Trimming the CRC Denominational Tree

The CRC Tea Party

An overture has been quietly circulating around the CRC asking councils and classes to crowd-source a new vision of denominational restructuring. You should read it.  I’ve posted it here.

When this document was first shared with me because of its title I assumed it was another attempt to rework the ministry share system. As I read the document I realized it is a proposal to re-imagine the sy-board denomination. (I had done quite a bit of writing about this before the 2014 Synod.)

The document originates with people who are very loyal to the denomination who wish to support the denomination by paying 100% of their ministry shares but are finding it increasingly difficult to meet that challenge.

The document also arises out of the local experience of duplicate fundraising. The ministry share system was supposed to efficiently and fairly raise money for shared ministry. Many agencies and offices of the CRC that receive ministry share money also raise above ministry share monies to meet their budgets.

A major issues is not only how money is raised but how clearly those monies make their way back to the imagined purposes they are designated for. In the past it was felt that Home Missions monies basically were redistributed to support Home Missions churches and pay campus ministers. Subsidies from Home Missions to church plants have been steadily in decline. 20 years ago a new church plant could expect to receive from the denomination declining grants of 60k, 50k, 40k, 30k, 20k and 10k a year for their funding cycle which totals 210k. Today if funds are available a new church plant might receive up to 75k over 3 years. Church planters subsequently must make up those funds by raising monies from classes and churches. Churches who pay full ministry shares begin to wonder why they should send money to CRHM at all rather than to simply send money to the church planter.

Similarly in World Missions missionaries now must raise 90% of their own support. Churches hear this and ask “where exactly do the ministry share monies that we send to the denomination go if not to the missionaries?”

I was not surprised to read this document for the first time. The rumblings have been around for more than a decade. I’m actually more surprised to see how long it took to arise. This is not a rebellion, it is a patriot insurgency.

The intent of this document is not to destroy the CRC, but to save it from itself. It imagines that the denominational ministries are large limb on the CRC tree that with its continued growth threatens to either break off or topple the tree. This document is an attempt to trim the limb before the tree loses its roots in the winds of change.

I liken this document and the sentiment it represents to the Tea Party movement in the US. I don’t intend the politics of the US Tea Party movement to color this, but rather that to see this as a strategy of curbing a feared ever-growing-bureaucracy by cutting the money that supports it.

There is a lot in the document worth discussing, and a lot about the document that is very interesting.

What is Church?

Beneath the denominational restructure effort has been assumptions and challenges about the practical definition of church. The CRC has long been wrestling with these issues in their applying ideas of sphere sovereignty by locating Christian education outside of the institutional church.

  • How should the agencies stand with respect to our conception of church?
  • Should they be governed by Synod or are they best governed by another structure that relates to Synods and Classes in other ways?
  • How does increasing collaboration with the RCA impact how agencies are governed and supported?
  • What should evangelical para-church practices inform CRC agencies?

The 2015 Synod adopted the TFRSC recommendation to establish the Council of Congregations as a way forward with these things. This adoption isn’t even a year old and this document arises. While I think it would have been nice to have this conversation in 2013 (I pondered some of the ideas in this overture in May of 2014) it looks like we’re going to have it now.

Oh Canada

The document smells like the American West. Smaller government, local initiative, distrust of large, disconnected institutions. I wonder how the document will be received in Canada. My sense is that many Canadians hold different sentiments when it comes to institutions. The document is very US centric.

The Devil in the Details

Another thought I have reading the document is that it addresses the operations of a large existing enterprise in broad, round numbers. There are points when it has the subtleties of an American campaign speech.

When the US political Tea Party talks about reducing government, everyone easily agrees to the idea but when it comes down to specifics, especially specific cuts things get much more difficult.

I recently returned home from the Regional Pastors Conference put on by Pastor Church Relations. There are corners of the denomination where people are doing some good, faithful work that most of the denomination probably has little knowledge or appreciation of. In many large organizations the best work goes unnoticed because things are just working. Various corners of the denomination continue to grapple with quieter challenges the church faces (rising numbers of Article 17s for example) that many in the pew or the council room will have little awareness of. A lot of the money spent on these kinds of efforts often go into drawing people together from the far flung regions of the US and Canada to help the diverse denomination grapple with complex challenges. Large, broad reform efforts struggle to appreciate these kinds of efforts and the danger is that they get lost in the reducing reform effort.

Generational Transition

The current denominational structure and culture are the legacy of the builder and boomer generations. This document has an Xer and Millenial feel to it. Every generation inherits something and tries to make it their own. There is an internet-age crowd sourcing ethos to his as the document has been passed around quietly. It has an open source feel to it, an ecclesiastical GPL public license effort that encourages localities to add their ideas and tweaks to it as it makes its way through the larger community.

A Big, Bold Proposal to Promote Large, Important Conversations

So often large, sweeping proposals have a hostile, suspicious or mean spirit behind them. This one does not. The people who are writing this love the CRC and want the best for her and aren’t afraid to look at roots and ask basic questions.

The effort will challenge classes to do what classes are supposed to be able to do, deliberate and lead. Many see this as a test case to see if the broader assemblies really can and do lead or if technocrats of the Sy-Board establishment actually control the unwieldy organism that sustains them.

This may die and go no where or it may fundamentally reshape and re-direct how the CRC “does business”. In any case my hope is that it invigorates healthy debate, promotes critical thinking and helps the CRC forge identity as it adds to its story. We will see.

The danger the effort seeks to avoid is the image of that branch ever growing on the tree. We don’t want to see fewer and fewer congregations bearing the financial weight of an expanding agency arm feeling disconnected and growing resentful until the point that imbalance threatens the whole system. We want to see shared ministry strengthen community, not endanger it and the corners of the church feeling themselves deeply tied and connected with the rest of the tree. We’ll see if this effort accomplishes this.



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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12 Responses to Trimming the CRC Denominational Tree

  1. Ron Vander Molen says:

    If this is loyalty, I shudder to see it’s antithesis.

  2. Well, you’re speaking my love language now, Paul. These folks have identified the right problem but applied an faulty solution, hoping to simply build a better mousetrap.

    I’m going to get downright practical here a moment. We need 2 things we seemingly haven’t figured out how to achieve & that no amount of restructuring will fix:

    1. OWNERSHIP: The document gets close to this, but the measure of success on organizational funding should be the total amount of inputs (church members/end users), not the amount of funding. We’ve always measured the most efficient way to get the latter. That actually has the opposite effect. That’s how movements work.

    2. SELL THE PRODUCT: As you correctly stated, there are tons of great things going on in lots of places in the CRC. We just STINK at delivering the information to the end users (church members). Videography is the best way to do this, but I’m sure a traveling circus might work too. Might not hurt to have people at the top who could sell ice to eskimos, either. The truth is that terrible companies/organizations create lots of momentum all the time – they just know how to sell to their constituency.

    I wrote this 3 1/2 years ago and I stand by it. Some of it has already happened. Some of it is reflected the document shared here. But its core is an abandonment of the ministry share system entirely (which earned me some ire):

  3. klplockmeyer says:

    Thanks, Paul, for posting this. I am one of the original authors of the overture, part of a growing group of folks who have given their input to it. You hit the nail on the head, Paul, with the internet age crowd-sourcing ethos to this. This began with conversations that led to an initial draft that led to sharing widely. Consider it now at the “Kickstarter” stage – except, instead of money, we’re asking for buy-in in the form of overtures to classes and, ultimately, to Synod. The conviction of those of us who have worked most closely on this is that we do not yet have a perfect solution (if that even exists). Rather, we trust that as this works its way through the denominational system others will add their input. Paul, you may convince Classis Central CA of the need for more funding to PCR. If that is in your classis’ overture to Synod, then it can be part of the denominational conversation too. The other big piece of this is trusting those in positions of leadership to be in a better position to make the actual decisions regarding cuts. Your analogy of a campaign speech, Paul, is not unfair – but I believe that if we have a groundswell of support behind something like this, the difficult decisions can be made by those who are best equipped to make them.

    Ron: I appreciate your concern. This would be a huge change and change is threatening. I already mourn for the loss that accompanies a change such as this, nascent though this conversation is. I do ask, though, that you recognize the heart that lies underneath this overture. A love for the CRC and a desire to see it thrive into the future. A trust in the ability of the congregations of the CRC to come together and rediscover our shared identity, our shared mission, our shared work for the Kingdom. A fundamental trust in the delicate balance of our church order. We may disagree on what the future of the CRC looks like and where the CRC identity is – and that disagreement is okay – but we share the same heart.

    Mark: You’re right, in part. This by no means the end-all, be-all solution. “Selling” ministry shares is important. I think the CRC has gotten better at “selling” ministry shares (the results, by the way, of the Study Committee that reported in ’09) – but at the end of the day, I think that the buy-in is just too high. RE: ownership. You’re right – we’re addressing the funding rather than the amount of inputs. Yet the number of inputs is dismal (see some of the info in the overture). As we worked on this, we came to believe (and recognize that we could be wrong) that if we repackage ministry shares to focus on missions and shared resourcing (see the analysis of the Toolkit for Children at the Table as an effective example of this in the current system) we will build a groundswell of support for the “product” (though I dislike the business terms) and increase the number of inputs. My fundamental challenge to you is this: what does it look like to rework an existing system rather than build something completely new from the ground up? Perhaps your proposals from 3.5 years ago are a better solution – by all means, write an overture and send it through to classis and synod. My suggestion would be that we should try to rework the existing system rather than scrap it completely.

    In general, this is only part of the bigger conversation. Clay Libolt’s recent piece in The Banner ( suggests where else the conversation may go. But the conversation has to start somewhere, and that’s what we’re proposing.

    • Thanks, Kory. Don’t get me wrong – I would totally vote for this as-is, since its better than what we’ve currently got by far. I just think its going to only trim the fat rather than address the real issue of end user ownership-creation. Or maybe you’re just optimistic than I am (highly possible). Kudos on eliminating duplicate fundraising and pushing things toward crowd-sourcing, grant-funded & on-demand work – not doing things that way in 2015 is just lazy, IMHO.

      This conversation is important because it feeds into lots of others. If we truly had momentum, a lot of these other pithy arguments would just melt away. I could jump on board with pretty much everything in your overture other than the ministry shares themselves because I truly believe that our ministry share system, as currently constructed, is killing our corporate momentum for sociological reasons. So I’ll just be the guy in the back row yelling “you’re measuring the wrong thing!”

      The long & the short of it is: thanks for getting the conversation started. Its a conversation that’s desperately needed. Let the overtures commence!

  4. Paul, Thanks for sharing. I think this overture is on to a big problem and I’m grateful these folks got the ball rolling. But I agree with Mark’s comments that the solution proposed isn’t necessarily fixing what needs to be fixed. This solution in many ways is still agency-centric, though it rightfully proposes that they trim some of the fat. There is still too much “how do we fund the agencies” talk, and it continues to show up, for example, even as folks are trying to discern what the new joint mission agency looks like. It’s not starting from the place of “how do we resource local churches?” or “what are local churches wanting to do together that they can’t accomplish on their own?” It is beginning with “how do we structure our agency to do things (that we have no mandate from the local churches to do)?”

    I checked out Mark’s article and I think he hits on a big issue – we’re too nice, or at least too nice in Grand Rapids, to make the necessary cuts, and so we continue on with bloated middle management structures. Did you see that overture stat: Home Missions as 33 full-time employees?! And they hope to plant 30 churches a year? And yet the funding has slowed to a trickle. A few years ago Home Missions had a proposal that was basically asking us church planters to raise funds for them that would maybe make it back to us in the form of a grant or something. Needless to say, since I’ve had to raise outside support for almost 9 years, I wasn’t interested in redirecting our generous donors and doing Home Missions’ fundraising work for them.

    As much as I’ve been confused by what Home Missions is up to (I do know they send a lot of people to the Exponential Conference in Orlando every year), I will say that I disagree with two proposed aspects of this overture as it relates to Mission:
    1. Please please please never let the local Classis oversee missionaries and church planters. Essentially you would end up with pastorally called and gifted people overseeing more apostolic-ly called people. While some local church pastors are gifted in this way, most likely this arrangement would squelch the culture of experimentation and chasing after the movement of the Holy Spirit that planting new ministries especially requires.
    2. Also, I don’t think church planters and missionaries should get off the hook so easily with fundraising – supporting them at 75% to 90% is way too much. It is a nice gesture from these Iowa overture folks, and I hear their heart in it. BUT… Too many church planters are sloppy on calling, vision, and strategy. Throwing money at them robs them of the important work of clarifying these three (and other) areas. And as for international missionaries – at the risk of stepping on toes, my sense is much more accountability is needed as I’ve heard too many stories of missionaries mailing it in. The current almost-100% model definitely eliminates much of that, but reducing support raising to just 10%-25% is an over-correction that would be detrimental to the mission.

    Didn’t plan on writing that much, but oh well.

  5. Thanks Paul for bringing this to our attention. I have brought up similar concerns in a variety of settings and have received a wrist slap from my colleagues with more “denominational loyalty.” My problem with our current structure, is that the larger churches seems to shoulder the burden. Especially large churches who are committed to paying. We are doing effective, missional ministry in our context. We have had to say no to so many things because our ministry share number is so high. In fact, we had to cut back on hours for two critical ministry areas in our context, but we weren’t allowed to touch MS. This is a problem. We are limiting what we can do in our community because we are worried about denominational loyalty. The health of the denomination moving forward is based on the health of our local congregations. No congregations = no denomination. The inverse is not true. If the denominational headquarters shut down tomorrow our church would continue. i want the CRC to continue. That is why I think change is necessary. I think the root cause of this is a misguided ecclesiology that is not rooted in scripture. This overture does a great job at starting the conversation. I am going to encourage my council/classis to consider it.

  6. klplockmeyer says:

    Thanks, Ben, for your feedback and constructive criticism. I can definitely see where you’re coming from on the percentages given to church planters and missionaries. If this comes to your classis or through your church, I encourage you to offer that as a suggested change/amendment. I think that there’s an interesting conversation to be had there. The question of classical oversight is an interesting challenge. If I may, I would suggest that perhaps your anxiety of classical oversight is overblown. On the one hand, I understand the unique challenges facing folks in non-traditional churches and ministries (I was in campus ministry before serving a congregation) and know how it can be an extra challenge to help them understand why we invest time and money the way we do. At the same time, I would offer two responses: first, I would offer the same reasoning you use for why funding needs to not be at such a high percentage – church planting, campus ministries, and other non-traditional ministries need to be able to communicate why it matters – and doing so on the classis level keeps that fairly local; second, classis-level oversight ties you more closely to people who, theoretically at least, are more likely to care and be invested in the ministry. An example: Classis Iakota recently watched the prison church started within our classis move to become a fully organized congregation – the first fully organized prison church in the CRC. The support they receive from the classis goes well beyond money. There is an openness to supporting experimentation as long as the vision can be communicated effectively. But, I certainly recognize your critique. Thanks for engaging in the conversation!

    Dominic, thanks for sharing your experience. I hope the conversation is fruitful in your congregation.

  7. Bill Vis says:

    I’ll not comment on the heart of the overture, which I think is generally good. It may not be a perfect solution, but at least it’s a start in addressing a real problem. Waiting for perfection means the problem never gets addressed at all.

    But there is a detail that needs correcting. The overture says that Home Missions has 33 full time employees. Someone should inform the authors that FTE probably stands for full time equivalents. At least that is the way the agencies report in their documentation. So if they have six regional personnel each working 20 hours a week, those six constitute three full time equivalents. Much support staff is part time, and the use of full time equivalents is a way of accounting for them. This doesn’t change the main point being made. In fact, Home Missions almost certainly has more than 33 employees, a number of them part time. But we should be accurate when presenting facts.

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