Classis Functionaries - Some Basics

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Have you ever wondered about the basic structure of our denomination? If so, I wanted to share some of the typical roles you will find in a classis. Note: this is NOT an exhaustive list. These are the roles usually referred to as "functionaries." I know, not a terribly inspiring title but it's better than what the thesaurus offers as an alternative (eg. bureaucrat).

There are five basic functionaries that classes (the plural of classis) have: Church Visitors, Regional Pastors, Mentors for new pastors, Church Counselors for pastoral vacancy, and Stated Clerks.

Church Visitors: Church Visitors enter into a relationship with churches in order to offer support and accountability. They tend to be primarily a resource to councils (the governing body of the church), but not exclusively. Church Visitors will typically come to a council meeting and offer their support and advice, and make sure there is space for issues to arise in an appropriate way. Also, if something goes screwy in a church, the Church Visitors are called in to help address the issue(s). Most classes have a handful of people named as Church Visitors, but some classes are trying out a system where everyone is a church visitor (church A visits church B which visits church C, etc. or some other arrangement). 

Regional Pastors: These are people who are asked to be a pastoral presence for pastors themselves. Oftentimes these are retired pastors, but many are also actively serving in ministry. Many classes have more than one Regional Pastor to reflect the geographic spread of their classis. 

Mentors: Every newly ordained pastor in the CRC has a mentor for the first five years of their ministry. This mentor is officially assigned by the classis, but the new pastor is involved in choosing who this person is. Pastor Church Resources has a mentoring manual that the mentor/mentee pair can use to create conversation around many common experiences that pastors face.

Church Counselors: When a church has a pastoral vacancy, someone in the classis is assigned to that church to guide them through the process of calling a new pastor. In fact, before an official letter of call is given to a pastor, this classis-assigned counselor must also sign it. This may sound like a rubber-stamp (and, ideally, it is), but this is an important role, especially since dealing with a call letter as a pastor can be a vulnerable time. I was in conversation with a Counselor not that long ago who did not sign the letter of call because something seemed off with the compensation package the church was promising. This counselor wanted to ensure that both the church and the pastor understood what they were agreeing to so that no one was being taken advantage of unknowingly. Some counselors see themselves primarily as a final signature to ensure things are all above board like the example above. Others may get involved in helping the church do some visioning about what type of pastor they might call next, etc.

Stated Clerks: Every classis has a Stated Clerk. In our work as denominational staff, this is likely the person that you have most interaction with. You might have figured out that they don’t all see their role the same way. Some understand themselves as secretaries who take notes and forward emails. Others see themselves as administrators of a non-profit organization. I always tell them that it matters less where they see themselves on this spectrum than it does that they and their classis are in agreement on what their role involves. Just know that if you reach out to a Stated Clerk, you can’t assume it is one or the other. 

I’ve probably missed some aspects of these roles and the short descriptions lack nuance. But hopefully when you’re connecting with a classis you might have a better sense of who is all at work behind the scenes.

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Recently, our congregation went through some challenges that the Council addressed over several months. Until then, I as a member of Council, had not seen or known about those roles. (My background is in another denomination.) As our Council navigated the challenges, suddenly the church visitors and regional pastor appeared at Council meetings.  In my mind, this raises the question of how active these roles are in non-crisis situations. We, as congregations, need to be hearing about our strengths and weaknesses on a continuing basis from external sources.

I am interested in learning to what extent the classis structure exists on paper, as opposed to how it really works (or doesn't) as an active relationship between congregation and classis. The reality of the decades-long shrinkage (in members and congregations) of the CRC suggests that something may not be working as effectively as possible in addressing congregational vitality well before the question of survival or crisis resolution is paramount.

I welcome other perspectives on this issue. Thank you for raising it.