On April 9, the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) cancelled its annual June Synod due to COVID-19. The CRC’s smaller Council of Delegates will have an online meeting in June for any agenda items that cannot be postponed until 2021.
Meanwhile, February feels like years, not months, ago, so it’s hard to remember the week when proposed changes to the CRCNA’s governance structure were front page news (“Context Matters: Canadian CRC begins restructuring process but remains bi-national church,” Christian Courier Feb. 21). Impending changes to the structure and leadership of the CRC in Canada that would better comply with Canadian charity laws were announced by the Council of Delegates in early February. This was followed by the unexpected resignation of the binational church’s Executive Director, Steve Timmermans, on Feb. 20.
If details about the restructuring were thin on the ground before COVID-19 hit North America, now the topic almost feels moot as every leader – local and denominational – needs to focus on practical concerns about how to be the church when church buildings are closed. Maybe questions of direction and control can be set aside during a crisis. But this time could also clarify the Christian Reformed Church’s mission and vision as a binational church, if the leadership communicates more clearly about what is happening and what it means to separate ecclesiastical and operational matters. Then we could begin to answer the key question: How can one church be most effective in two different cultural contexts?
Threat to unity?
The CRC denomination has functioned binationally in North America for over a century, not without tension but with a strong bedrock of shared creeds and confessions, and the general understanding that two countries can do more together. For about a decade, three people have worked as a team to oversee operations of the CRCNA, with an Executive Director as the senior staff. On Feb. 28, The Banner reported that the Canadian ministries director, formerly part of that team, is now Executive Director of the Canada Corporation. Administrative roles have been similarly rejigged for Canadian and U.S. staff, affecting the job descriptions for 22 people in the States, according to the article, and creating four new positions in Canada, which were filled internally (“Denominational Staffing Changes Announced,” Gayla Postma). The hires, initially for one year, were supposed to be ratified by Synod in June.
In late February, people I spoke to were confused about what was happening or taken aback by the top-down nature of the restructuring.
“This is a move backwards,” a member of the Council of Delegates stated bluntly. “The local churches were left out.” Yes, “the legal changes had to happen,” but “the church has things in place to run – Church Order,” which was not followed, according to this delegate, who asked to remain anonymous. “The local churches had no say in the positions that were created and filled. We were changing things that Synod had approved.”
Implications of this restructuring remain unclear. The first announcement described the CRC in Canada and the U.S. as united on ecclesiastical matters while keeping operations separate.
“Nonsense,” CRC member John Tamming said. “You split operations down the middle and you effectively split a denomination down the middle. With operations separate, all Canada and the States will eventually have in common is a form of generic ecclesiastical fellowship.” Tamming would have attended Synod as a delegate from his home church in Owen Sound, Ontario.
Retired pastor Gary Bomhof, a member of Red Deer CRC in Alberta, shared the same concern. “I worry that this may be the thin edge of the wedge in separating the church along nationalist lines,” he said.
“These changes have been described as mainly changes to the legal and corporate structure of the denomination, and not as a threat to its unity,” Pastor Mike Abma, Canadian pastor of Woodlawn CRC in Grand Rapids said on Feb. 25. “However, who can accurately predict the full outcome of these changes?”
“Is this a split?” a CRC member asked. “Maybe not, but it feels like it.”
Shared faith, different cultures
As an American who has been a CRC pastor in Canada for nearly 10 years, Pastor Mike Borgert said he’s very aware of the differences between countries, and some of the tension. “Yes, there are regulatory guidelines that differ,” he said, referring to the legal requirements that have prompted these changes, “but it’s not the whole story.” There are other differences to consider.
When the CRC has planted churches in other countries, it has always encouraged the formation of a national, independent church – with the exception of Canada. That can lead to the assumption that the U.S. and Canada are identical, or that Canada is a subsidiary of the U.S. The restructuring currently in progress could help address those issues. Decisions made in Grand Rapids don’t always make sense for Canada. The Office of Race Relations, for example, needs a different lens in each country. Social justice and environmental concerns are also expressed differently.
“Our church cultures, while sharing the same Lord, faith and baptism, carry distinct cultural practises and even variations in theology,” CC Contributing Editor Peter Schuurman explained. “It is well-known that the majority of Canadian congregations in the Christian Reformed Church are made up of the descendants of immigrants who were influenced by Abraham Kuyper as Dutch Prime Minister and theological beacon. Surely American Reformed church members knew of him, but they didn’t share proximity and language with him like many Canadian Reformed folks did. His deliberately Christian participation in journalism, unions, academics and politics was an inspiration for a piety that fearlessly engaged a diversity of cultural sectors and this translated into numerous kingdom agencies that exist in Canada in ways they never have in the USA. [Now] we share a faith, but we minister in different cultures.”
These are just some of the reasons why denominational staff in Canada say they are excited to be taking steps to strengthen the leadership and staffing of Canadian ministries.
“Before, the CRC was one entity with Canada doing its own thing on the side,” Kathy Vandergrift said. She served on the Board of Trustees from 2009-2015, including as Chair for two years. “Now the new model will be two separate legal entities, with ministries appropriate in each country, that join together to achieve common goals.”
‘Two national expressions’
“I have a deep sense that we still need each other,” Pastor Abma, who has served CRCs in both countries, said. “Believe it or not, we tend to help bring out the best in one another. In a world in which nations are becoming more ‘nationalistic,’ it is increasingly rare and refreshing to see a denomination function binationally. It says something about the Kingdom we belong to and the King we serve,” he concluded. “I hope we can keep it that way.”
If the past three months have shown anything, it’s that more openness and better communication are needed. They are vital for a cross-border partnership like the CRCNA to flourish. Is there a way to open these discussions up to the wider church, especially now that Synod has been cancelled? Canada and the United States are not the same. But how exactly do those differences affect ministry? Is doctrine enough to bind us together while we operate independently?
“I hope that this leads to a broader and deeper conversation,” Pastor Borgert said, “not just about what we call our Canadian and U.S. ‘Pope’ and who that person reports to. There are serious issues that need to be talked about honestly, so that we can be a unified denomination with two national expressions.”