About 100 Canadian members of the Christian Reformed Church met virtually Saturday, Jan. 29, to talk about their continuing frustrations with the CRC’s proposed new denominational leadership structure, perceived by many to set CRC ministry in Canada on an unequal footing to that of ministry in the U.S. The meeting was convened with four delegates from each Canadian classis, CRC staff members in Canada, and several Canadian members of the Council of Delegates, who also make up the Canada Corporation.
(The Council of Delegates acts on behalf of the annual CRC synod in between its meetings. Additionally, those Council delegates make up the legal entities known as the Michigan Corporation in the U.S. and the Canada Corporation north of the border.)
The meeting was billed as the Canadian Catalytic Conversation II, modeled after a similar meeting that took place in 2013 over similar concerns. (See “Canadian Forum Causes Both Appreciation and Frustration,” Jan. 17, 2013.) This meeting, too, saw delegates both appreciative and frustrated.
Richard Bodini, stated clerk of Classis Toronto, who chaired the event, told delegates, “Anything goes today. Put it on the table.” He told participants that the gathering was not a decision-making body and no statements would be issued. “This meeting is intended to generate ideas that could be followed up on by local congregations and classes (regional groups of churches). That follow-up could include requests (overtures) to Synod 2022.”
The new leadership structure proposed by the Council includes a denominational general secretary and a chief administrative officer for the denomination. Together they will make up the office of the general secretary. Canada will have an executive director who will work in partnership with that office. The general secretary and the chief administrative officer could be located in Canada or the U.S. Joint ministry agreements will guide the work between the two countries.
That proposal, which has already begun to be implemented, came from a report to the Council by its Structure and Leadership Taskforce (SALT), presented and adopted in May 2021. The taskforce comprised American and Canadian Council members. (See also “New CRCNA Leadership Structure: What Is it?,” May 14, 2021.) Synod 2022 must approve the new structure before it goes to effect.
For some Canadians, this is too much like leadership structures of the past. Ray Elgersma and Bruce Adema each were delegates to the meeting and are also former Canadian ministry directors. Elgersma said that the CRCNA appears binational “until things go wrong. Then it reverts to CRC-USA, and Canadian leadership is seen as ruffling feathers if they do too much prying.” He said it is an organizational culture that is used to working from one central location of power, that being Grand Rapids, Mich., where the CRC has its headquarters.
Adema concurred. He said when he held the job, denominational ministries were in the hands of Grand Rapids staff and it wasn’t building up the church in Canada. “Within the CRCNA, we are seen as irritants,” he said. “The structure we have and what is being proposed does not let us be the kind of church (in Canada) that we should be.”
Andy deRuyter, president of the Canada Corporation, said it is not like in the past when the Canadian director reported to an executive director in Michigan and to the Canada Corp. “Please understand that ‘reporting’ is not a need to get approval from the general secretary.” He said that reporting in this context is more like sharing what is happening in Canada and working out of the joint ministry agreement. “It’s not a hierarchy system where we need approval to do things. I keep hearing over and over that it’s like we still have to run to Grand Rapids to get permission to do things. That is definitely not the case anymore.”
Options on the Table
After discussion in small groups, some delegates said they would just as soon see the Canadian CRC go its own way, with an ecclesiastical relationship with the U.S. church, similar to the relationship the CRC has with other Reformed denominations, both in North America and abroad.
Mike Borgert, from Classis Southwest Ontario, questioned why parting ways would be so bad. “For many years, we've recognized that the (Canadian) church has a different cultural context and it has grown to the point where it can manage its own affairs and raise up its own leaders and so forth,” he said. “Why can’t we bless each other and do ministry together where it's good and possible and necessary.”
Rita Klein-Geltink noted that "what is missing from the SALT report is a clear case for staying together.”
Others preferred to stay together but that both the U.S. church and the Canadian church would have their own executive directors of equal authority, with an ecclesiastical officer to bridge the two roles. That, in fact, was the model that the Council supported in principle in October 2020.
Everett Vander Horst, Classis Hamilton, said that separating from the U.S. seems like a nuclear option from which there would be no turning back. “I would endorse a return to the structure that the COD (Council of Delegates) approved at one point, that provides a partnership with the U.S. and Canadian directors,” he said. “If we take that road and it doesn't work, then we can continue on toward greater autonomy.”
Still others preferred to make the current proposal work better through the use of those formal joint ministry agreements between the two legal entities that spell out how the two parties will work together. Acting executive director-Canada Terry Veldboom said that the current JMAs are much stronger than previous ones. (New joint ministry agreements were recently adopted, separately, by the Michigan Corporation and the Canadian corporation. They have not been made public because they contain information about staff positions and salaries.)
How We Got Here
Discussions and disagreements about Canadian control over CRC ministry in Canada, what is sometimes called contextualized ministry, have gone on for decades. (See “The CRC in Canada: A Field Guide,” Oct. 18, 2021, and “Why Being a Binational Church is So Important,” Feb. 3, 2012.)
This latest chapter opened in 2019 when members of the Canada Corporation were asked to take a closer look at how they were following Canadian charitable tax law, which requires that control of resources collected in Canada must remain under Canadian direction. Currently at both the Council and synod, American delegates hold a two-thirds majority, which, without a separation of non-ecclesial matters, means decisions about Canadian resources could lie in the hands of an American-dominated body.
The new stronger joint ministry agreements are intended to rectify that.
Getting to this point has not been easy.
What started as a question about Canadian tax law has grown to include long-held grievances regarding Canadians’ desire to shape denominational ministries to fit a Canadian context without first needing approval from American staff and/or boards where Americans hold a majority. And along the way the executive director of the CRCNA resigned (Feb. 2020) and the Canadian ministries director was fired (July 2021).
In October 2020, the Council approved in principle a structure that would have an executive director-U.S. and an executive director-Canada of equal authority, with a general secretary (then called “ecclesiastical officer”) bridging the two.
However, after additional legal advice was received, the Council held more meetings behind closed doors during November and December 2020, raising complaints that decisions were being made under a shroud of secrecy. When delegate Harry Fernhout, Classis Toronto, asked what changed with that legal opinion, Canada Corp spokesperson Greta Luimes said they don’t have a clear answer on that yet. (See “Extra Meeting of CRC’s Council of Delegates Intended as ‘Special Listening Session’,” Dec. 17, 2020.)
Because of the additional legal opinion, the proposal from the SALT team that was expected at the Council's February 2021 meeting was delayed until May when it was received by delegates 10 days before their meeting. It does not include a U.S. executive director. It was greeted with anger and consternation from many Canadians on the Council who asked that the report be tabled until it could receive feedback from more stakeholders. The Council voted down that suggestion and the proposal was approved.
“New Leadership Structure Recommended Amid Much Disagreement,” May 14, 2021
“Governance Restructure Causing Confusion, Angst,” Feb. 22, 2021
“Still Bumps in the Road for CRC’s Restructuring,” May 8, 2020
Complicating all of this is the fact that synod has not met for three years, due to COVID-19. Ordinarily decisions of the Council would have to be approved by a synod before moving to implementation. Additionally, the impending retirement of several senior leaders made the matter that much more urgent. (See “Retirements of CRC’s Senior Executives Delayed,” Feb. 22, 2021.)
At this point the joint ministry agreements have been drawn up and approved by both the Canada Corp and the Michigan Corp, and searches are underway for the general secretary, chief administrative officer, and an interim transitional executive director in Canada. Synod 2022 will be asked to approve the proposed structure while at the same time being presented with candidates to fill the top roles.
Many Canadians feel that by then the horse will be out of the barn and there will be no turning back. (See also “Restructuring: Not Practical to Halt the Process,” June 16, 2021.)
Continue the Conversation
Following the meeting Bev Bandstra, vice president of the Canada Corp, said she was encouraged. “It was a good forum and provided the Canada Corp board with a good sense of what many of our Canadian CRC members are thinking.” She was disappointed that there was not enough time during the three-hour meeting to hear from more people.
DeRuyter also was encouraged and hopes that the delegates will go back to their churches and classes to continue the conversation. “This was a good listening session for us to hear,” he told delegates. “I hope it ignites a fire in Canadian churches. We need to decide for ourselves what we want to be.”
Bodini said the outcomes were about what he figured they would be. “There is not a lot of support for SALT,” he told The Banner. “There is a desire to relook at the previous COD-approved structure. We may never know what happened to it and why it was taken off the table. It is a very important question to be answered.”
He mused that perhaps the Council will take notice of the conversation and pick up some of the concerns and begin addressing them. Maybe some U.S. classes will do the same. Maybe U.S. staff also will start talking about it, he said. “Overall, if I could urge anything for the denomination, (it is) ‘let's slow things down and look at all the options that will be beneficial and helpful for everyone.’”
The Canada Corporation meets again Feb. 9, and the Council's next meeting is Feb. 16-18, 2022.