Rev. Mark Stephenson recalls how the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) responded quickly and forcefully in 2010 when Canadian lawmakers were considering a “right-to-die” bill.
Stephenson is director of Disability Concerns, one of the denomination’s Specialized Ministries.
His office helped to initiate the response after learning of the proposed measure, which would have legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada.
The CRC needed to speak out, says Stephenson, because the legislation cut to the very heart of his ministry—and that of the church itself—to protect the dignity of all of God’s children.
His office urgently wanted to contact leaders of Canadian congregations to have their members get in touch with their lawmakers. But it didn’t have the resources to do that, he says.
Around that time, though, leaders of the Specialized Ministries had been meeting together to share aspects of their ministries, and Stephenson knew that the CRC’s Office of Social Justice (OSJ) could help. Along with the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue in Canada, OSJ is deeply involved in matters of social justice and regularly interacts with lawmakers.
Peter VanderMeulen, director of OSJ, says his office readily pitched in, helping put together an “action alert” that was quickly distributed to churches and individuals all over Canada, with a message that read, in part:
As Christians, we’re called to be advocates for those who have been robbed of a voice. Our leaders need to hear from Christians whose interest is justice, and who wish to see government use its authority to ensure that all people flourish.
In the end, the Canadian Parliament rejected the bill by a vote of 228 to 59.
No one knows for sure whether the denomination’s efforts swayed lawmakers, but it was an example of an initiative that started in 2008 to have Specialized Ministries work more closely together.
Before that, the Specialized Ministries had been stand-alone ministries, quietly serving the church in their own ways. But several years ago, denominational leaders asked them to sit down and discuss areas of work and outreach they had in common.
As they met, they came to see that they shared a great deal, especially a core value.
“We have increasingly discovered that we have important things in common, and one of the strongest common themes that runs through many of our ministries is justice—social justice,” says VanderMeulen.
As a result, the ministries “are more and more doing things together rather than alone.”
The action alert, he says, made sure the voice of the denomination was heard on an important issue. It also underscored the joint mission of OSJ, Disability Concerns, and other CRCNA ministries to assist churches and others to “treat everyone as equal,” regardless of their abilities.
Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, the Candidacy Committee, the CRC Loan Fund, and the Classis Renewal Ministry Team were asked to be part of the effort as well.
Rev. Esteban Lugo, director of the Office of Race Relations, welcomes the spirit of cooperation he sees unfolding as leaders of the ministries have met. “We appreciate it when other ministries of the CRC work with us to bring about racial reconciliation among people in our churches and among the churches themselves,” Lugo says.
As they have met, says VanderMeulen, he has come to see more fully how the other ministries operate. For instance, he has a new appreciation for how Safe Church Ministry “is deeply concerned with ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are surrounded by a culture of protection and safety.”
Led by Bonnie Nicholas, Safe Church Ministry works in many areas, especially by providing support and advocacy for people who have been abused by leaders in their churches.
Safe Church Ministry, says Nicholas, has a network of trained Safe Church Advocates who provide support to those who have been hurt in different ways by the church. The ministry also helps churches across the denomination establish safe church guidelines.
In addition, the ministry provides educational and outreach materials on such topics as teen dating, focusing on preventing the types of behavior that can injure others.
Lis Van Harten, program director of Sustaining Pastoral Excellence and Sustaining Congregational Excellence, says she has learned a great deal as the Specialized Ministries group has been meeting and working toward additional ways to partner in ministry.
“We’ve been able to share what we’re working on and what new ideas we’re thinking about. This sharing allows us to collaborate in ways that haven’t happened in the past—often because we didn’t know what the other ministries were up to,” she says.
This spring, her office partnered with Pastor-Church Relations, directed by Rev. Norm Thomasma. His office often works with churches in crisis, but is increasingly trying to find ways to prevent problems before they occur.
So Sustaining Pastoral Excellence and Pastor/Church Relations held a “learning event” for pastors and their spouses. The event gave pastors and spouses a chance to gather and discuss a range of topics related to building and sustaining healthy relationships.
One pastor who attended the event said that he and his wife returned home feeling refreshed and eager to move ahead, having discovered additional ways to create and maintain a healthy life and vital spirit in their church.
As they’ve met over that last few years, Specialized Ministries leaders have come up with a new working name for their ministries: Church Resource Group.
It is not likely that the group will become one ministry administratively, but denominational leaders and the Board of Trustees are encouraging the ministries to continue to cooperate wherever possible, says Stephenson, who serves as facilitator of the meetings.
As part of the CRC’s ongoing Task Force on Culture and Renewal, denominational leaders “are looking at changes in how we are currently structured. How that will end up has not been decided yet,” says Stephenson.
Another example of cooperation that the ministries have supported is a program that grows out of the restorative justice movement. Promoted by OSJ and the Centre for Public Dialogue, restorative justice offers a fresh approach for people to follow Christ’s command to seek reconciliation and unity.
Restorative justice is especially about the biblical teaching of forgiveness, but not in a way that simply gives lip service to the word, says Rev. John Lamsma, U.S. director for the Restorative Justice ministry in the CRC. It is about the business of changing the hearts, not necessarily the minds, of people and congregations.
“Its purpose is to help people and congregations learn how to be practitioners of restoration,” adds VanderMeulen. “This year [Specialized Ministries] jointly sponsored a one-day training for leaders in the CRC denominational offices and for regional representatives of Safe Church Ministry.”
Specialized Ministries also plans to sponsor a longer three-day training session at Redeemer College in Ancaster, Ontario, on the topic “Learning How to Grow Restorative Churches.”
“It’s these kinds of programs—programs that cut across our narrower ministry goals and reinforce them all—that we see equipping congregations to live in justice and love, to truly be salt and light in their communities and in our wider world,” says VanderMeulen.
While each remains committed to its own special area of ministry, says Stephenson, they are increasingly driven by a vision expressed in a video presentation made to Synod 2010: “The Specialized Ministries are a voice of the Christian Reformed Church as together we create a dialogue for change that reconciles people and restores communities to God’s redemptive plan.”