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”.
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.