Hope Community Christian Reformed Church in Surrey, B.C., was faced with a dilemma. Their bustling suburb includes many families whose faith journeys vary widely. Some are new believers and others are new to Canada. Many are too busy for regular midweek church programs. Church leadership wanted to help parents become spiritual leaders in their homes, but needed help to set up discipleship opportunities. They reached out to Faith Formation Ministries, who helped them plan and run a Saturday event focused on this topic.
Meanwhile, on another part of the continent, Covenant Life CRC in Grand Haven, Mich., was struggling to respond mental health challenges. They reached out to Disability Concerns and were connected with a variety of resources. The church was also put in touch with a Mental Health Learning Community made up of other Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America congregations. As a result, they were able to start a mental health committee at their church, train elders, provide suicide intervention training for church members, and start support groups providing mental health support to many Coast Guard personnel in their community.
In Sioux Center, Iowa, Faith CRC was hoping to commemorate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday on February 3 as part of their Safe Families Program. Through the Office of Social Justice, they were able to order bulletin inserts as well as find song suggestions, prayers, responsive readings, and other worship elements to help them mark this day.
While all three of these churches might have been able to hire a consultant or meet these needs with their own members, they didn’t have to. Instead, they were able to access resources, free of charge, through the Christian Reformed Church right when they needed it.
This was made possible through an innovative system known as ministry shares.
Ministry shares is an arrangement by which all Christian Reformed congregations are asked to contribute a set amount of money per active member to help fund shared denominational ministries.
“Through ministry shares, important ministries are funded and are accessible to all CRC congregations without any one church having to foot the entire bill,” explained John Bolt, chief financial officer of the CRCNA. He added, “A steady stream of funding is available for joint ministry efforts in an ongoing way without the high overhead costs associated with traditional fundraising campaigns.”
This system, while similar to today’s crowd-funding initiatives, is not new. In fact, it goes back to the very early days of the denomination. In 1862, when the CRCNA was only five years old, its leaders realized that they needed to find a way to cover the $400 annual salary of Rev. Koenraad Van Den Bosch, one of its first pastors. Their solution was to ask each of the congregations where Van Den Bosch preached to contribute toward the cost. It worked so well that they decided to use the same approach to help pay for pastor training. As a result, a fund to create Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary was born.
From there the system took off.
“Ministry shares has been known by a variety of names over the years including assessments and quotas, but the theory behind it has remained the same: CRC congregations and members realized that they could do more and better ministry when they worked together than if they did it all on their own,” explained Bolt.
Sharing Ministry Today
Today, ministry shares remain a stewardly and cost-effective foundation for our denomination. “Nearly every ministry of the CRCNA receives at least part of their funding through ministry shares,” said Steven Timmermans, executive director of the CRCNA.
He pointed out that mission agencies such as Resonate Global Mission and Back to God Ministries International receive approximately 35 percent of their support from ministry shares, Calvin Theological Seminary receives about 32 percent, and ministries such as Disability Concerns and Faith Formation Ministries rely on ministry shares for about 80 percent of their funding.
World Renew, which was started in 1962 as an outreach of CRC deacons, does not receive ministry shares because its founders felt that special offerings were a better fit for its type of programs. Congregations are asked to take at least four offerings per year to support World Renew in lieu of ministry shares.
For all other ministries, ministry shares are a crucial part of their annual budgets.
“Ministry shares are an amazingly efficient and stewardly way for us to accomplish ministry together,” said Timmermans, citing how the system allows all members to contribute support no matter what their income level. “Over the years, as synod decided to start new programs—whether it be Safe Church, Disability Concerns, or an online community of the Network—we’ve used ministry shares as a way of enabling all of our congregations to contribute toward the costs. In this way, every initiative is truly part of our shared ministry.”
Adapting to Changing Realities
Over its nearly 160-year history, the ministry shares program has hit a few obstacles and has had to be adjusted. In the 1930s, for example, in the midst of the Great Depression, there were several congregations who struggled to pay their full share.
“Synod 1938 debated this topic and wondered whether a congregation should be punished for not meeting their ministry shares obligations,” said Bolt, explaining that some felt that these congregations should be billed for their ministry shares shortages and expected to pay back this amount in future years. “They ultimately decided that that’s not what the ministry shares program should be. Congregations should be able to contribute—or not—as their unique situations allow,” he said.
Similarly, in 1939 synod decided to combine two ministry shares systems into one. Before that, churches were asked to contribute “assessments” to fund institutions such as Calvin College, Calvin Seminary, synodical expenses, and the minister’s pension fund. Churches also contributed “quotas” to pay for special interest programs such as Home Missions and World Missions. Synod found that this dual system was confusing for people so they combined the two into one; later it was renamed “ministry shares.”
As the CRCNA grew, its members added new colleges and universities in addition to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. In response to this reality, synod adjusted the ministry shares system again to encourage more support for these schools. Ministry shares allocations for Calvin College vary by classis and are based on the number of CRC students from that classis who attend the school. Where this enrollment is lower, churches are also encouraged to direct support to Dordt College, Redeemer University College, The King’s University, or Trinity Christian College.
Today, one of the biggest issues facing ministry shares is under-payment. “If every CRC member and every congregation gave their covenanted amount to ministry shares, it would provide about $40 million for ministry locally and around the world,” explained Bolt.
Some churches, however, have shifted toward prioritizing local causes or church efforts instead of denominational ministry shares. Others have difficulty raising enough money to pay their covenanted amount. “Some churches simply do not have the financial means to contribute their fair share. While synod has said that when one church can’t pay, it is up to other congregations in their classis to help meet this obligation, in recent years that hasn’t been happening. Contributions to ministry shares have been declining and classes have not always filled the gap,” Bolt said. Today, churches contribute on average only about 60 percent of their covenanted amount to ministry shares each year. As a result, ministries have had to be reduced and programs have been cut back.
Ministry Shares Reimagined
Synod 2016 recognized the financial gap in the ministry shares system and asked that the program be reconsidered. It instructed staff to prioritize and evaluate existing programs and to develop a proposal for reimagining ministry shares. This proposal will be brought to Synod 2019 for discussion and decision.
“It is always good to revisit programs and tweak them for current realities,” said Bolt, who helped to put together the 2019 proposal. “I’m hopeful that what we’ve put together will better match the planning cycles and realities of our congregations and will result in an even better system going forward.”
In the meantime, the current ministry shares system will continue to pool resources to make vital programs available to Hope Community, Red Valley CRC, Faith CRC, and others.
“Some of the ministries to which Christ calls us can be difficult to do on our own. Ministry shares allow us to pool our resources in order to do more together,” said Timmermans. “It is a big reason why the CRC is able to support a range of ministry programs that is unparalleled for a denomination of our size. We hope it will continue well into the future.”
Reimagining Ministry Shares: A Proposal
Delegates to Synod 2019 will discuss a proposal to reimagine ministry shares in a way that can better fund ministry priorities. This proposal shifts the emphasis of ministry shares toward congregational pledges by suggesting the following process:
- As part of their budgeting process, each church will carefully consider how much it can pledge towards ministry shares. Guidance for making this decision will be developed by denominational staff, endorsed by the Council of Delegates (COD), and sent to the churches and classis treasurers.
- Each classis will discuss the pledges from congregations in their region and decide if any adjustments need to be made.
- Preliminary CRCNA ministry budgets will be built around these pledged amounts from classes.
- The budgets will be finalized at the May Council meeting each year.
The proposal states that there should be no penalties for not paying ministry shares and that each classis should determine whether or not emerging church plants should contribute. It also suggests a streamlined formula for funding educational institutions.
For more information, see this year’s Agenda for Synod.