Permission to Talk

Reconnecting Fractured Flocks

The Christian Reformed Church may be facing its most difficult season in its short history. The signs that something significant has altered in the cultural and ecclesial landscape are glaringly obvious. Church members’ fertility rates have dropped (twice as many children were baptized in 1963 as in 2013), while young adults exit church life in greater numbers. Overall, the CRCNA’s membership has plummeted from a high of 316,000 in 1992 to 248,000 in 2013 — the lowest membership levels since 1963. That would suggest the average classis losing one-fifth of its potential office bearers, tithes and children.

The escalating number of pastors pressed off the pulpit follows only a few years behind the shrinking membership numbers: the total in Article 17s (usually congregations separating from their ministers) in the aughts (‘00s) rose 580 percent higher than in the 90s (jumping 25 to 146 cases), and that the cases of Article 14s (typically a minister resigning from ministry) had almost tripled (from 11 to 30). The end of 2013 brought in high numbers again, with eighteen Article 17s and five Article 14s across the denomination. If you average out the last four years of such statistics, the next decade promises even higher casualties than in the first decade of the new millennium (and that does not include the “hidden casualties” that avoid classical records). The rising wave of pastoral exits has yet to break; and while some other denominations suffer similarly, the crest of this wave rates among the steepest.

There is no doubt some link between the implosion of the CRCNA and the increase in pastor/church separations. But as elaborated in a CC article last year, the leadership crisis entails a multi-faceted phenomenon, involving the failing character and competence of pastors, congregational dysfunction and bullies, denominational issues and broader cultural shifts affecting expectations about leadership.

“There is no quick fix,” says Norm Thomasma, director of Pastor-Church Relations. “When working with congregations we often find ourselves complexifying what many in the congregation would like to see as simple.”

Another binational leader described the situation as that of a swamp: “You can’t walk through a swamp the same way you walked on the high hard ground. You need different equipment, a different style of walking, and you need different expectations about what is normal and what may lie ahead.” Rapid change and uncertainty characterize our journey in a consumerist, internet-linked, highly mobile post-Christian world. In this murky context, little is more important than keeping faith and poise.

Defensive Reactions to Loss

People react differently when experiencing loss, and some attitudes are more helpful than others. Some default to defensive, even sophisticated denial. With a prophetic posture, some declare that numbers are little indication of the movement of God’s Spirit, nor of faithfulness, or even of vitality. They valorize smallness and Biblical weakness (2 Cor. 2:10) and criticize growing, vibrant churches as culturally compromised.

Numbers, however, are one indication of spiritual health, and if a body has lost 20 percent of its cells, it may at least pause for a careful examination. In God’s grand narrative, there is always hope for rejuvenation — an opportunity which some denominations bypass to prematurely enter palliative care mode.

Another defensive reaction to loss is to get angry, lash out and pinpoint blame. Some fault congregational cliques or bullies who manipulate or thwart the church council. More likely, the visible leaders will “come to represent the loss” that community members feel, said leadership guru Ron Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. Nostalgia for the glory days of a congregation’s and denomination’s life history, coupled with the experience of deep pain, can make the current pastor an easy scapegoat. “There’s a saying: the clerical collar is the movie screen upon which people project their expectations and dreams,” said one pastor who had been forced to leave his post. “And their fears and unresolved personal hurts,” he added.

An academic article by Marcus Tanner (Review of Religious Research 2012) on “forced terminations” in the clergy explains in detail the unique liabilities of the pastoral position: they have no standardized job description and poor performance evaluations from an employer whose face is multiple and always changing. Ministers are usually far from friends and extended family, their pay ranks among the lowest for professionals, and when they are forced out, the process can take from months to years and they lose not only their income, but their social support as well: the exit is both “stigmatizing and hurtful” and can leave a minister “disillusioned, frustrated and depressed.”

It often leaves congregations equally angry, wounded, drained, suspicious and sometimes bitter. Regardless, the unique liabilities of clergy life have been true about the profession for hundreds of years. John Newton, the 18th century writer of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” once characterized a pastor’s role as “the worst of all jobs and the best of all callings.” That has not changed.

Strategic Organizational Responses

The more prudent mind, when alert to crisis, turns to re-vamp, restructure and renew the routines of the community. For example, when there is trouble downstream, the big picture people will investigate up the river for some preventative measures. While Calvin Seminary trains most new clergy for ministry, candidates enter the denomination through the local classis as well. More research needs to be done in terms of learning what kinds of pastors are most likely to experience forced termination: is it Calvin grads, second career clergy, transfers from other denominations, or those who take alternative routes — through other seminaries or through ordination by gifting without seminary training?

The key question, says Duane Kelderman, former chairperson of the Candidacy Committee for 10 years at the seminary, becomes one of gatekeeping: what processes are in place to select out those students who lack attributes consistent with effective ministry and draw out those who are more likely to flourish? Congregations and denominational leaders need to sift out those with challenging character issues — and do it as early as possible, something that's easy to do in theory but is very difficult to do with people we know and love.” A more educated and consumer-oriented laity has high expectations for pastors. Such high expectations can be a positive sign, says Kelderman.

“But they need to be communicated with a spirit of encouragement, not arbitrarily, or in unwise and ungenerous ways. Remember, you can’t make a pastor who is 5’10 become seven feet tall.”

While The Banner has not brought the escalating Article 17/14 statistics to the attention of its constituency, the denomination is slowly mobilizing a response to this complex issue. Synod 2012 instructed the Board of Trustees of the CRCNA to find ways for agents to “become involved more quickly in situations where tensions are developing in a congregation.” The Office of Pastor-Church Relations responded with a list of recommendations entitled “A Better Together Proposal: Renewing the Denominational Covenant,” which was presented at Synod 2013. The document observes that the “disintegration of community” is the “most pervasive, multilayered, and insidious” trend facing the CRCNA today and it seeks to address this “turmoil and ferment” with “hopeful urgency.”

A community needs to stick even closer together when navigating a swamp, lending each other a helping hand. The theme of the proposal is “connecting” — strategizing for more intense and intentional use of the relational structures already in place: church visitors, regional pastors, mentors, peer learning groups and independent consultants. They also suggest new regional gatherings of congregational leaders for retreat and renewal. Such initiatives require a new binational team located in their office — coaches ready to equip church leaders with resources focused on congregational and classical health.

Key to our health, says Cecil VanNiejenhuis, a Pastor-Church Relations consultant, is “learning to manage polarities rather than treating normal polarities as problems to be solved.” Tradition and innovation, organization and organism, young adults and Boomers, pastoral care and mission — “we need to think in terms of both/and and not either/or.”

Pastor-Church Relations has become more central to denominational life, yet its resources and scope are limited. The proposal thus points to more global initiatives being addressed elsewhere. This no doubt includes The Task Force Reviewing Structure and Culture, and the Strategic Planning and Adaptive Change Team, which seek a fundamental reframing of the denomination through a new binational organizational plan. Large-scale renewal is promised, but one cannot rest local hopes in reshuffling at the binational level. From a different angle, bureaucratic shifts will not change members’ fertility rates or draw young people back to an active faith life.

“We need to find a new guiding narrative,” suggests Norm Thomasma. He quotes Susan Nienaber from the Alban Institute: “The words you speak become the house you live in.” The secularization narrative, tied to fading European denominational forms, can be a self-fulfilling prophesy that paralyzes the church. Alternative Biblical narratives include wilderness and exile, which resonate with a loss of cultural privilege and wandering experience. More contemporary narratives follow that of awakenings, revivals and renewals, not unlike the Evangelical Covenant Church, which of late has experienced a significant upturn in its denominational fortunes. Additionally, when CRC leaders share “shining moments” and best practices, they are shaping a hopeful, helpful narrative for the local church.

Courage to Change the Things We Can

Finally, crisis can be opportunity that mobilizes the energies of the curious, creative and courageous.

“The mood is somber and reflective in many churches,” said Martin Contant, Home Missions Regional Leader for Western Canada. “Some may panic and rush for the magic bullet, but many are taking the long view of adaptive change: given our strengths, how can we use them in concert with the new winds of the Spirit to risk something new? Experimentation takes a certain confidence: the water did not part to make way for the priests at the Jordan River until they stepped in.”

“People need permission to talk about this,” said Jack Tacoma, who works with Home Missions in congregational renewal in Eastern Canada. “We know church needs re-inventing, but we’re not sure what it needs to morph into.” Key for Tacoma is the development of a common vision in the congregation, meaning a vision with multi-generational appeal, with anti-institutional Boomers, principled Generation Xers and all the rest.

An inclusive congregational vision releases the energy necessary for congregational transformation and ministry, and leaders primarily communicate vision through Sunday morning worship. “Suppertime devotions are geared to include the whole family,” said Tacoma. “Why can’t our worship experience do the same?” In other words, Tacoma urges a revisiting of the basic questions: What is church? What is church for, and who is church for?

The question prompts church consultants like Alan Roxburgh (“What Kind of Leaders Do We Need?” in Green Shoots out of Dry Ground 2013) to suggest switching focus from congregational issues, including buildings and programs, towards community engagement and service instead. Church leaders need to shift their model from maintenance to mission. If such a noble call is not a distraction from real, pressing adaptive challenges in a congregation, it sounds a note of hope; but not without a renewed imagination and a lot of hard work and sacrifice.

VanNiejenhuis isn’t fully convinced by Roxburgh: “We need both maintenance and mission. Too many ministers want to lead organizations without pastoring people. You need both/and.” Adds Thomasma: “Like tradition and innovation, it’s a keel and sail working together.”

What’s the best thing this article can accomplish? “It would offer a catalyst for conversation,” said Tacoma. Kelderman said he hoped that readers might “realize that a congregation and pastor are a precious little ecosystem of people God deeply loves, and maybe we need to be a little more kind to each other, a little more thoughtful, a little more patient, a little more Christian with each other.”

A pastor who was discharged under one of the Articles in question suggested: “Expressing more love and appreciation for your pastor — on an on-going basis — will foster the goodwill necessary for the tough times. Often it comes too late.” And pastors need to remember that people will not easily follow someone who hopes to lead but does not seem to care.

To paraphrase the apostle Paul, perseverance with grace during difficulty can produce good character. And character produces hope, which is the raw material of trust in God’s providence and redemption. If a muddy swamp is a good metaphor for what may be the CRCNA’s most difficult time of testing, such faith and character — expressed in prayer, fasting and action — will be more valuable than any numbers.


  • Peter Schuurman

    Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *