CRC bishops don’t possess public titles, they don’t wear special vestments, but they do have authority and exercise leadership. You can’t recognize their status as bishop in the local congregation. You will have to participate in a classis to be pick them out.
The power of CRC bishops is most often non-coercive. I say “most often” because leadership within systems always has an element of coercion. All systems have “keys”, the ability within a system to say “yes” or “no”. I don’t believe this is accidental. I think it is as Jesus intended it, even if all incidences of its employ might not be Jesus-like. In our culture that defines liberty mostly as “freedom from” this is frowned upon, I understand the problems people have with it.
You can find no official list of CRC bishops in the CRC Yearbook or on the CRC website but ask any regular attendee at classis meetings who the bishops are in your classis and you’ll likely be able to compile an accurate list.
One my learnings in relating to the RCA has been that they too have a sort of bishop system but they don’t use the word. In the RCA Classis Central California Karl Overbeek is their “Regional Strategist”. Karl is a retired RCA pastor with influence earned by a proven track record within his classis who now works part time for the classis to help it function. To know Karl is to see he does not “lord it over” his brothers and sisters, although he clearly has the power to decide things. His power is mostly that of influence powered by love and respect.
I’m not writing this post to just recognize a reality, I’m writing it to advocate that we continue to try to get beyond our aversion to classical employees and consider buying the time of retirees or existing bishops within their classis to further the work of classis and make this level of our church government more effective.
It continues to be my conviction that the biggest lift we could see in the CRC as a body for the least amount of money and effort would be to improve this middle layer of our system. Encouraging some of our most gifted leaders who already have credibility, institutional history and implicit authority to dedicate more time to improving how classis functions I believe would give a tremendous lift not only at the classical level but also at the level of the local congregation. A healthy classis helps give stability and vitality to ministry at the local level.
In a previous post on this blog I wrote about Al Helder the former Classical Interim Pastor in our classis. He was one of our bishops and I’m convinced that the work he did within our classis has born good fruit not only at the classical level but also within a host of local churches that are healthier and stronger today for the service he offered. This would never have happened if Classis (together with CRHM who partnered with our classis) hadn’t taken the financial risk to guarantee his employment between terms in local congregations (which weren’t many) and to dedicate a quarter of his time working with classis as a whole.
I’m not suggesting that we start handing out hats or golden staffs. What I am suggesting is that we recognize what we know at the local level and at the denomination level that if you want to accomplish something significant over a long period of time employed staffing, even part time, can make a significant difference. According to our church order compensation does not motivate kingdom service, but it allows called and Spirit-gifted servants to have the freedom to pursue our Lord’s delight within their patch of his garden.
I praise God for our bishops and I pray that we can deploy them well in our systems so that the work of the church can flourish.
Paul, its unfortunate that you used the term "bishop" in your article. I believe the term sometimes translated as bishop is usually translated as "overseer", and attributed to the office of elder. I believe the greek word was translated into "bishop" because it suited the church structure of the time, otherwise it would have simply been translated as overseer. It would have been better that you used the term "leader" to make your point, since it is true that not all overseers or elders are leaders; or at least that there are also leaders of leaders. It would seem that for an improved classis, what is really needed are not administrators, nor even overseers, but rather leaders. These leaders might be overseers, or they might be deacons, or they might simply be those who encourage and stimulate a new approach.
In organizational parlance, it is common to realize that there are managers, and then there are leaders, and then ocassionally there are those who are both. Forcing the concept or (even unofficial) title of bishop on such a leader may be a disincentive to take up a leadership role.
However, your general encouragement to look with fresh eyes is a good thing.
Bishops or Barnabas? Sure there are those who are employed formally or informally, embraced graciously or accepted reluctantly for their work and ideas within the Classis. Actually, effective leadership in a Classis perhaps reflects a type of “Barnabas," they are the encouragers- these are the people are the enablers. If we are discussing appropriate titles for those who are positive in pro-active in leadership- why not think of an "Office of Barnabas."
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