Why the CRC Synod Should Consider Spinning Off Its Agencies

A Brief History of the History

  1. The anxiety I hear and feel from lovers of the CRC who are also watching the numbers is that the realities of numerical collapse and subsequent financial collapse will come to the CRC before it has the political will or ability to make the kinds of subsequent changes that might arrest its decline.
  2. The reports from the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC) from the last three years (Agendas for Synod 2012, 2013, 2014) are required reading for understanding the development and the status of the organism to its modern institutional exoskeleton in this conversation. The denomination owes this group a debt of appreciation for the work they’ve done.
  3. The Synods of the last 40 years are responsible for the organizational chaos the denomination is currently in. I know it is easy and convenient to blame denominational employees for the structural chaos we currently possess but it is my judgment that the cause of the chaos of our current structure clearly rests with synodical compromises created by the political realities of the church over time. The well intentioned desire to eliminate conflict between the agencies and increase efficiency and effectiveness while resisting centralization lead to the dual-authority/accountability issues our system has today. We didn’t want to choose between classically based distributed authority and centralized authority and efficiency so we didn’t and the result has been the slow evolution of the structure into what we have today. The reports nicely outline that history.
  4. The CRC’s existential anxiety has been growing for 20 years and reached a level of awareness and intentionality in Jerry Dykstra’s administration as Executive Director. Jerry and I went through Seminary together and we served in Classis Central California together. In his ministry before taking the ED position he worked vigorously  on local and classical revitalization. He came to the Executive Director position with the conviction that unless more attention was devoted to action “in support of” the local church the ministries “on behalf of” those churches would face inevitable financial decline. Throughout his administration there were numerous attempts to study and address this awareness and anxiety but little to none of it developed to the point of addressing these changes at the Synodical level.
  5. The trauma surrounding the end of his administration, the pent-up anxiety of our inability to address ongoing numerical decline together with race and age demographic challenges lead to the creation of the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture.

The 2014 TRFSC Report

It is important to read the 2014 TRFSC Report in the context of the other two. You can see the evolution and development of it. You can also see the implicit need for the naming of the new Executive Director and the Canadian Director. I want to make a couple of observations on the report itself.

  1. The report is politically cautious when it comes to change. This makes sense of course. Past attempts at restructuring were seen as too radical and over-reaching and the committee understands denominational anxiety and suspicion of “centralization”.
  2. The report has a “both-and” quality about it with respect to ministry “on behalf of” that is directed out from the CRC organism of congregations and “in support of” the flourishing of its local churches.
  3. I think the attempts to present some new ideas for structure “for discussion”, understanding that any successful change to our structure will require broad support.

As is often the case the report’s weaknesses mirror its strengths.

  1. The speed of the process does nothing to relieve the anxiety that the church’s political gridlock will not allow intentional reforms to progress before financial realities cause a broader systemic collapse. They are in a no-win situation with respect to speed I’m afraid.
  2. The report is heavy on structure and light on culture. Culture is far more difficult to engage than structure especially via an instrument like a Synodical report. Culture usually gets adjusted through more personal means (again awaiting the new Executive Director), and through action and costly decision.
  3. One of the cultural elements often cited (not by this report) is a resistance to leadership in the denomination. This is an important subject that deserves a lot more treatment and is difficult to engage, especially in a polarized context. The resistance to leadership culture requires the TFRSC to move cautiously thus in a sense reinforcing the negative culture we wish to address.
  4. While the report maintains a “both-and” postures towards “on behalf of” and “in support of” ministry (the cybernetic organism looking outwards vs. inwards). I would rather this distinction be more vigorously engaged and worked through. I can completely understand this distinction NOT begin addressed. I’ve been involved with denominational matters for a while now, serving the last two years on the ED search team and it didn’t really impact me until I wrote that last blog post. Another image to illustrate this distinction would be the fact that the US military is not normally allowed to do police work within the boundaries of the United States. In a sense transitioning the outfacing agencies doing ministry “on behalf of” the body of CRC congregations and classes to doing ministry “in support of” this body of CRC congregations is like using the military to address things at home. While some of what has been developed to do ministry “on behalf of” the CRC overseas and beyond itself may have some application and value at home most of what it has been tuned and deployed for doing ministry in other places and in other contexts. There is a “guns vs. butter” dynamic to this but we all know that guns don’t simply become butter because we are anxious about our butter now.
  5. The 2014 Report recommendations are not bold or sweeping. I’m not saying they should be. They are in a kind of “no win” situation in terms of speed. I get that. They ask for a “nomination committee” to help improve boards and advisory committees and they ask for more board training. Both recommendations are small but will likely raise questions about “centralization” and “control by a few in GR”. Having served on a board I see the value and sense of it and they will likely pass.
  6. In 2015 we’ll get the final report from the team possibly with some real recommendations, up until then we want “discussion”. How will we have “discussion” on this? I’m doing it now and I hope that this blog and this posting help with the “discussion”. We’ll have an hour at Synod to discuss. That’s insufficient.
  7. As I’ve said before the lesson I took away from the Belhar chapter is that we (churches, classes, synod, denominational offices and agencies) don’t do discussion well. The Banner is no longer the “kitchen table” for discussion and we’re not sure what role it should play. The CRC Network was developed to help discussion. I think it’s development has been good but it is in its toddlerhood yet. I’m uncertain about the current level of fitness of classes and synod to act as effective deliberative bodies. Cultural congregationalism has continued to lessen the perceived value of the broader assemblies and reduced the motivational and expressed value of these assemblies. If we are to receive strong leadership in spite of our cultural resistance to it I am uncertain what avenues this leadership can effectively employ to reach its goals.
  8. While the “range of proposals” was the meat of the report, and I thought very well done, we need a wider, bolder range. All of the proposals were incremental which is out of keeping with the “adaptive” language that this team and the BOT have been using. Are they waiting for the new ED to insert some “adaptive”ness into the system? Do they not want to do too much until he is in? I can understand these things, but if we’re offering a “range”, I think we need to be a lot more wide-ranging.
  9. While we talk about the 5 Streams, nothing in the report indicates any kind of radical pursuit of them that the same report seems to implicitly demand. I’m not sure we’re being fully honest about the cost and path of this kind of transformation. It’s like the addict fingering the brochure for the rehab facility but having no real desire to do what it might take to get clean. I think we love our agencies too much to risk them or to not have them. I don’t know that we are really serious about change or imagine we are capable of it until we hit rock bottom.

Two Very Important but Implicit Shifts

As I’ve been pondering these issues another realization occurred to me. If you read the history the Vision 21 report was a defining moment. In those days as the CRC’s lift from the baby boom was peaking we were less anxious about the organic CRC’s existence and more concerned with agency conflict and inefficiencies. It was in those days that the cry went up for collaboration, coordination and efficiency. That cry continues to echo strongly through all of the TFRSC reports. Our current structure, however two-headed has made progress on those fronts, although quite clearly not fully to the satisfaction of everyone.

Two things have shifted though and if we don’t see those shifts we’ll not understand our own times.

1. We no longer want to see coordination and inefficiencies reduced because we see ourselves as a successful, happy, efficient family (the vision from the 70s and 80s) but now we NEED to coordinate and be efficient because we are under financial stress (efficiency) and the organic host of our modern exoskeleton is in trouble so we need better performance with the validation and self-confidence that provides, even if we remain fuzzy on the target of that performance (“on behalf of” vs. “in support of”).

2. You’ll also notice a repeated plea for classical and congregational support for agencies. Why are we experiencing this felt need so strongly? Didn’t the agencies organically grow out of that strong desire by congregations and classes? Didn’t Synod mostly respond to grass roots initiatives to develop these agencies? Why are we experiencing (and have for a while) the disconnect between the congregations and classes and the agencies?

 When Classis Lost its Groove

In Vision 21 when the denomination tried to gain cooperation and efficiency it began a process that undercut classical ownership of the agencies while strengthening Synodical power. If you read the 2014 TFRSC report there are a number of sections where the report tries to reiterate that Synodical actions ARE delegated actions from the classes and congregations. Why do they need to make this point so strongly? Because there is a strong undercurrent of murmuring (again read Lambert Sikkema’s comment on the SPACT process). Many in the church don’t FEEL like Synodical or denominational actions are delegated, they feel disconnected.

Before Vision 21 there was a greater balance between synodical and classical ownership of the agencies. Agency boards ruled agencies causes the conflicts and inefficiencies Synod and Vision 21 tried to address. The Board of Trustees would be created to address those conflicts and inefficiencies but Synod would never fully empower the BOT to do so because of fear of centralization. That’s why we have the two-headed governance issues we’ve got today. For the sake of efficiencies the agency boards were downsized further reducing felt classical ownership and connection to the agencies.

So now we have both board structures (the BOT and agency boards) neither of which have much felt classical ownership or control. While classes get some say in who they nominate both for the BOT and the agency boards it isn’t the case that there is a representative from every classis serving on all these boards.

I fully appreciate the benefits to governance that the board downsizing has won. I also think that this loss of connection with classis couldn’t have come at a worse time for classes in terms of their own sense of mission, ownership and identity. Cultural congregationalism has continued to erode the mission and authority of classis which is already not every strong in the CRC system (Classis in the RCA is stronger than it is in the CRC I’m learning) and the disconnect with the agencies I fear hasn’t been good for either party.

The third proposal in the TFRSC addresses this to a degree, replacing the BOT with a “council of delegates” which I think is an interesting idea worth studying. It would strengthen the classis and bring back some political energy and purpose into the classis. I could strengthen the felt link between classis and denomination. I don’t know if it would renew the bonds between classis and the agencies though.

My Own More Radical Idea

I have for a number of years quietly promoted the idea of cutting loose most of the agencies entirely from Synodical control. I’m not convinced it is the best idea but I think it is an idea worth considering. Notice I also didn’t say we’d cut the agencies loose from classical or congregational influence or control.

I think World Renew and Calvin College are already on this path. We already do this with other Christian Schools and organizations. Maybe we need to go further. Our new Executive Director is coming from an institution in this category of being a CRC partner but not being CRC Synodically owned or controlled.

The Evangelical Marketplace

When I talk about these issues with non-CRC folks, sometimes non-denominational folks they usually suggest to me “your denominational ministries can’t really compete with the marketplace of ministries available in the broader evangelical community” and they have a point.

We’ve seen the agencies adjust to this dynamic. World Missions partners with other mission agencies when CRC people want to do work through Wycliffe or someone else. CRHM worked with and through other conferences like Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek. Saddleback and Redeemer. World Renew has long been helping developing NGOs do better or spinning off new ones.

The Evangelical movement was all about choice and autonomy and some of that freedom has birthed some innovative and effective ministry. It has done so, however, at a cost. There are also plenty of ministries that are not in alignment with our cultural or doctrinal values. CRC ownership of agencies and institutions has provided a middle way for some of this.

I’ve really only begun to think about this. The recent World Vision controversy was a lesson on the downside of the evangelical’s marketplace approach to supporting outsourced “on behalf of” ministry.

Many local churches are already supporting “in support of” outsourced ministry by attending conferences, using liturgy, music and educational materials, program ideas, etc. The CRC owned assets have been trying to respond to this for years, not always successfully.

Looking for a Middle Way

Classical and congregational indirect ownership of agencies through boards might be a middle way to proceed. It could prove to address

  • The nimbleness and diversity dilemma, smaller organizations can spring up and start new things in ways big, older agencies can’t
  • The loss of touch with the grass roots dilemma, what people start and do with their friends they really support.
  • The loss of classical mission and identity dilemma
  • The sphere sovereignty dilemma, we have clergy running things they don’t know about
  • The clergy/laity dilemma, we need lay expertise in starting things and running things
  • The too big to fail, bureaucracy dilemma
  • The ecumenical partnership challenge, things might have ownership with a variety of partnerships

There is already a constellation of ministries associated with the CRC that are not owned by the CRC. They are medical institutions, educational institutions from day schools to universities, they are diaconal organizations. They do a range of things many of which are operated by boards comprised mostly of CRC persons.

What would happen if we transitioned the “on behalf of” and even some of the “in support of” agencies and ministries to independent boards mostly made up of CRC stakeholders like classes and congregations? What would this free up Synod to do and become?

My Fears of Loss

I’m very reluctant to simply slide into an evangelical marketplace. I fear we would lose identity and unity and it might speed up some of the dissolution of culture that’s already well underway. Part of me loves the vision of these wonderful ministries “owned” by the CRC. I also wonder if this isn’t more a function of pride and nostalgia rather than missional optimism and kingdom stewardship.

The missional path always leads outwards in a costly way. Our ambiguity is seen in our flirtation with the RCA. We have a dramatic joint resolution on the table that says we will “act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel
[us] to act separately”. Wow, powerful language. While I appreciate the real steps we’ve made so far, nothing on the table seems to be at that level. I think we’re scared. I’m scared.

Adaptive Change

I also know that no agency or denominational change will be sufficient to turn the tide of our decline. Those changes need to come primarily at the local levels and while a denomination may support local change it cannot cause it or bring it.

I also realize there is no consensus on what changes need to come in local churches. The fault lines within the church run from top to bottom. Some thing churches must be more “affirming and open”, others more hard line. Some think we must be more evangelical, others more confessionally Reformed or catholicly Reformed. Some are just trying to keep the doors open long enough so a pastor they like can do their funeral.

We talk about adaptive change. Do we really mean it? pvk

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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17 Responses to Why the CRC Synod Should Consider Spinning Off Its Agencies

  1. Wow, Paul, well said. Did you read this: http://yalt.crcna.org/4-drastic-changes-toward-a-future-flourishing-denomination/ ? I think we’re pretty much on the same page. Doesn’t a whole lot of it come back to the “resistance to leadership” point? That’s a core cultural, sinful issue on which a whole lot of this discussion rises & falls. Either we have to learn humility, trust & infleuntiability as leaders or we need a system that takes that sin into account. Can’t really be any other way.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks. I hadn’t seen it. I’ll take a look. I think we need to be bolder and more creative. Unless we are we won’t even have a conversation.

  2. Harris says:

    This is as serious a piece as any I have read. Thank you.

  3. Archie VanderHart says:

    As someone involved in helping a agency transition to a less classically connected but more effective and efficient entity I read your analysis with great interest and appreciation. The law of unintended consequences was at work. I also recall asking a panel of agency Board presidents at a “joint meeting of the agency boards” (which, of course, was simply a joint social and informational meeting of the board members”) “Suppose a confederation of 1000 confessionally connected churches came to you and asked your help in designing from the ground up a denominational structure to empower its members churches to live out the works and words of Jesus’ mission locally and globally. How many agencies and how many boards would you suggest necessary to do this empowerment?”

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  6. pastorpete says:

    Hey Paul, here’s my quick response to just one aspect of what you wrote. Now back to polishing sermons…

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