How to Change a Classis

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There are many modes of leadership that can bring change, but Classis will likely require a commitment to servant leadership.

When I finished Calvin Seminary someone told me that my faculty recommendation had a comment about me that went something like this “He seems to have a capacity for leadership but is timid to exercise it.” Some may be surprised I’ve ever been called “timid” but I do have my places for that. Looking back on it if that comment was made I think it was correct. 

When I heard this comment I was a bit perplexed. What little I heard at CTS from my professors that spoke directly to leadership tended to be on the side of “servant leadership” and a warning to “not lord it over...” This was noteworthy because while CTS seemed pre-occupied with trying to diminish the CRC’s tradition of the powerful Domine before whom the sheep might tremble, the seeker movement was holding up the model of pastor as CEO running the church as a purpose driven, hope of the world corporation. Councils of ruling elders were replaced by boards who supervised only the Senior Pastor tasked with making the church fulfill its carefully articulated missions statement often having to do with fully devoted followers. 
 
This is not a blog post on church administration but if you want to know I’ll tell you that both the traditional model of CRC church governance and more corporate models have their strengths and weakness and can be appropriately employed for the blessing of the local church. What interests me are the images, balances and models of leadership. The tensions are of course all present in Jesus himself, at once the “teacher” before whom no student is greater, and yet the one who strips down to a towel to wash feet like a slave. 
 
In my brief time as steward for the Classis cubby of the network I’ve been encouraging its readers to voice a bit about the frustration and angst I often hear voiced about Classis in the CRC as well as trying to cast a vision for its incredible potential. A comment that’s been repeated both on and off line has seemed to reflect the perception that Classis is often resistant to influence and leadership. I very much imagine that observation to be true. Many classes are like trees planted by streams of water; they will not be moved. At the same time I want to encourage those who have an idea of how a well functioning Classis could enliven churches in an entire region to not give up hope. Classis in fact IS receptive to leadership and influence but it will require you to become a better leader if you want to see results. 
 
There are still a few who try to exercise leadership on the basis of position alone as the stereotypical Domine might have. The difficulty with this approach today is that the distrust of institutions has eroded the platform upon which the Domine stood to the degree that any attempt at overt control on the basis of positional authority is usually dismissed out of hand. Just because you have a title in the church doesn’t mean anyone will care what you say.
 
CEO approach also won’t work in your classis even if you can sometimes get away with it in your local church. Like the Domine, corporate CEOs have power by virtue of their institutional authority and can hire, fire, coerce or command to make happen what they will. In Classis, however, even though some are more equal than others, there is a enough equality to make carrots and sticks less effective for bringing change. Its for this reason that I suspect pastors who are accustomed to running their church have little patience for classis because it is simply a different model, one for which their most comfortable tools don’t appear effective. 
 
For this reason I would very strongly advocate for the stealthy power of Jesus’ “servant leadership” model. Those of you who are not clergy probably have had the thought reading this post at least once (if you’re still reading it) “he’s not speaking to me. He’s talking to pastors.” This is the beauty of Jesus’ way. You don’t need to be a pastor, you don’t even need to be an elder, you don’t need to be old or young, you don’t need to have a Dutch last name or have a particular skin color. You just need to be willing to love and serve and do so with endurance and determination. 
 
In almost any community or institution power is desired and a natural competition develops for those who wish to hold positions that embody it. Our imaginations are excited by this reality an desire is kindled “my vision for how the world should be might be realized if I can hold that post!” If and when the post is attained, the person will quickly realize that people are resistant to power coming from above. People aren’t stupid and they don’t like being used especially for someone else’s “big idea”. 
 
Jesus’ brand of servant leadership comes from below and most often non-controlling. Servant leaders give so generously of themselves, serve so faithfully, and love so closely that they soon know the community better than anyone else. They become indispensable for the life of that community and everyone knows they want the best for all. In time such a person will in fact hold great power to influence whether or not they have any title or position of power especially if they are a person of grace, truth and love. 
 
Do you want an example? Who is more powerful in a congregation, the pastor or the church secretary? The pastor or the custodian? We’ve all seen it. 
 
Classis is an extraordinary difficult institution to control. Telling classis what you think should happen will seldom make it so. Serving in classis, loving the people and churches of classis, praying for classis, being a servant within classis can change a classis. 
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Sounds like a bit of a carrot, Paul?  :) 

Maybe its not about controlling classis.   Maybe its about classis controlling itself?   Or restraining itself?   I agree that a classis that seeks to serve, rather than to control, will probably be more effective.   Probably will trust God more.  Probably will be a better example as well.   I'm sure there are some great classis meetings out there.   

Participant

Many think that Classis is something out there that is ruling over churches or something,  The reality is, Classis is a body that gathers twice or three times a year, that's it.  Classis is us churches getting together to discuss matters of mutual interest and to hold each other accountable (somehow) to carrying out are various callings as congregations.  It echoes what people often say about Synod, speaking about synodical decisions as if there is this standing organization that is separate from the rest of the church telling the churches what to do.  Synod is us as the CRC.  Classis is us as churches in a particular region. 

What I have observed that has been changing, is the cohesiveness of CRC congregations in between Classis meetings.  Since we as sister congregations in a particular denominations are no longer so homogeneous nor are we as interested in banding together to do things, Classis becomes a stranger and stranger animal.  We meet more and more as aquaintences rather than as family.  I am not making a judgment on this, simply observing a growing reality.  It also seems to be, the farther you are away from Grand Rapids, the more this is the case.  More often today congregations partner with other congregations in their neighborhoods to reach people in ministry, regardless of the other congregations' denomination.  This changes what Classis meetings are about. 

Out west here, Classis meetings aren't controlled by anyone, rather they are struggling to be meaningful to everyone.  It is a good time of gathering and fellowship (more for pastors since they already know each other), but whatever agenda someone might have for Classis, it is a hard sell if it does not arise from the grass roots of the churches themselves.  Anything imported from one context simply gets polite nods and looks of "what does this have to do with our church?" 

And congregant interest in decisions of Classis (even Council's interests) are fast waning out here.  I am not sure if our local congregations would even notice if Classis ceased to meet.  A few of the ministries we support together could still be supported directly by the congregations and things would proceed as before.  Again, just an observation of the state of things.  I am at present serving as chair of the Classis Ministry Committee (our interim committee). 

Maybe we have to ask some tough questions like, "why keep meeting as Classis?  what difference does it make, really?"  and proceed from there to revitalize and refocus what we are doing. 

I am reminded of the practice of long ago, where the churches were "guarding" the table.  (Lord's Supper).  Their objective was to make sure everything was protected, that everything was done right.  That eventually disappeared, and now there is a simple general warning in most cases that to participate in communion meal, you must believe in Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and seek to obey Him. 

The similarity to Classis as an organization that protects "ministry", which literally means "service", is changing to classis as an organization that actually serves, rather than rules.  This is good.   As an example, there are all kinds of rules in the church order about restrictions and approvals required for elders to preach or perform "official" acts of service (ministry).   As a serving organization, classis would do much better to encourage and teach elders to perform official acts of service,   rather than restricting them from doing so.   It would do much better to enhance and facilitate, rather than to restrict and regulate.   In some cases, it is doing this, but in most cases, this is greatly lacking, with the wrong focus and emphasis. 

As a result, classis is  quite irrelevant to song leaders, to worship leaders, to most evangelism efforts, and to most local deaconal work.   Classis can become more relevant by understanding what it means to "serve", diakonos, which is where the word ministry derives from. 

As far as classis relationship to synod, as representatives of the elders and overseers, presbyteros, episkepoi, there has been so much convoluted reasoning in the last decades in terms of interpreting how scripture applies to "office", "official ministry",  genesis  1, sin,  and other issues, that it is quite clear that for many, sociology, culture, and science are all on pedestals as high or higher than scripture, which makes any dependance on the wisdom of classis and synod in that regard less and less tenable, with less and less confidence and relevance. 

Can this be changed? 

Community Builder

John Z, I'm just browsing through some older posts and found this comment of yours that contains the phrase, "enhance and facilitate, rather than to restrict and regulate".  If a classis could do MORE of the former, and LESS of the latter, it seems to me the balance would be much healthier.   And I do see that in classes where intentional renewal has taken place.  Thanks for the helpful words of summary!