The Executive Director Position and Adaptive Change

The withdrawal of the candidate for the Executive Director position in the CRC has prompted various discussions about the structure, purpose and meaning of the denomination. This is a good discussion to have.

For this discussion I want to distinguish between the denomination (small d) which is organization of agencies and offices mostly housed in the binational offices in Grand Rapids MI and Burlington ONT. The large D Denomination I’ll understand as the community of congregations that compose the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

Facing In, Facing Out

If you scan the quick and dirty history of the CRC denomination you’ll see that a number of the denominational agencies grew out of the Denomination’s desire to pool resources and do ministry in places beyond where individual local congregations could reasonably minister. Agencies in this category include Christian Reformed World Missions (international church development of national churches around the world), Back to God Ministries International (media ministries most of which is outside the US and Canada), and World Renew (relief in North American disaster zones, relief and development in the developing world, NGO institutional creation and development around the world.) These three agencies are ways in which the denomination faces out towards the world helping the Denomination pool resources to develop churches abroad, do evangelism abroad, and relief suffering all over the world.

One aspect of these “facing out” ministries is that they do serve the churches of the Denomination by creating opportunities for CRC members to have careers in these missionary endeavors and give opportunities for CRC churches to support missionary efforts that are aligned with CRC theology and cultures. While it’s “facing out” it’s still the CRC facing out.

Parts of the denomination that face in towards the Denomination in the US and Canada are Christian Reformed Home Missions (church planting, church development, campus ministry) and a group of specialized ministry offices (race relations, pastor-church relations, sustaining congregational excellence, abuse prevention, disabilities awareness, health insurance and pension services, Faith Alive, synodical offices) that support the churches of the Denomination in North America.

Executive Director 360

Technically speaking to whatever degree the Executive Director position has any directorial power at all it is within the small d denomination. Together with the Board of Trustees the Executive Director oversees these agencies that both face out and face in. It is important to recognize that the major agencies (CRHM, CRWM, BTGMI, Faith Alive, WR) all have their own boards and the Executive Director’s power over these agencies and their directors are mitigated to a degree by these boards. Whether this tension is allowed to continue or will be resolved is yet to be seen.

I should also note that two other significant institutions, Calvin Seminary and Calvin College are vital partners but tend to live a bit outside the agency fold even though they are formally owned and governed by the CRC Synod.

Much of the anxiety raised by the withdrawal of the candidate has been expressed about the lack of leadership in the large D Denomination (meaning the community of CRC congregations). Much of the discussion as to whether or not we need an Executive Director at all also seems to focus on the large D Denomination. As I mentioned in a previous posting it’s difficult to say that previous Executive Directors have been empowered or positioned to lead the large D Denomination in the same way that they’ve been tasked to lead the small d denomination (agencies and offices).

If you want to participate in this discussion it’s very helpful to read the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC) in the 2013 Agenda for Synod. Many of the issues raised on CRC Voices and the CRC Pastors Facebook page are also raised in this report. Much of the report focuses on addressing issues within the small d denomination and issues of bi-nationality.

Executive Expectations

Given the fact that much of the organization that the Executive Director is tasked to lead faces outwards from the large D Denomination, and given the fact that seeing the Executive Director as the point leader of the large D Denomination is untried, untested, and at this point not really imagined in CRC polity, expectations that a new Executive Director would somehow bring dramatic change for the CRC community of congregations and classes feel overblown. It is worth while evaluating this expectation because as the old recovery saying goes, expectations are pre-conceived resentments.

A commonly stated mission of the last Executive Director was to promote health in local churches. You can find some of this objective in the present TFRSC report. The thinking is that health congregations (congregations that are growing numerically and financially that wish to participate in collaborative denominational ministries through ministry and and above ministry share giving) are the basis for moving forward in the future. There is of course a certain obviousness about this. What is less obvious is to what degree and how the small d denomination can actually promote health in the large D Denomination. Given the responsibilities the Executive Director has to all of the facing in and facing out elements of the denomination, how effective can the director be in this mission? This to me is THE question about the expectations revolving around this position. Is this a reasonable expectation? How in fact does this expectation converse with Reformed polity and our three-assemblies (Synod, Classis, Council) ecclesiastical tradition?

The Executive Pulpit

While the Executive Director has some power within the small d denominational organization, how exactly would an Executive Director lead the large D Denomination?

While a Senior Pastor gets up into the pulpit for 30 minutes or so of weekly local church leadership, the Executive Director has far less access to pastors and members of the CRCNA. Gone are the days of assumed Banner readership and assumed daily Today devotional attention. Letters to councils may or may not be read or paid attention to. Social media hits some pastors but many aren’t necessarily active or involved in those tools.

While denominational assets like The Network, Pastor Church relations, CRHM and Faith Alive try to develop and lead ministry conversations at the local level we all know that churches resource themselves from the broader church idea and material markets often in alignment with the particular instincts of the local pastor or local committee leader.

While some denominational wonks pay close attention to these developments and discussions for much of the church these issues seem irrelevant and far away. They are paying far closer attention to issues popular media serves up (Is Rick Warren soft on Islam? Is the US military banning evangelism?) or enduring hot button issues (evolution, women in ministry, homosexuality, abortion, etc.). Dominant political biases bleed into the church: we need small government and smaller denominational offices, less centralization, less top down but at the same time more efficiency and compliance with policies we support,  more/less activism on global warming, immigration, abortion, etc.

If the CRC finds a new executive director who intends to lead beyond the denominational offices, how could such a person actually accomplish this? Would they write books? How many CRC folks would read these books? Would they give speeches? How many would come to listen? How would their books or speeches compete with Tim Keller, John Piper, Rick Warren or John Perkins?

It is noteworthy that most of the influential Christian leaders in the Protestant church today are local church pastors, not denominational leaders. Identity of CRC churches and pastors today is shaped far more by non-CRC megachurch pastors, leaders and authors than by CRC persons. One of the most important pieces to understand where we are today as a denomination is James Schaap’s piece written for the 150th anniversary. The CRC no longer controls its own weather. It is subject to the broader climate change in North America and the rest of the world.

What Does the CRCNA Need Anyway? 

There’s an angst in the church about its future, a sense that the church is in trouble and there is an idea around that an new, hot, sharp Executive Director may be able to turn things around. I fear such an expectation sets up the next Executive Director to fail.

The church is always in trouble. Part of the job of leadership is to figure out what to address now within one’s sphere of influence and responsibility and how to be helpful moving things ahead.

The job profile for the next Executive Director is bold.  The documents looks for someone who can navigate the church through adaptive change.

Fullan (2003, 2005) cites Heifetz and Linsky (2002) to distinguish between technical and adaptive change. Technical change involves people putting in place solutions to problems for which they know the answers. While this can be difficult, it is not as difficult as adaptive change, which involves addressing problems for which they don’t yet know the solutions. Adaptive change involves changing more than routine behaviours or preferences; it involves changes in people’s hearts and minds. Because the change is so profound, adaptive change can result in transformation of the system. Source

This is a TALL order. A number of questions immediately arise?

  • How much of the CRC WANTS this kind of leadership? 
  • How well does the current structure afford supporting such a leadership posture?
  • Would the position actually allow someone to express this type of leadership?
  • Is this type of leadership doable within our Reformed polity?
  • How would this type of leadership be expressed in our current context?
  • Are we simply playing with words in asking for this?
  • How much of the CRC leadership currently believes this level of change is necessary or desirable?
  • Are we imagining adaptive change on the small d denominational level (agencies and offices) or are we hoping for large D Denomination transformation? If we are really looking for the latter, are we in any way imagining we are empowering the position to do so?

The last question is the one that really haunts me. I hate to see good leaders chewed up or set up to fail. They are too precious waste.

Next: Pondering Adaptive Change in the CRC

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to The Executive Director Position and Adaptive Change

  1. Pingback: CRCNA Executive Director Search 2013 Links |

  2. As a recovering “wonk”, I really appreciate this article (probably too much) – it’s pretty long and complicated, but so are the issues that we currently face. I’ve talked with a lot of folks about the same question you ask here, namely: is the next ED entering a hopeless situation, either because of inevitable forces or because of unrealistic expectations. I believe in miracles and the more I read/hear the words of wise people like you, the more I believe we (the CRC + the next ED) need one if we are to have any hope at all.

    I think there are a few character-proving, character-bleeding things that would grease the skids:

    1. Asking every single person who gets a paycheck from any CRC coffer why they love the local church and how they’re involved as a volunteer in it. There is some adaptive change needed on this front – and that includes leading by doing it themselves.
    2. Tapping into organically-developing networks that already exist in the CRC. There’s quite a few of them and they are a ticket to local leverage.
    3. Pounding the pavement, shaking hands, kissing babies. Take a VW Bus and spend intentional time with CRC leaders 26+weeks out of the year.

  3. Pingback: Pondering Adaptive Change in the CRC |

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