‘Frustrated, angry, disillusioned’
Our church governance crisis.
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.
Another Canadian Ministries Director wrote for CC‘s August issue. Read that here. A sponsored letter was also published regarding this topic.
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.
I agree with Ray wholeheartedly. I resigned my position on the Council of Delegates a few weeks before the end of my term because I was disgusted with decisions made. The Canadian delegates had received the SALT Report well before the COD meetings, but our senior staff (apart from Darren who had major problems with it) did not – on purpose. When I suggested that I would like to hear from this senior staff before making a decision on the SALT Report (because, obviously, they are the ones in the know and the ones who will have to carry out the recommendations contained in the Report), they finally received it, against Grand Rapids’ wishes, only a few days before the COD meetings. Our senior staff raised the same issues Darren had mentioned, and then a few more and, as a result, the Canadian delegates asked the COD that the Report be tabled to give us time to obtain the necessary information and advice so as to review the Report more closely. That’s all we asked for: some time. But: the US Delegates said no! It is hard to prove how many voted which way, but the numbers against tabling resembled the 70% US vs 30% Canadian delegates.
I find this unconscionable and is yet another example of the US “lording” it over the Canadian Church. This must stop. And Darren was working so hard to try to make this happen. Was he perfect? No, of course not. But he worked tirelessly in trying to nurture the Canadian Church. He was fired after I had resigned.
Thanks for these informative articles by Elgersma and Adema. Although we left the CRC more than 40 years ago, because of “geographical limitations”, we still subscribe to The Banner and follow this US/Canada issue closely. These two articles shed a considerable amount of light on this issue. What pains us is the extent of fragmentation on the CRCNA. About 25 years ago, the CRCNA was split as a result of opening all offices to women. That rip has not been healed. Now we are most likely seeing another rip in the form of a split among national lines and, most likely, yet another split between more “conservative” and “progressive” congregations and the potential loss of some ethnic congregations. The devil is probably having a field day. I would dearly like to see an overture that would bring the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the CRC(Canada) closer together and, perhaps, join into one denomination. However, both denominations come with considerable cultural and historical “baggage” and I won’t hold my breath.
Despite my reservations regarding the emergence of the Council of Delegates (COD) as a 4th assembly [in my opinion], as per Church Order, Article 26, there is something troubling in comment above.
It would seem to me that the SALT report is a product of the COD i.e., the board, since the board established its mandate and appointed the binational members from the COD to prepare the report. It is not a report requested by the board of staff / Canadian Ministries.
As such, the issues Aaltje raises – raise further questions regarding the understanding of not only the role of a board member but also that of the executive director. As member of the COD, she would have been responsible for the approval of the SALT mandate and appointment of its binational members. By her actions in requesting the intrusion of Canadian Ministry staff into the governance process during board deliberations, she undermines not only the COD as a board, but the SALT committee, including the Canadian Ministries executive director.
The SALT committee has a fiduciary obligation to the COD to address questions that might arise from its report by members of the COD or seek further information. The executive director can be requested by the board to provide an assessment of the report, but board is not obligated to follow up on that advice.
There would appear to be more going on here than meets the eye, by having the staff i.e., employees other than the executive director intrude in the governance process.