues presented by the tax compliance issue.

What it didn’t solve is a struggle that’s been going on for more than three decades over how much autonomy Canadians have in directing how ministries of the Christian Reformed Church are carried out in Canada.

Task force chair John Lee, Classis Iakota, acknowledged the issue and the strong emotions evident during the Council’s debate about it. “There are different visions of what the CRC should look like,” he said. “I don’t think that these competing visions will suddenly go away. If this was a compliance issue only, you wouldn’t see tears and anger. There are many other things going on in our hearts.” He wondered if this structure could be a way to walk together to advance ministry.

General Secretary, Chief Administrative Officer, Executive Director-Canada

The approved model creates the Office of the General Secretary with two leadership positions: general secretary and chief administrative officer. The general secretary would report directly to the Council and the CAO to the general secretary. The Office of the General Secretary would guide and direct the entire CRCNA organization. Either position could be held by an American or a Canadian. According to the SALT report, the rationale for creating the office of the general secretary is to “ensure ecclesiastical and administrative integration” for shared governance of the binational denomination’s ministry and mission.

Additionally, there would be an executive director-Canada to oversee all CRC ministries in Canada. That person would report to the Canada Corporation. The executive director-Canada would work in partnership with the office of the general secretary. The general secretary could assign tasks to the executive director-Canada.

(See also "New CRCNA Leadership Structure: What Is It?")

Many Canadians Unhappy

Recommending the new model was not an easy decision for the Council. The Canada Corporation drafted a communication to the full Council expressing concerns with the proposed model, and during debate some Canadian members vigorously opposed the plan. While the proposed joint management agreements bridging U.S. and Canadian ministries have potential to solve the legal risks with CRA, they said, the SALT report wasn’t clear enough about the process to create those agreements and about their intended function, which ought to be not only to "clarify but also to govern the working relationships."

“If this was a compliance issue only, you wouldn’t see tears and anger. There are many other things going on in our hearts.”

—John Lee, Classis Iakota, chair of SALT

In discussion some delegates objected that the report failed to address cultural differences between Canada and the U.S.

Task force member William Koopmans (Classis Hamilton) said he agrees with the principles of the SALT report. Regarding Canada Corporation’s concerns, he said, “It’s a mark of humility and teamwork if we can acknowledge our work isn’t perfect and that we can work together to make it better.”

Canadians Want Collaboration

The communication from the Canada Corporation said that while collaboration was championed in the report, some parts of the structure contradict that. “The CRA compliance issue is not the main point,” Bev Bandstra (Classis B.C. South-East) said, her voice trembling. “The main point is partnership. And that is what I am missing in the SALT report. We have had these discussions for 30 years on the Canadian side of the denomination. We want to maintain unity. We need that new culture of partnership.”

Task force reporter Fred Koning, a retired pastor who has served in both countries, questioned the Canadian delegates’ reasons for opposing the report, suggesting they might have different priorities than the people in Canadian churches—namely, a separation from the American church. Darren Roorda, Canadian ministries director, directly challenged that.

“That is not what is creeping up in this discussion,” he asserted. “This is all about being the most effective church in the context we are in.”

Ralph Wigboldus (Classis Huron) echoed that, contending, “If he [Koning] thinks that is what Canada Corporation is saying, he completely doesn’t understand the Canada Corporation.”

Several Canadians wanted the whole proposal tabled until October to allow more work to be done. An attempt to pause the process failed by a vote of 28-18. Voting is anonymous unless a delegate chooses to register a vote, so it is not known if the votes were divided along national lines.

Why No Executive Director-U.S.?

As agreed to in principle last October, the new model does not have an executive director-U.S. in parity with the Canadian structure.

The new model calls for establishing a Canadian Office of the CRC. Roger Sparks (Classis Minnkota) wondered why there wasn’t also a U.S. office. “Even though membership is larger in the U.S., it would be reasonable to mirror as much as possible. Why is there a strategic stated purpose not to have parity?” he asked.

“The question we were trying to answer was not parity. It was ministry need,” Lee replied.

Delegates voted 35-10 to establish a Canadian office. Wigboldus and Aaltje van Grootheest, Canada at-large delegate, registered their negative votes to this and four other recommendations.

What’s Next

Lee stressed to the delegates that the model is not set in stone. It will need to be vetted by lawyers and the Canada Revenue Agency. Then it will go to the churches and classes for input prior to Synod 2022.

In preparation for that, the Council of Delegates and the Canada Corporation will create search teams and identify candidates for the newly approved positions, pending Synod 2022’s decision. Roorda is serving as interim executive director-Canada. Colin Watson Sr. will remain the executive director until Synod 2022.

About the Author

Gayla Postma retired as news editor for The Banner in 2020.

See comments (1)


Canadians and Americans are of different cultures and those differences show up in how church work and ministry are done.  In the Christian Reformed Church, Canadian leadership and how they think to do leadership in the church can be very different than what an American pastor and leadership sees or does it.  I am an American and how Canadian leadership approaches certain issues are not workable for me.  I tried it twice in significant situations involving abuse of power and both went down with concerns.  I did not feel understood and heard.  Canadians are of a different strand than me.   

Like I have done many times in my 25 years of bringing up awareness to the "top" of our leadership about abuse of power pastors and leaders, I have no desire to talk to a Canadian executive director about abuse of power issues.  I can predict that a Canadian will not see my concerns like an American executive director would.  In fact, when presenting abuse of power concerns to nearly all of the recent executive directors (and top leaders) , I was helped most by those who were American.   

You may think, "Why doesn't she just talk to Safe Church Office?"  I do.  But my situations extend beyond Safe Church and need to be heard by broader leadership, like COD delegates, committees, and executive directors because of the level of concerns that become known to me. 

Can we accept something that I believe has always been there but may not have been said enough?  We're one denomination in two cultures and it doesn't work. 

From reading this article, it looks like we are trying to force a shoe to fit.  It's time we accept that we come from different places and cultures and parting from each other is okay.