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.”
A Look at the CRC’s Specialized Ministries
Office of Disability Concerns
Rev. Mark Stephenson, director
616-224-0844 or 888-463-0272
Purpose: Disability Concerns helps churches to end the isolation and disconnectedness of persons with disabilities and their families. It also nurtures the spiritual lives of people with disabilities so that they become professing and active members of their churches, and encourages the gifts of people with disabilities so that they can serve God fully in their churches.
History:In 1977, Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., decided to phase out its inpatient care for children with intellectual disabilities. This action created a hardship for a number of Christian Reformed families, leading to a denominational ministry to call churches to pay "special attention to the needs and gifts" of people with various disabilities. Synod 1982 created what is now know as Disability Concerns with the hiring of a half-time staff person and the publication of a newsletter.
Safe Church Ministry
Bonnie Nicholas, director
Purpose: Safe Church Ministry works to make sure that all CRC congregations become places where people are safe from any threat of abuse, the value of each person is honored, and relationships are open, honest, and respectful. Safe Church Ministry also provides resources to help congregations make every effort to prevent abuse and to respond effectively with compassion and justice when abuse has occurred.
History: Synod 1989 convened a committee to study the problem of abuse among the membership of the CRC. A survey was commissioned and conducted by the Calvin College Social Research Center. Synod 1994 created the office now known as Safe Church Ministry and appointed a full time director.
Esteban Lugo, director
Purpose: Synod 2004 approved a statement of vision and a revised mandate for Race Relations, paving the way for it to “initiate and provide effective and collaborative training” for the purpose of dismantling racism in all its forms. Synod 2010 adopted motions to “reaffirm its commitment to ethnic diversity in the CRC” and to call for a yearly report from Race Relations “on the status of denominational efforts to address issues of ethnic diversity and racial justice.”
History: The CRC began to deal with the matter of race relations in 1957 in connection with the issue of segregation. Two years later, it adopted a set of declarations from the Reformed Ecumenical Synod (RES), which articulated its stand on race relations. These declarations were affirmed and others were added in 1968, 1969, and 1977. The Christian Reformed Board of Home Missions began to design and implement programs regarding racism through a new Race Commission. It became a standing committee in 1981, appointed its first director in 1986, and in 1995 became known as the Office of Race Relations.
Office of Social Justice
Peter VanderMeulen, coordinator
Purpose: The Office of Social Justice is a ministry of the CRC that responds to God’s call to let justice flow like a river in our personal and communal lives, especially as it relates to hunger and poverty. It educates CRC members, encourages and supports their engagement in social justice issues, and occasionally is involved in direct advocacy.
History: The CRC appointed a world hunger and social justice coordinator in 1994, and the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action was established in 2000. The office now often shortens its title to the Office of Social Justice.
The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue
Mike Hogeterp, research and communications manager
Purpose: The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue is mandated to present a prophetic witness that demonstrates Jesus’ ministry of justice to public officials today. Our work is based, whenever possible, on the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church, as determined by synod, and we follow particular guidelines for submissions to government. The Centre for Public Dialogue opened an office in Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, in 2010.
History: The Centre for Public Dialogue opened its Ottawa office in 2010. However, the Committee for Contact with the Government, as it was known before that, has been a faith-filled witness for justice in public life since 1968. The advocacy and educational activity of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue is carried out by staff and overseen by what was called the Committee for Contact with the Government. It is responsible to the CRC’s Board of Trustees. Members of CCG come from CRC churches and ministries representing regions across Canada.
Norm Thomasma, director
Purpose: Pastor-Church Relations advocates for healthy relationships between congregations, pastors, and staff; manages ministerial and church profiles in the pastor search process; oversees the credentialing program for nonordained staff; endorses Specialized Transitional Ministers and helps congregations obtain their services; provides consultation in times of transition or crisis; and oversees the Continuing Education Fund for pastors and church staff.
History: Synod 1982 approved the formation of Pastor-Church Relations to provide programs of “healing and prevention” for ministers, staff, councils, and congregations. Through the years, the methods of delivering these programs have adjusted to the needs of congregations.
For more information on each of these programs, visit the Pastor-Church Relations website or contact staff members for clarification or additional information.
Chaplaincy and Care Ministry
Ron Klimp, director
Purpose: Chaplaincy and Care Ministry supports and develops chaplaincy by recruiting and assisting prospective candidates through their specialized training, endorsing chaplains and their ministry, supporting chaplains and their families, maintaining links between chaplains and the church through conferences and newsletters, and promoting chaplaincy ministry in the church and community.
History: The earliest reference to chaplains in the synodical record is in 1918 and deals with chaplains in the military. Synod 1942 officially organized chaplain ministry as a ministry of the CRC and appointed the first Chaplains Committee. Christian Reformed chaplains served during the Second World War, and hospital chaplaincy began as early as 1913. By 1959, when the Chaplains Committee was mandated to give ecclesiastical endorsement, prison chaplaincy was common. In 1980 the first industrial chaplain was appointed. Synod 1998 allowed women to be endorsed and ordained as chaplains.
Prayer for Chaplains
Father, we all have a calling, and we all need your grace in special and particular ways, but today we pray especially for chaplains. We thank you for their willingness to be with people who are vulnerable or isolated or institutionalized, with people who are “at risk” or who are dying.
May you continue to raise up men and women who are willing to leave the confines of the established church or developing church, to be the church to the unchurched. May your light continue to shine in the dark places of our society through the presence of chaplains.
And may those who serve in such capacities receive a rich reward through the response of those to whom they minister, as well as through the crown that you have promised in eternity. In the name of your Son, who also went into the highways and byways of life to touch the lost, amen.
Uniformed and Reformed
A strong background in the Reformed worldview, with its focus on “every square inch” of creation being under the sovereignty of God, is especially helpful for military chaplains, says Rev. Ronald Klimp, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Chaplaincy and Care Ministry.
Several military chaplains, including former chaplaincy director Rev. Herm Kiezer Jr., have held high positions in the Pentagon.
Col. Jack Van Dyken Jr., the recently retired command chaplain for the U.S. Army-Pacific Command, is another example.
As command chaplain, Van Dyken oversaw the work of about 170 senior chaplains who serve with military units assigned to Pacific Rim countries from Japan to New Zealand and in countries across Southeast Asia.
He says the education he received at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary helped him to understand, accept, and live out the Reformed faith. This Reformed worldview provided a faith perspective that helped him time and again as he addressed issues that come up in pluralistic settings like the military.
“It is very exciting to work with soldiers who come from so many places and faiths. But some of them don’t want to hear about Jesus, or they are atheists,” he says.
In responding to them, he tries to gauge how best to pray. “We do all of our praying in the name of Jesus, and some chaplains believe that is the only way to do it. But there are so many ways to use the name of Jesus without offending someone.”
Van Dyken says he can pray in “Your Most Holy Name,” or in the “Name Above Names,” or in the “Name of Our Lord.” “I am still praying in Jesus’ name without offending Jews or Muslims or even some Christians,” he says.
Besides the military, CRC chaplains work in hospitals and hospice-care facilities, in industrial settings, in correctional facilities, and as clinical pastoral care supervisors.