One church visitor reported sitting down with a church council where everything seemed to be going fine. But a week later, the church visitor learned that the council wanted to separate from its pastor.
Clearly, the council viewed the church visit—part of a long-standing tradition in the Christian Reformed Church—as perfunctory, noted Rev. Norm Thomasma, director of the Christian Reformed Office of Pastor-Church Relations.
They didn’t disclose what was really going on in the congregation.
That experience isn't unusual, Thomasma said. “Increasingly, churches had begun to see a visit from a church visitor as an ineffective obligation.”
He said there are many reasons for this. Some churches view the church visitors as a sort of denominational police; others prefer to sort out their challenges on their own.
But that is starting to change as the CRC reevaluates its approach to and purpose for church visiting. Some churches are starting to see the benefit of having church visitors come alongside them.
Church visitors are two ministers—or one minister and an elder—who are appointed by each classis to visit the church councils within that classis. The Church Order specifies that church visitors should be “experienced and competent officebearers.”
Church visitors schedule the visits and often allow for a wide-ranging discussion on all aspects of a congregation's ministry. After a visit, they report back, informing classis of the status of and issues facing a local church.
In addition, churches are free to call on them whenever serious problems arise.
Although church visitors are supposed to visit each church at least once a year, that frequency had fallen off, Thomasma noted. And without the annual visits and close relationships, problems tended to reach a crisis stage before classis or the denomination became aware of the situation.
But Thomasma said there are encouraging trends. “As Pastor-Church Relations works with churches, we sense that the trend toward congregationalism is waning, and there is a growing appreciation within congregations of the need to support one another and learn from each other.”
This has contributed to the energy surrounding the Better Together Project (see below).
It appears that the Better Together work is “riding a wave” of renewed interest in ways that classes (groups of regionally gathered churches) might contribute to thriving congregations in the Christian Reformed Church, Thomasma said. “We are starting to see a revival of interest in working together, and church visiting is part of this.”
A growing number of separations between pastors and churches led Synod 2012 to request that Pastor-Church Relations find ways to get involved earlier. Part of the strategy that developed was to take another look at the church visitor process.
Church visitors connect the classis, the local churches, and their officebearers for strengthening, care, and accountability, Thomasma noted. Church visitors can get a sense of the issues a church is facing in its ministry.
One way that church visiting is gaining a fresh appearance is in a pilot project involving four classes in West Michigan: Holland, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids East, and Zeeland. The pilot is part of the Better Together Project.
“This spring I sat with three experienced leaders whose enthusiasm for revisiting and revisioning church visiting is contagious,” said Thomasma. “They talked of their work in imagining and experimenting with church visiting.”
Rodger Rice, Stan Koster, and Carl Kammeraad are working with the four classes in helping them review the process and in finding ways in which church visiting can become more meaningful for individual churches.
The pilot project is using an abbreviated version of the Healthy Church Survey crcna.org/HealthyChurch, a process already gaining traction in some regions.
The survey helps churches to determine best practices and ways in which they can thrive in doing ministry, Thomasma said.
Rather than reluctantly allowing an hour for a perfunctory conversation, as is often the case in a church visit, said Rice, a church council is dedicating an entire meeting to ensure that the conversation gains traction.
Kammeraad noted that council members are discovering some new ways of talking about what they sense is happening within their ministries.
They described the case of one pastor who passionately requested help in encouraging conversations that get at what’s really going on within the congregation.
None of these leaders see the approach as a panacea—a fix-all with respect to church visiting or the answer for the challenges of all congregations, Thomasma said.
But they consider the pilot project and the information that comes out of it as an exciting development that could help revive the church visiting tradition.
“Not all experiments translate into longstanding new practices,” Thomasma said. “But there is an expectation that lessons can be learned and the church can be blessed as fresh connections are made among the congregations of the CRC.”
The Better Together Project
Synod 2012 noted the rising number of separations between congregations and their pastors and instructed the Board of Trustees (BOT) to address this issue.
At the board’s request, the administration asked the Office of Pastor-Church Relations (PCR) to develop recommendations for action steps. Pastor-Church Relations formed the Better Together Delivery Team to determine how better to equip classical leaders for helping churches and their pastors build strong, healthy relationships.
To date, the delivery team has connected with more than 400 leaders from 44 classes. The focus has been on church visitors, regional pastors, stated clerks, mentors, and classical counselors.
For a copy of the Findings document, which includes a summary of what has been discovered, please contact Lis Van Harten at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—by Lis Van Harten, Better Together Team Leader
Church Visiting Support Located in Pastor-Church Relations
One of the recommendations that came out of the Better Together Project was that the practice of church visiting be connected to one of the denominational offices for mutual learning, support, and the development of best practices.
Recently the denominational administration asked the Office of Pastor-Church Relations (PCR) to include in their mandate the support and resourcing of classis church visitors. As PCR develops its strategic plan going forward, this new responsibility will be part of that plan.
—by Norm Thomasma, director of Pastor-Church Relations
Safe Place = Honesty
“There’s a lot of secrecy and shame around church problems. By the time the problems are brought to light, it’s too late.”
“If a problem arose that I didn’t know how to deal with, I’d be scared to death.”
These comments came a few months ago from a gathering of church visitors from seven classes.
Gathered by the Better Together Delivery Team (see sidebar, p. **), the church visitors had a chance for an open, honest conversation about the issues and challenges they face when visiting churches.
After introductions and an overview of the Better Together project, the church visitors were divided into two groups and sent to separate rooms. They were assured that everything they said would only be used anonymously.
The plan was to walk the church visitors through a number of questions. But the first question, “Tell us a little about what you do as church visitor,” was all that was needed.
“I really struggled when I was asked to be church visitor because I didn’t fit the mold,” one said. Another said, “I’ve always struggled with the relevancy of the whole process of church visiting.”
A number of suggestions were offered regarding the tradition of church visiting.
Some church visitors are engaging in a more supportive and resourcing role rather than what is sometimes seen as a policing role.
One classis is using coaching teams, with one church visitor playing a coaching role while the other has a more traditional role.
Another classis has changed how churches give their reports at classis meetings. They now include things that are going well and things that need prayer.
“When churches made this switch to self-reporting, they became more honest,” said one person.
From the conversations with these church visitors and many others who were interviewed over the phone, the delivery team created a list of recommendations regarding church visiting.
Recommendations included providing training and developing materials to better equip church visitors, and working toward rebranding church visiting to reflect the healthy, relational aspect of the task and the role of church visitor.
Those recommendations were passed along to the Office of Pastor-Church Relations.
One church visitor said, “One of the strengths of church visiting is the sense that we’re supposed to be in this together. We’re not standing alone. This is a good thing.”
—by Lis Van Harten, Better Together Delivery Team Leader