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. http://bit.ly/crc_ministry_share_overture
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.
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.
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.