Can Strong Leaders Develop, Rise and Stay in CRC Institutions?


Modeling Leadership at CTS in the 80s

I as a student at Calvin Seminary in the 80s was under observation. At CTS the educational track and ecclesiastical track were distinct yet the Seminary faculty was responsible for producing a “faculty recommendation” for the CTS Board of Trustees who were responsible for recommending candidates for ordination in the CRC. Things were obviously communicated to the board because I remember questions coming to me from the Board that likely arose out of concerns or areas of interest from the faculty.

After I had completed my studies someone made a comment to me that on my “file” there was a comment that I had leadership potential but seemed reluctant to fully engage it.

I thought that this was a fair comment. I remember contemplating running for student body president but decided I didn’t want the extra responsibility or visibility of the position. I also think back and recognize how my own insecurities played into that decision. I was young.

The second thought I remember having when I heard that comment was “In my 4 years of residency here at the seminary I remember hardly anyone modeling bold leadership or positively expressing its value to us.”

I remember many lectures admonishing young seminaries NOT to head into churches to “lord it over” elders and parishioners by telling them what to do. I heard the mantra of “servant leadership” which seemed to imply a meekness and lack of assertion.

Part of me was then a bit annoyed by the hear-say comment thinking “you knock me for not being assertive when I was told to NOT be assertive?”

The CRC in the 80s

A denominational seminary is always an educational institution in a very live political context. During the late 1980s the CRC was neck deep in a schism over women serving church office (WICO). There were pastors who were loud and assertive sometimes taking their churches out of the denomination. There were loud and assertive voices advocating for full inclusion of women in all offices off the church. One side valued women being assertive and the other side didn’t. Assertiveness was a hot topic.

There were other voices that wanted to cool down the temperature of the conflict for fear the whole thing was going to fly apart. The CRC did survive but with a significant number of churches and pastors left.

I remember paying a lot more attention to how the faculty navigated these waters. We generally esteemed our professors and saw them as knowledgeable, wise men (they were all men) and while in class they might make comments that located them on the political map, and we as students paid attention to charting them on the political maps, they for the most part tried to stay “above the fray”.

On one hand staying “above it all” could be a rather noble way to go. I also thought that they didn’t seem to use their knowledge, their gifts in articulation and persuasion or position to contribute to the broader denominational conversation. They weren’t for the most part writing articles for The Banner, speaking in churches, getting involved in church politics. It could have been and quite likely was that they did so in quiet ways I couldn’t see, but the approach they took informed me and implicitly mentored me about what CRC leadership should and shouldn’t be. Seminary professors kept a low profile.

What Do CRC Leaders Do?

In a small, close-knit denomination like the CRC is, and even more like it used to be, Seminary professors were easy targets to shoot at. There was the Jannsen controversy of the 1920s. which was ancient history already then. In my father’s generation Henry Stob was a frequent target of criticism. I grew up listening to my father laud the wisdom and brilliance of Henry Stob.

Henry Stob was long gone when I got there. My impression of CTS faculty was that they kept their heads down. They wanted to teach, pursue their scholarly interests and quietly serve the church at the seminary but they didn’t get embroiled in the swirling controversies of the 80s.

This shaped me. I learned from it. But what did I learn?

There were storied leaders in CRC history, often negative ones. Herman Hoeksema has a nice Wikipedia entry. He lead the famous Protestant Reformed schism. He was a leader. He lead churches out of the CRC. I learned that assertive leaders are dangerous. They cause problems. Best to be quiet, don’t draw too much attention to yourself, don’t get shot at. Stay in line. Beware the mob with pitchfolks, typewriters and today computers to troll you in the comment thread. We call this “servant leadership”.

Bill Hybels

While the CRC was roiling over women in office Bill Hybels, son of a CRC business man, was helping to redefine leading church in North America and the world. He had “leadership summits”. He talked about “leadership” all the time. My seminary professors didn’t talk like this. My professors didn’t do things like he did. (I must confess I didn’t know who Hybels was until I returned to the US in 1997.)

In the CRC there were plenty of assertive leaders who were business people. They didn’t seem shy about founding corporations, making money, starting things, changing the world. Bill Hybels seemed more like a CRC business guy than a CRC pastor. He didn’t go to seminary. He didn’t get warned about being one of “those kinds” of leaders who break churches and sever the unity of the church. He didn’t bother with the CRC at all. He taught a generation to NOT pay attention to denominations but rather to avoid them.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the seeker movement while I was at CTS. I was probably going overseas (which I did) so it was mostly the “home missions” types, church planting types, that were watching and listening to the likes of Bill Hybels. What lessons did they learn about leadership?

I think they learned a very clear lesson. If you want to be a transformative leader you should either get out of the CRC or try to stay off the denominational radar. If anything the denomination with its constant bickering and shooting at visible targets will be a distraction or a hindrance in your efforts to “build a prevailing church” live out the dream that “the local church is the hope of the world.”

“Successful” Church Planters and Denominational Politics

That lesson learned during the 80s at CTS I suspect lead to some of what we see today. Many of the CRC church planters who were able to successfully grow their church above 200 have stayed clear of denominational politics and drama, and even from institutions. Kevin Adams, Larry Doornbos, Jul Medenblik are the exceptions that I know. All three have shown a willingness to be involved in the denomination. You can ask them for their evaluation of “is it worth it or not”. Consider the church size conversation we had a couple of weeks ago.

This goes deeper, however, than that cadre of church planters who came through CTS in the 80s. I think it also impacted CRC pastors, many of whom avoid classis and synod and the denomination wherever possible for a number of reasons:

  • an attitude that denominational work is fruitless, the real work is at the local level
  • denominational visibility can bring criticism and attention that can decrease local church effectiveness and can get you fired or put under disciple
  • denominational work is like paying taxes. It is something you’ve got to do but wish you didn’t.
  • “I can do better on my own, other people and pastors get in the way”
  • Fill in your own reason, we’ve all got some ___________________

This turn in the perceived value of denominational work is a cultural turn.

  • I suspect is more true in anti-institutional America rather than Canada.
  • It is more true of the boomer generation. Younger pastors are again showing interest
  • It is a very significant contrast from the builder generation who esteemed poured a lot into institutions, aspired to service in them and fought for them even at personal cost.

If I were to create a list of “who from the CRC has helped impact the story of North America” I suspect most of the names on that list had to get out of CRC institutions in order to exert that level of leadership. To me this is telling.

Are CRC institutions leadership toxic? Is there an element of leadership culture that the CRC represses?

The CRC has shown a capacity to form leaders but do CRC institutions make life so hard for them that they must leave to reach their potential?

Changing Again? Time will Tell

I think things are changing again. I haven’t had much of any connection to CTS for almost 25 years. I have no idea what kind of leadership they are modeling for their students today. I’d love to hear comments from more recent graduates.

I do see James KA Smith exerting leadership. This encourages me. Just today I saw him write a post on BioLogos and given the poor treatment two Calvin profs recently received for writing on this subject which is politically sensitive in the CRC I admire his courage. It is probably noteworthy that he didn’t grow up in the CRC nor was formed in its institutions. Time will tell if he can continue to flourish within the context of a CRC institution.

Social media is changing how the CRC works like it is changing many other institutions. I can type my own ideas on a blog, free of any denominational censorship or having to be a mouthpiece. Pastors post on the CRC pastors Facebook page. There are many more avenues for participating in a denominational conversation and exerting influence outside of institutional channels.

Denominational Leadership is Political Leadership

Not all leadership is the same. Scholars lead in certain ways. Business people lead in certain ways. Politicians lead in certain ways. Churches have all three aspects within them.

Because the CRC has a Synod that can make consequential decisions getting anything done will require putting together factions. The factions cannot be ignored. Most agreements will involve compromise and learning to find “wins” in diverse places. It will also involve addressing the fears of certain factions and finding common ground where we need not always fear getting shot at.

Increased diversity (and diversity of diversities) makes all of this more complicated. Leadership will be about finding a thread that many can grasp and follow towards a path that all recognize in Christ.

There will also be a diversity of leaders. There is never only one leader who makes things go, brings positive change and preserves what should be maintained. History is usually unfair in its recognition of leaders but generally speaking it takes many voices to make a movement.

Finding Your Voice For the Choir

I’m encouraged to see more younger pastors blogging and being involved in social networks. A denomination is a type of social network. Learning those skills can yield good fruit in many ways.

The CRC is going to have to figure out its leadership challenge if it wants to be more than just a contributor of leaders who don’t feel safe in their own Nazareths. I hope we can figure this out together.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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10 Responses to Can Strong Leaders Develop, Rise and Stay in CRC Institutions?

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  2. Scott Hoezee says:

    You raise some good points here, Paul, but I think you are being a little hard on the Seminary profs of the 80s and early 90s. Several of our professors back then put themselves out there in a leadership role where the WICO issue was concerned. Mel Hugen was a leader among the movers and shakers advocating for full inclusion of women’s gifts in the church. John Cooper wrote a highly controversial white paper on the hermeneutics of it all and that publication landed him in all kinds of hot water with the folks at MARS and in the various camps advocating not to change the church’s stance. Neal Plantinga made many speeches and published numerous articles on the subject in both “The Reformed Journal” and in “The Banner.” (My internship mentor was all-but permanently soured on Neal as a result and to this day will tell you–if you’ve got 5 minutes–why Neal’s analogy of slavery and the Bible just doesn’t cut it.) There are also many ways to exercise leadership. You can be a high profile Bill Hybels person but most of our Seminary professors back in the day exercised great leadership on the welter of Synodical study committees that looked at WICO from every possible angle for over 20 straight years’ worth of synods. The Lord only knows how many hours and hours people like Andy Bandstra and David Holwerda devoted to those never-ending meetings and committees. It’s pretty unfair to say that all our profs back then just wanted to keep their heads down, “keep a low profile,” and do their academic work in some ivory tower that had no tangible effect on the church in a leadership way (or that restricted their leadership to private classroom settings only). Leaders don’t need to be the ones in the klieg lights with the biggest microphone. Sometimes they really are quietly effective behind the scenes, too. But not a few of our professors in the 80s were also very much out in front, and not just in quiet little classrooms far from the watching eyes of the denomination.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thank you Scott. I think you’re right. You probably had a better vantage point both during seminary and after than I did to evaluate it. I really don’t want to criticize the CTS faculty that served while I was there. I enjoyed seminary, loved and respected the professors and am certainly in their debt in many ways. I do not want to make this point at their expense.

      Your point about denominational work is also well made and accepted. Staff at a denominational seminary do have an extra burden and I would imagine some of what they are encumbered by is sometimes thankless and probably not the way they want to spend their time. I don’t want to contribute to not recognizing the service they render often at no small sacrifice and I do recognize that it is out of love for the church.

      I also did not in any way wish cast this as an anti-intellectual “ivory tower” sneer.

      I also don’t want to infer a criticism of “servant leadership”. Jesus was right of course that the greatest among you must be the servant of all. Again, my esteem for the faculty (then and now) is that they in fact give of themselves because they love the Lord, they love the church and they pursue their calling. I also failed to mention in my piece the regular publication that the seminary puts out and mails to the churches where the faculty contributes articles of need and interest to the churches. When I first saw that start to come out I thought it addressed some of what I felt as a student.

      It is again also true that there are many different kinds of leadership and each of us is gifted usually best for a small slice of it. When someone writes a fine article, gives a wonderful sermon or speech or a good book we want to make them king or ED. Each calling usually has a particular sweet spot which is not as general as our imagination. Just because CTS faculty doesn’t make the cover of CT or Time doesn’t mean they aren’t a valuable part of God’s kingdom. I get that.

      Having said all of that, however, I still think we have some significant issues in our church culture when it comes to leadership. Some of it may be from Dutch culture, I’ve heard some analysis to that effect. I don’t know.

      I do know that while as a denomination we’ve contributed some individuals who have made solid contributions to the church in the US and Canada I don’t think anyone would point to the CRC when it came to “leadership” in the kinds of ways that we talk about Bill Hybels, Tim Keller, John Piper, etc. This is difficult to talk about because I also don’t want to have it skewed only by celebrity pastors or large churches. We can talk about the ECC for example, noting some sizeable churches. The RCA could of course point to Schuller if they wanted to today.

      This post grew out of a conversation with someone reflecting uncomfortable episodes of past Executive directors chastising Synod. I think about numerous campaigns calling for the heads of college or sometimes seminary faculty.

      I’d love for us to have a culture where you Scott and others could write with more candor, more freedom, less caution and we could debate the issue without calling Scott an ass or a devil.

      I think in some ways we are under-achieved because we don’t know how to develop leaders and institutions to work together to accomplish some consequential things. Yes we have some solid contributions, accomplishments and a good reputation with many people but I can’t help feel that we have some cultural issues that are holding us back.

      Maybe it’s not the back-biting but rather the caution. That could be, I don’t know. But I know that there is something here and I think if we can figure it out it might help.

      Thanks again for your comment Scott. I accept it as a helpful correction. pvk

  3. PaulVK says:

    I received this comment from a friend who is a student. He didn’t want his name on it. I don’t generally like anonymous comments but because I know him I thought his thoughts added to the conversation. It adds the financial strain aspect to the Seminary picture.

    I just read your post on leadership in the CRC. I thought about replying in the given area, but feel this is a better place for my response (which may be telling in how I interpret the climate). I do think that there is more leadership modeled than in the past, but also significantly feel the need to stay off of the leadership radar. a few things contribute to this current reality for many students. unfortunately this relates partially to a fear of others blocking the path to a calling and largely to a fear of financial ruin. Many seminary students take out leadership incentive loans or get aid through classis which requires a decade of service in the CRC for forgiveness. Combine this brutal fact with the realities of Oral Comps and the “file” as you mention it that we know exists, but are not allowed to know what is in it, and you have a lot of people who are trying to do well enough to get by, but not so well that they draw extra attention. You also have situations like I just experienced earlier today where I would like to engage in certain online debates about theology to challenge people I believe are wrong, but I don’t dare for fear that my response will be misinterpreted and possibly end up either in “the file” or somehow tied to me for all of my future as I seek to serve God’s church in the denomination I grew up in and want to help make better for future generations. As I mentioned at the beginning I almost responded in a very public way for all to see, but didn’t dare to but I respect you as one of mentors to the point that I would like you to have my insight as a current student.

  4. Jason says:

    Unfortunately, I can fully relate to the comments of the current student. I remember during my orientation week, there seemed to be an uncomfortable emphasis being placed on “the file” combined with a constant reassurance that CTS did have have microphones or cameras in the sprinklers listening in on every conversation we students have. Almost felt like they were trying to emphasize it too much. And yet, when I attempted to publicly voice theological concerns on my personal blog (albeit my tone was extremely non-pastoral and did not contribute in a healthy way), nothing was said about it until a year and a half later – just weeks before graduation – when I was told that they were not going to recommend me for candidacy unless I did CPE (something that never came up during my initial psych evals). There was definitely an air of paranoia around CTS when I was there, that honestly felt more like an unspoken gag order than anything else. As a student, I was taught that the best approach was to keep my mouth shut, stay off of social media, and only voice criticisms or dissenting views when in VERY select company far from the seminary campus. The best way to be a student and get through your MDiv was to stay off the radar unless you knew that your ideas and leadership perfectly matched that of the always watching faculty and staff…

    I will also add that I feel as though I was able to bond fairly well with a couple profs and have oohing but respect for most of them as individuals and academics. So it’s not a complete wash 🙂 I still support CTS, but I also wish the paranoid feelings would go away and that students would be given freedom to fully express and grow as leaders, without fear of repercussions…

  5. klplockmeyer says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. On the one hand, I appreciate your frustrations and have experienced some of these myself. When one considers the level of influence that some folks from the Reformed camp have had, it’s hard not to feel a little jealous – if only they could have done so within the good ol’ CRC! If only we could have had more good publicity for us!

    When I start to think that, though, I am reminded how quickly the focus is on me and my own sense of pride instead of on God and God’s kingdom. I find myself wanting to be that influential leader who stays in the CRC and writes the cover article for Christianity Today or starts the next big thing or who knows what.

    Here’s the reality for me. I am deeply passionate about the institution of the CRC. I LOVED Synod. I enjoy classis meetings. I even enjoy council meetings. Are there things that drive me bonkers about them? Absolutely! Do I think that there are elements of our denominational structure that need to change in order to make us more streamlined and effective in the 21st century? You betcha. I also believe, however, (and some would call me naive for saying so) that such change is possible and even from within our current structure.

    The truth is, my experience did not parallel that of your student friend. I did not fear my “file” at CTS. Did I feel more comfortable asking “controversial” questions of some professors than of others? Sure, but not because I worried they would try to block my ordination. I can think of two occasions in particular where I was brutally honest with professors in my course evaluations and allowed my name to show on the evaluation (CTS gives you the option to be anonymous). The first, the professor invited myself and a small group of others who had also put our names on to sit down and help him improve the course. The second time, the professor in question ended up on my oral comp panel. I passed with flying colors. It seems to me that fear over the “file” is largely just that: fear. I was asked some challenging questions in my candidacy exam – some of which were clearly informed by the file. Yet I found it to be a wonderful opportunity for conversation and engagement.

    The truth of the matter is that I am cognizant of what I write and say and where I write it and say it. Part of this is honoring the congregation to which God has called me. This doesn’t mean that I’m not honest with them or that I am not ‘myself’ with them. But God calls us to use wisdom in what we say, do, and write. That means that I will probably make fewer bold “declarations” on controversial subjects, not because I am wishy washy on these subjects or anything like that, but because I recognize that my online publications must reflect the same pastoral heart I strive to show in conversation with my congregants. That doesn’t mean that I never make declarative statements until we have built consensus on that issue at our church either. But what I say HAS to be tempered by the reality that I am called to this congregation at this place and time, not to greater Christian masses.

    Someday, perhaps, God will call me to use my voice or my words for such a larger audience. Honestly? I hope so. I dream of it. What pastor (at least, what pastor who strives to be a strong leader) hasn’t dreamed of it? My daily prayer is that my dreams of personal success would be eclipsed by the vision of God’s Kingdom.

    Thanks for writing, Paul.

  6. Gina says:

    Your article is thought provoking Paul. One thing I find missing in the musings about strong leadership is seeking God’s guidance. I would think that learning to individually and corporately seek and confirm the daily guidance of The Lord would enable cohesiveness, with wisdom to navigate change and effectiveness in kingdom ministry. I wonder if the strength of godly leadership might be in some proportion to the grace received through prayer.

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