I am writing at a time of lament in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) about the immediate firing of our most recent Canadian Ministries Director, Darren Roorda – the fourth consecutive person to leave this position under a cloud of frustration and anger since 2000. It’s also a lament about the health of our denomination’s leadership, its impact on the well-being of our churches, and why strong Canadian leadership is not working in the binational church structure we have.
The Canadian CRC began in the early 1900s as a mission post served by American Home Missionaries, tirelessly working to help poor Dutch immigrants settle in Canada. After the Second World War, a wave of immigration brought a huge influx of new members and new Dutch pastors with a Reformed world and life view. As the Canadian church matured and its leadership developed, there was little change in the denomination’s centralized decision-making model. Headquarters remained in Grand Rapids. In the late 60s, pastors in Canada organized the Canadian Council of Christian Reformed Churches to oversee national ministries and to participate in ecumenical organizations such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Project Ploughshares. The Canadian Council’s General Secretary did not have standing at the CRC’s annual Synod and was given minimal time to share the work of the Canadian Council. It was almost seen as an “illegitimate child” in the denomination.
One area of strong Canadian leadership in the denomination is World Renew, formerly the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. Deacons, an important ministry component of the Canadian CRC, were involved from the outset when the aid and development arm of the denomination was established in 1962. There has been strong Canadian support for the ministry since that time. The Canadian government gives high recognition to the work of World Renew and has provided tens of millions of dollars to its work over many years. At one point, with millions of dollars being funneled annually from Canada to World Renew’s U.S. office, the Canada Revenue Agency began to question whether programming supported by these charitable dollars was being supervised, directed and administered by Canadians. In 1989, responses to these queries led to the establishment of a World Renew-Canada Board, a World Renew-Canada Director, and an organizational structure that had a Co-Directorate administering International Programming. I was the Canadian arm of that co-directorate from 1989 to 1996.
The co-director model is a distinct leadership model in the CRC but it’s not unique to World Renew. Numerous non-profits have had co-directors work successfully. At World Renew, it required the graciousness of the American Director to share leadership and decision-making responsibilities. Communication, consultation, collaboration, cooperation and servant leadership were key factors in making this work. It meant no unilateral decision-making in international programming. There were conflicts and we resolved them, determined to make our ministries effective. The model has had three sets of co-directors over the last 30 years. It has been an effective sustainable leadership model. In Beyond the Bottom Line, authors Sender and Hudson describe their discovery that “where power sharing is most complete, overall performance is most outstanding […] Co-directing an organization is the strongest possible demonstration of a commitment to power sharing.” I believe that to be World Renew’s experience.
1999: Canadian Ministries begins
During the 1990s the Christian Reformed Church looked seriously at what it means to be binational. A study about church structure in Canada was prepared and submitted to the Synod of 1999. It examined culture, organization and ecclesiology in our respective countries and churches, and made recommendations to Synod that were overwhelmingly approved. A Canadian Ministries Board was established. I was hired as the first Canadian Ministries Director. Over the next year, the Canadian office began envisioning effective ministry activity here. We planned an Indigenous Ministries Forum in Edmonton for June 2001. We felt that we were an integral part of the denominational structure and ministry. This was all acted on with the expectation that the report on structure would be approved at Synod 2000, moving towards a co-director leadership model.
But in June 2000, the restructuring report didn’t pass. There was a strong lobby, particularly by U.S. agency directors and their agency board members, to reject it. Much of the collaborative work in Canada the previous year needed to be unraveled. In January 2001, I gave my six months’ notice of resignation, feeling frustrated and angry. The Canadian Ministries Board directed me to leave by the end of the month.
The 2022 report solves nothing
I see strong parallels between the rejection of the Restructuring Task Force Report in 2000 and what is being proposed by the current Structure and Leadership Taskforce (SALT; see adjacent article). The Christian Reformed church in Canada has struggled with this issue for 21 years. This SALT report is not a “fix”; it’s another step backward in its recommendations regarding a leadership structure, and, I would submit, has a high risk of damage to the denomination’s relationship to the Canadian church.
I started with the history of leadership in our denomination because I believe that history has shaped our denominational structure with Home Missionaries providing “outside” leadership. There has been tremendous change in both countries, particularly in the past 50 years. The Canadian church community has matured and grown strong; it’s visionary, competent and capable. The new SALT report does not empower leadership or ministry in Canada. Four visionary Canadian Ministry Directors, committed to the empowerment of the church in Canada, with stellar careers outside the denomination, have left church employment disillusioned and “beat up.” It’s simply unacceptable to continue with a leadership model that hasn’t worked. Can you imagine a scenario where U.S. churches would submit to ultimate decision-making authority by a parent organization in Mexico? Why does a Canadian church submit to decisions made in a foreign country? Frankly I see this SALT report as “not worth its salt.”
The CRCNA needs to reflect on the struggles leaders in our church have had these past 20 years and build on previous governance reports that gave a stronger, more mutually acceptable structure and leadership model than what is being recommended now. A truly healthy and vibrant binational and legally compliant church can be stronger, more effective and respected when we recognize our different cultural contexts, and when we cooperate and collaborate because we want to – not because one partner holds final decision-making authority. A truly healthy vibrant binational church demands nothing less.
These articles are written in response to Rev. Dr. Darren Roorda’s dismissal from his position as Canadian Ministries Director on July 7. Peter Schuurman and Angela Reitsma Bick cover the story here.