Canadian members of the Christian Reformed Church of North America (CRCNA) face accusations of creating schism and disunity every time they want more space to do ministry in a different way. The word “separation” plays the same threatening role in church circles as it does in Quebec. It now hangs over the upcoming January 29 Canadian Catalytic Conversation 2 (CCC2).
In my decades of church governance work I have seen many reasonable changes scuttled by threats of schism or emotional appeals to unity. To me, the loss of good opportunities for ministry and the waste of human and financial resources on repeated internal debates seem like more sad sins.
Diversity and unity are not opposites. We can have both. Canadian difference is only one form of diversity within the Reformed family. Korean churches in the U.S. have been accommodated through a separate classis. The Black Reformed group of churches brings a different perspective that others could learn from – if we don’t insist on conformity. Reformed churches in other countries who want to be part of the CRC family will bless us with other forms of diversity, if we are flexible. Cuban churches, for example, worked with Canadian CRC churches during the years when U.S. embargoes on Cuba constrained what could be done in the U.S. In many ways, diversity is just smart ministry. Even McDonalds understands the value of unique products within its global hamburger hegemony.
The former motto of the Canadian Council of Churches is a helpful reminder: Seek unity with an affection for diversity. I can imagine Jesus saying that as he walks down Sainte-Catherine Street in Montreal, or visits churches in Vancouver, New York or California. If we want to achieve unity with an affection for diversity within the CRC, then we need to be aware of our tendency to universalize one shape of ministry because most of our members live in one particular context. We need to stop assuming that what fits in the dominant context also fits elsewhere. Non-dominant groups should not have to fight for space or be treated as subsidiaries.
Are JMAs the answer?
The Structure and Leadership Task Force (SALT) report on its way to Synod in June relies heavily on the use of Joint Ministry Agreements (JMAs) between the U.S. CRC Corporation and a Canadian subsidiary corporation. New JMAs have just been adopted, but they are confidential so the contents cannot be analyzed. JMAs are legal agreements to define who does what and who pays for what. They can be useful tools to manage relationships between service providers.
Questions arise about their adequacy for this situation. Churches need to be nimble in a rapidly changing society; JMAs tend to be fairly rigid in order to prevent any disagreement. Regular monitoring of JMAs requires strong boards. CRC volunteer board members, who meet three times a year in a three-year term, cannot be expected to have enough detailed knowledge to ask tough questions of administrators. Staff motivated by ministry find themselves spending a lot of time in contractual discussions. It is not surprising that somewhat similar agreements in the past were ignored over time. Perhaps these will be different and more effective.
Flexible Network Models
My ecumenical experience suggests a trend toward more flexible networks. Being part of a larger network can add value to a local church, especially one with a Reformed bent toward public witness. Canadian CRC Ministries, for example, allow church members to use their skills in broader culture-shaping ministries that may not find expression in their local church. They expand the reach of the local church into areas of life that affect Canada and the world. Network models allow diversity within a larger organism. They reflect the Biblical body image of church more than linear hierarchical models. At the other pole, being part of a church structure that feels oppressive is likely to be a hard sell in local churches struggling to regain momentum after covid.
Finding the most effective way to work together as partners in one gospel – with affection for diversity – remains a challenge within the CRC. A first step is to drop the language of schism. Maybe “degrees of separation” captures healthy connections and differences at the same time.
For more context on this story, see Canadian Classes Called to Special Meeting (Jan. 7, 2022).
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