My Initial Read of the 2015 TFRSC Report: From Voltron to Kickstarter

voltron

Thank the Committee

The 2015 Agenda for Synod is out complete with the final report from the Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture. This committee has done a lot of work over the last few years. They have clearly done a lot of thinking and study and they should be thanked for their service. They’ve given us a report that asks big questions and makes suggestions for the path forward. They’ve given this synod a lot to chew on, so let’s begin.

Bonuses

I’ll get to the main proposal in a minute but I should mention the report has other major additions which I was delighted to find.

  • “Let’s get serious about reviving the classical level!” I’ve long said that if there is an area that needs attention and has the greatest promise (most bang for the buck) it would be helping classes reach their potential. Yeah!
  • “Let’s talk serious about Synod.” Another win! This conversation is long overdue.
  • 5 Streams. Meh. It is clear that despite all of the talk about “sea change” and “adaptive change” this is an incremental report. How the 5 streams will play out in terms of structure isn’t clear and they didn’t really go whole hog into it. If they had disbanded the agencies and just restructured assets around the 5 streams that would have been bold. I understand the need for process however.

These pieces make the report stronger and I think reflect the good work of the committee.

Where’s the Culture Piece?

In my first reading of the report my biggest question was “where’s the culture piece?” Here’s the answer given.

Brought recommendations to change culture through “participatory management” and collaborative tables for consideration by the senior leadership team, which synod adopted in 2013.

You can find the 2013 report here.

A few thoughts.

  • It’s hard to write a report about culture and give specific recommendations. The bulk of their work was clearly focused on structure.
  • The biggest cultural change will probably come from the new leaders now in place rather than structural change. I’m pleased with the leadership hires they’ve made and think that they will help with the culture questions moving forward.
  • Reports given at last year’s Synod by a number of denominational employees on creative collaboration across agency lines were very positive and I think expressed some exciting developments in the culture of the (sy-board) denomination (as opposed to the organic community of congregations). Morale among people I spoke with was high and I feel good about progress in this area even though there isn’t much written about it.

From Confederacy to Union

While “centralization” has been the narrative fear I think what this report shows is the evolution of consolidation. The report references and quotes the “Vision 21” from 1990.

The key to successful coordination and integration is appropriately designated authority. The Synodical Interim Committee was not able to achieve satisfactory integration of agency work because it was not vested with the authority to
see to it that it was done. . . . If the denomination is serious about coordination of resources and work, then it must accept the necessity of an administrative structure that is given the authority of synod to do the work mandated by synod.

(Agenda for Synod 1990, p. 337)

If there’s a thesis statement to this document it’s this.

 The ad hoc development of agencies, institutions, and offices has led to good ministry but also to a structure that has become a complicated “confederacy of nonprofits” rather than a “union of ministries.”

Voltron

The issue that this report wishes to finally settle is the question of dual authority of the agencies. If the agencies (or three of them) are the lions this report finally tries to make Voltron.

Voltron was a Japanese anime with a simple plot formula. A threat would arise and the team in their 5 robot lions would try to engage the threat. At some point it would become clear that something stronger was needed to address the threat so the lions would combine to form the super robot Voltron with his giant sword. After the great battle Voltron would vanquish the adversary and everything would be cool again. This is the heart of the proposal. The agencies are lions but now is time to form Voltron with his blazing sword. 

The Missing Lions

The report makes clear that World Missions, Home Missions and Back to God will be integrated into the Council of Delegates (COD). World Relief, Calvin College and Seminary will retain their boards for the technical reasons of accreditation and grant funding reasons. This is true, but I think we need to explore the main assumption of the report, that forming Voltron with these three lions will make the sy-board (or sy-borg) more effective and give the organic CRC a boost?

Of the CRC’s institutional assets over the last couple of decades Calvin College and World Renew have displayed what I think are the key skills that the rest of the denomination needs to thrive, the capacity to grow beyond the financial and human boundaries of the organic CRC population. Is the increasing distance from Board control incidental to this fact?

The irony of this series of reports is that all the talk of “need” is about flexibility, adaptive change, and speed but the institutional direction looks less like entrepreneurship and venture capital and more like corporate central planning.

Too Old to Fail?

For all the seeming “major change”ness of moving from our dual authority structure to the fish (COD) the big “gain” is basically central command and control. The assumption that this will yield different results than the three lions working kind of on their own but sort of together (confederacy) is that our performance problem is due to agencies not being able to work more closely together. This I’m not buying. While there certainly have been incidences of agencies working at cross purposes eliminating this won’t really change the overall performance of any of the agencies.

What seems more clear is that the centralized funding method of ministry shares continues to deteriorate which leads this report to not want to tinker with the brand loyalties to the agencies mostly in funding by legacy donors. This makes sense but it doesn’t address the bigger, longer term threat. It basically engages the medium range challenge.

The same reluctance is seen in then mediocre embrace of the 5 streams. A bold proposal would look to fully align CRC sy-board assets with the 5 streams. Again, I don’t know that this would be the best move, for the same loss of brand recognition reason given above, but how the 5 streams plays out in this proposal says a lot about it. We have these legacy agencies with a declining revenue stream but we should keep them around because we don’t want to leave money on the table.

My initial impression of the main Voltron proposal is that is is finally not all that consequential. While adopting this MAY offer some incremental improvement of agency performance and overall impact I don’t think it offers a change in the overall trajectory of the sy-board denomination nor the Denomination (big D the organic community of churches). We can, and probably should explore how this will impact the three lions that will be “united”. Their union in this way might be an improvement (Clay’s piece gets into this in more detail) or not. There isn’t anything in the proposal that leads me to believe this will be a big deal one way or the other.

Can Synod Make Up Its Mind? 

If you look at this report in the context of the longer narrative of consolidation (from 1973 to Vision 21 to today) Synod’s role in this is important to note. With its right hand Synod keeps saying “we don’t want centralization” but with its left it keeps moving us towards it. Synod has been stumbling along this path in fits and starts protesting all the way. When bolder proposals towards consolidations arise Synod demurs, coughs, shrugs, wrings its hands and then gives a half measure.

Synod is now asked to figure out what to do with this report. First instincts so far are “we need to slow the process down, maybe take another year.” I can also appreciate the voices that say “we’ve been talking about this for DECADES!”

Before reading the report I was more inclined to the “take another year” idea, now I’m not so sure. Not because I don’t think we need time as a Denomination to process, but because I’m not sure what’s being proposed is THAT big of a change or that it will be a permanent change. The CRC is already well along this path and basically we’re giving the new leadership team a freer hand to try to do something. Will this do great harm? Not that I can see. I see potentials for gains and losses but overall I’m not sure it will mean a lot.

Given the rate of expected funding decline if we want to try the consolidation path we should probably stop dawdling and give it a try whole hog rather than muddling. My impression is that with our current leadership of Steve Timmermans and Colin Watson we’ve got more experience now in leading large organizations than we’ve ever had in the past. I’d be willing to give them a free hand for the next 5 years and see what they can do and what we will learn. The downside of going for it seems not significantly different than taking yet another half measure and delaying them for a couple more years.

Can Synod Lead? 

What Synod can’t seem to do is chart a clear path forward. It says it’s afraid of centralization but in anxiety keeps trying to take control. Synodical control means delegating tasks and authority to your denominational structure which means… centralization. Synod will have difficulty trying to run a reform effort without it resulting in centralized control but then, in fear, pulling back and again yielding half measures, which is how we got the dual authority problem in the first place.

Institutions once given life like all living things try to preserve themselves. I’m not saying CRC agencies are dead men walking. I am saying we need to continue to think about the relationship between the organic church, the congregation of CRC churches and the institutions we’ve created. The report notes the shift from “on behalf of” to “in support of” but I think we are anything but clear on exactly what “in support of” looks like in this day of declining loyalty, identity and the rise of churches acting like free agent consumers looking to the broader mainline and evangelical markets for their ideas and services.

If Synod doesn’t want “centralization” it can stop it but only if it does so by releasing power and control. There are other models that could be explored. The fact is that its study committees usually come up with the same model in different variations which tends to lead people towards the “moving the furniture” cynicism. If Synod wants to look at other options it needs to look at other options, not variations of consolidation. If Synod fears centralization it can spin off the agencies  or do a combination of both some consolidation and some spinning off.

Letting Go of the Old and Doing what We Used to Do

Consolidation is not the only option. There is a real irony that the CRCNA is a denomination whose majority population are free-market conservatives but keeps begrudgingly backing into a centralist business model. Pardon the US centrism in this word picture but we’re a denomination of mostly Republicans run be Democrats. We want free market creativity and productivity with socialist stability. Perhaps instead of trying to form Voltron we should ask whether the lions themselves are too large or maybe too old.

Our agencies were birthed out of a desire to do ministry in new ways. They were launched with vision by constituencies and factions present in our community of congregations. With the exception of World Renew they are declining as their founding constituencies decline. Might we not want to consider ironically re-walking the paths that lead to their birth and periods of greatest effectiveness? Why not instead of trying to keep them alive or rework them figure out ways to seed the next agencies that can grab the imagination and mobilize the resources of the CRC as well as gathering resources beyond our boundaries? This is what World Renew and Calvin College are doing effectively today and I think this is the direction we need to take more broadly.

CRCNA KickStarting New Agencies and NGOs

If we’re going to see new ideas that have the potential to attract and mobilize resources beyond the CRC we’re going to have to start A LOT of new things and most of these things are going to have to probably be started outside of the Synodical command and control structure.

One thing that caught me by surprise was that here was not a single mention of the RCA in the 2015 TFRSC Report. This despite the fact that we adopted a broad statement at last year’s joint synod and in a number of areas (benefits, publications, church planting, disabilities, World Renew) are wedded with them. Just as students from many churches and denominations send students to Calvin and participate in Calvin programs (Worship Institute, Festival for Faith and Writing) and World Renew mobilizes resources beyond the CRC and spins off NGOs to serve the world in many places, we need to figure out how to do similar things in more areas and the RCA will be a likely first partner in most endeavors.

While I would love to see us seriously explore spinning off agencies rather than consolidating them (as I’ve written before here and here and here) this isn’t an either/or proposition. It might be that World Missions, Home Missions and BTGM are consolidated into a legacy status where they also work to spin off new efforts like Joel Huyser’s Transformational Networks World Wide. Reducing the board overhead for legacy agencies might be a good next step in figuring out how to recycle staff and ideas into kickstarting new efforts around the world. Maybe the new “Global Mission Agency” will have its own branding and in time replace CRWM and CRHM. We may be able to spin off or create very productive mission efforts that do better BECAUSE they are not housed or owned by the CRCNA.

Is Voltron a Dinosaur?

What we are talking about is the tension between size which gives capacity and size which can’t adapt quickly to change. What we need in this process is to figure out in which things size and centralization helps the mission and in which ways it limits or hinders our mission. Size requires a large and stable food supply, something the CRC has been able to maintain now for most of a century. It could be that what we need instead are an army of smaller projects of which one or two might grow up to be agencies that replace the ones we began in the first half of the 20th century.

Synod’s Challenge to Lead and not just Muddle and Fuss

We have two short months to discuss this before the big show at Dordt. Let’s not waste this time. Please comment, pass this along, write your own blog, talk to friends, go to CRC-Voices, join the CRC-Pastors Facebook group (if you’re a CRC Pastor), start a CRC members Facebook group, start a discussion thread on the CRC Network and invite me to it so I know about it. Tweet about it. Synod can’t work if we aren’t all taking and working through the ideas long before we meet. You can only do so much in a week.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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1 Response to My Initial Read of the 2015 TFRSC Report: From Voltron to Kickstarter

  1. Eric Verhulst says:

    Quick responses, somewhat disjointed:

    They started as a consolidated mission around 1890 – at that time “Board of Heathen Missions” and the first efforts were to the Sioux here in South Dakota. Failed miserably, but they were back at it in Rehoboth among the Navajo a couple years later. Board of Indian and Foreign Missions is what it became (1920s I think), and then in 1964 the Navajo and Zuni missions were transferred to Home Missions and they dropped the “Indian and” from the name. “World Mission” came in the ’70s.

    If I recall correctly, Home Missions really got started in response to the post-WW2 wave of Dutch immigration to North America, but I’m a little fuzzy on that. Even so, World War 2 and its aftermath are what really opened the CRCNA to the possibilities of going beyond the semi-isolated Dutch immigrant enclaves we’d settled into in North America. The struggle between those possibilities of our new home and the legacy of the old hasn’t let up since.

    Here, too, I see that happening in the local congregation I serve. How do we honor those who planted this church, worked hard and sacrificed much to build it, and yet take advantage of the new possibilities opening up as the city grows and thrives without a lot of Hollanders in it? Honor the legacy, seize the possibility – some times it seems impossible to do both.

    I think you’re right in saying this consolidation really won’t change that much – at least, not in the near term. But since these agencies are now committees of the COD, the fish will have requisite authority to deal with coordination and friction that are inherent in the different, yet similar missions. That’s not a minor change.

    But I think the biggest change is that the COD returns to classical delegation – 1/classis plus 12 at-large. I have never liked the regional representation method – neither regional synod nor classis, but a purely notional structure with no other purpose than to reduce the number of delegates sent off to board meetings and even out the number of US and Canadian delegates on those boards. It had the effect, in the US at least, of severely weakening the local connection to the agencies and boards.

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