The CRC Denominational Sy-board Narrative
The CRC is anxious about its future because of the numbers: too old, too white, congregations are too small, too little evangelism, too many young people checking out.
While all levels of the church feel this anxiety the level that feels the most immediate threat and concrete consequence (obvious decline of revenue) are the agencies of the CRCNA, the office of specialized services and the denominational office that governs them all.
Agencies that were designed for “on behalf of” ministries are increasingly being re-imagined as tools to be used “in support of” the organic ecclesiastical host that begat the “on behalf of” ministries and their governance structure in the first place. (See the Cyborg Post and the Spin-off post.)
How Did We Get Here?
If you’ve been reading along you know the history of this development. It helps me to continue to try to distill it down in order to get a firmer grip on it.
- During the 20th Century the CRCNA developed a cluster of agencies designed to do ministry “on behalf of” the church. These agencies had some characteristics of evangelical para-church organizations (governed by boards made up of classical representatives) yet they were “owned” by the CRCNA.
- From the 1970s forward conflicts between “on behalf of” agencies, inefficiencies, duplication and overlap put in motion a process (The Vision 21 report) that attempted to address these concerns by reducing distributed classical authority (governing boards with each classis sending a delegate) and enhancing Synodical authority by establishing a Board of Trustees over the “on behalf of” agencies.
- Synod, being a deliberative body that is built for compromise, both initiated and blunted the move by not eliminated classically based agency governing boards delegated by classis. The agency boards were “downsized” so as to streamline them, reducing cost. We began with the motivation to help governance and improve efficiency, which downsizing did accomplish. At the turn of the century (20th to 21st) the new motive, cost savings also continued to rise.
- Agency downsizing did reduce cost, increase board effectiveness in terms of governance but it also had two other consequences. The newer, smaller boards were also more vigorous sometimes in opposing the will of the denominational offices and/or the Board of Trustees. Conflicts on mission fields where were the impetus of the 1970s and 1980s for consolidation and centralization now began to emerge between the new governance structure, the BOT and the revitalized agency boards.
- The second consequence of downsizing agency boards was the increasing disconnect between classis and congregational ownership of the agencies. I suspect that this both did nothing to arrest the continued gradual decline of ministry share support as well as then motivating finance needy agencies to increasingly pursue large donors for their support. The Calvin College debt debacle reinforces the narrative of the CRC moving from a community of small, grass roots supporters increasingly to a system dependent upon large donors to maintain its “on behalf of” ministries.
- By the dawn of the 21st century the anxiety “at the top” was in full bloom but came to be expressed in “healthy church” language. “Healthy church” language was an import from the broader evangelical conversation in its larger form of existential anxiety. The CRC is not alone in being too old, too white, too many congregations being too small to afford seminary trained M.Div staff or a minimal yet balanced program (Sunday School, youth, small groups, worship, benevolence). Under Jerry Dykstra’s administration specialized ministries and ministries completely under the denominational office and the BOT continued to expand (CRC Network, Leadership Exchange). The conversation and pressure to increasingly employ “on behalf of” ministries “in support of” the organic host continued. The crisis of the end of that administration moved Synod to found the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture (TFRSC), whose work (so far) I reviewed here.
- The TFRSC was designed to move in coordination with the search for an Executive Director who will be confirmed at Synod 2014. I was a member of that search team. Two of my colleagues from the search team are also member of the TFRSC.
- Synod plans to appoint Dr. Steve Timmermans to the position this Synod. He is an experience leader with a proven track record who I think will bring a lot to the position. His training as a social scientist I think will be a tremendous asset.
- The hope is that the new Executive Director and his new “cabinet” will help the CRCNA work through its structure and culture issues going forward. Part of the reasons the TFRSC reports may display a sort of “treading water” posture is because everyone wants to give the new Executive Director room to work.
What Can the Cyborg (or maybe “Sy-board” Synod+Board) Exoskeleton Do For Its Host
Most people I talk to agree on the following things:
- This is not an issue unique to the CRCNA. North American churches are somewhere between stress and crisis status.
- The area where vitality is most needed is the local church level. Classical and Synodical support is necessary but not sufficient to turn the tide for the CRCNA.
I think that there is also an implicit hope that the (not-sufficiently thought through IMHO) move from “on behalf of” to “in support of” will be made, at this point through the 5 streams (borrowed form the ECC’s 5 Smooth Stones).
Despite a lot of “top down” fears and complaining an Executive Director, especially in the present structure has very little he (and the next one will be a he) can do both among the agencies and especially among the congregations and classes. Despite the powerful sounding name the CRCNA Executive Director actually has very little power at all. What he may be able to cultivate, however, is influence, but that will almost all be up to him.