At synod this summer I could not shake the impression that some things were not discussed. The agenda (or perhaps I should say the supplement to the agenda), included a 23 page report called “Imagining Ministry in the Christian Reformed Church in Canada: a review of Canadian Ministries and the director of the Canadian Ministry Director Position.” Okay, that may not be the most riveting title, but this report was a result of an extensive series of listening sessions held in every Canadian Classis. It concerned an issue that has been an annoyance on one side of the border and an irritant on the other. It fit with the report on structure and culture and dovetailed with concerns for the future direction and leadership of the denomination. But when the motion to “take note of the Board of Trustee’s (BOT) endorsement” of the report came to the floor, it passed so quickly I was left wondering what we’d just done. Synod “took note”, and moved on.
Perhaps I should have been paying better attention, but this was not the only time I felt that way. I had the same feeling when the proposed “five streams” model and the results of the survey on trends in the CRC were presented. There was surprisingly little discussion of either, even though both have far reaching implications.
I don’t think this means synod was uninterested. I think it has more to do with the way the reports were presented. A motion to “take note” doesn’t really require a decision and major assemblies are geared towards deciding things. I mean, give us a point of order to debate and we will happily gnaw at it like a dog with a new bone. Give us a controversial proposal and we will stand in line waiting to have our say. But give us a report that says we are getting older and we are not quite sure what to say. Sometimes, we are not even sure what questions to ask.
At the same time, I think that these are the very questions that ought to be deliberated at major assemblies. How do we respond to a survey that says we are getting less devotional? Where do we believe God is leading us as a congregation, classis or denomination? What kind of leadership do we need to answer that call? How can we best structure ourselves to carry out the mission of God? It is fine to trust the work being done by the BOT or CMC, by staff, and by study and search committees, but we need to listen to the church to address questions like these, and what better place to listen to the church than at a major assembly?
To listen to the church on issues like these, we will need to learn to discuss concerns without the pressure of making a decision. In his book, Governance and Ministry, Dan Hotchkiss mentions the value of open questions. These are questions that a leadership body doesn’t have an answer for, but which it asks to discuss in order to learn by listening (Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, the Alban Institute, 2009). I think an example can be seen in the approach taken by the team evaluating Canadian Ministries. The team went to each Canadian classis and asked, “what will be some key characteristics of our denomination’s ministry in Canada in the year 2020?” and ”in light of (these) what kind of leadership do we need …?” On the basis of the themes that emerged from these conversations, the team proposed a way forward.
These are questions a classis can ask. Where are the opportunities for church planting in our classis? What kinds of diaconal outreach can we encourage? Where are our opportunities for diversity? What strategies can we use to capitalize on these opportunities? In the right setting these are discussions all delegates can participate in (see my last post, What Were We Doing Here?). These sorts of discussions encourage the grass roots approach mentioned so often at this year’s synod. This kind of approach can help foster a unified direction and avoid divisiveness.
The issues hidden in the survey of denominational trends, the report on structure and culture, the Canadian ministry report, the ongoing search of senior leadership, and other reports, are issues that will have long term impact on the Christian Reformed Church. To address these we will need opportunities to listen to each other. One model for doing this was found in report that synod took note of without really noticing.