Some other denominations are a bit envious of the relatively small Christian Reformed Church in North America’s ability to support such a wide range of ministries both at home and around the world.
Part of why we are able to do so is something called “ministry shares,” an arrangement by which large, small, and medium-sized CRC congregations across the United States and Canada contribute a per-member assessment to help fund denominational ministries.
Ministry shares provide a steady stream of funding without the overhead costs associated with multi-million-dollar fund-raising campaigns, says John Bolt, director of finance and administration for the CRC.
“This is an effective and efficient way for us to do ministry,” Bolt says. “This is a program that allows everyone, regardless of their financial capabilities, to participate in a global ministry. I’m convinced that ministry shares have to be an integral part of wherever we go as a church.”
To put ministry shares into perspective, Bolt says, it is helpful to understand the history of the program that provided more than $27 million in ministry funding during the past year.
Ministry shares probably traces its history back to the way churches in the Netherlands divided the costs of things they did together, says Richard Harms, the CRC’s archivist.
In North America, the program goes back to 1862. Only five years old at that time, the CRC needed to find a way to cover the $400 annual salary of Rev. Koenraad Van Den Bosch, one of its first pastors. The solution the fledgling denomination arrived at was to ask the four West Michigan congregations where Van Den Bosch preached to come up with the money.
Not long after that, church leaders chose the same approach of assessing congregations a certain amount of money to help pay for the education of those who would serve as pastors. This led to a fund to create Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary.
The process has gone by different names over the years—“assessments” or “quotas”—and the approach has varied a bit. But the practice of asking churches to pool resources for the needs of the church at large has continued, says Harms.
All CRC agencies except the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) receive a portion of their annual budgets from ministry shares. Ministry-share assessments are established every year by synod and currently amount to about $6 per week for each active adult member of a congregation.
Despite its long history, the practice of ministry shares is often misunderstood, Bolt says. As a result, the program occasionally comes under fire from people who see ministry shares as a kind of tax levied on local churches.
“I would like to help people better understand what the ministry share program is about,” said Bolt. “Ministry shares is the church acting as a single family. It is stepping up to do a broad ministry.”
He says critics may not realize that the program has very low overhead costs and that it is based on a sliding scale that assesses large, prosperous churches at a higher rate than smaller congregations.
Many congregations strongly support the program. Classis Holland (Mich.) has long had a stewardship committee that works to make sure individual churches understand the ministry-shares process and its significance to the denomination, says Cal Hoogstra, the treasurer for the classis (a regional group of churches).
“Our first obligation is to support our Christian Reformed ministries,” Hoogstra says. “Somehow I think that the church is bigger than the congregations.”