A wise colleague Stan Vander Klay, as always full of wit and puns, prepared a report for the Classical Renewal team several years ago titled “Raising CANE”, telling the story of God’s blessing on the churches and ministries of Classis Atlantic Northeast (CANE). It highlighted the ways in which God was at work in the Northeast, in church planting, congregational renewal, leadership training, and a start in multi-ethnic ministry, all infused with diaconal energy. Yes, God is “raising CANE” in all the best ways.
But how did it happen? Why is this surprising? Isn’t that what God is always doing? I suppose, but I must admit to being really surprised. To understand my amazement (and perhaps my little faith), you need to know about the contrast between “then” and “now”.
I was never as upset after a classis meeting as I was after my first meeting of CANE. The meeting was toxic, petty, negative, and I could go on. Classis was all about blame and taking sides, partly relative to women in office but also showing a deep distrust on the part of some for anything coming from Home Missions and the denomination as a whole. There had been a pre-classis caucus, supposedly to help new delegates understand what was happening but I wasn’t included. I was already looking for an excuse not to attend the next meeting six months away.
Now fast forward 17 years to the last meeting of CANE I attended. The fellowship among delegates was warm and genuine, the words of farewell to a couple of us who were leaving the area were heartfelt and affirming, we spent our time focused on ministry and not church politics, and worship was rousing and from the heart. The business we needed to do was done efficiently and with a view to good stewardship of time and money (synodical deputies were involved in the one item where we needed their concurrence via phone conference call.) What happened to get us from A to B?
One factor was the encouragement of classical renewal efforts. Leaders from CANE participated in two conferences at the beginning of the classical renewal movement, plus we had a classis coach who met with us to encourage and share best practices from other classes. We learned to do overnight meetings at a retreat center to help develop connections between churches scattered from western New York to central Maine. With the extra time, worship became more vital. Conversations over breakfast and lunch (and I’m not sure where some of the delegates went after the Wednesday evening session adjourned) helped us to understand how ministry in Rochester, NY differed from that in Athens, ME, and yet we were all about the same business. Bi-vocational church planters rubbed shoulders with veteran pastors whileelders and deacons from established churches got a first-hand account of the financial struggles of emerging congregations in small towns in New England.
Second, classis meetings became ministry focused rather than business focused. Yes, there were retirements to process and Synod delegates to elect and budgets to adopt, but the focus of most meetings was on examining new church planters and ministry staff persons who became Ministry Associates and giving thanks for church leaders who were licensed to bring God’s Word. Church planters shared stories of joy and struggle, delegates from hundred-year-old congregations prayed with persons on the leadership team of a fledgling group, and together we shared successes and failures in youth ministry, pastoral care, evangelism and worship “wars”. Deacons became delegates and brought a stewardship perspective to the table. We were a team, working together to “raise CANE” while extending God’s Kingdom in the Northeast.
Finally (and I regret having to say this) we were able to “raise CANE” because some people left the classis. A few retired, others took a call to another church and some left the CRC for a place where the old way of doing things was still the norm. It was not just a matter of numbers, so that there were more votes for what some of us would see as more progressive initiatives. We still had our debates and things didn’t always go the way I thought they should. Yet there was a new spirit and heart, and people came to enjoy the fellowship and the stories of God-blessed ministry, both in new churches and in churches with a long history of serving God’s people and God’s world.
It was a “God thing.” I was ready to write off classis as a colossal waste of time and the source of incredible frustration. Now, having left CANE, I honestly miss going to Classis. But what can you expect when you get to be involved when God is “raising CANE.”