In October, I was a delegate to the 2021 Reformed Church in America General Synod in Tucson, Arizona. It was my 30th consecutive General Synod, my 32nd overall. For several years I ran the Ministerial Formation Certification Agency (MFCA), the denomination’s arm that helps with the pastoral formation of ministry candidates not attending RCA seminaries.
Before documenting my thoughts and reactions to my experience at Synod, I gave myself some space and time for reflection. While doing so I read the various reviews by Synod attendees in the Reformed Journal, and also viewed the recap of General Synod hosted by the Reformed Church Center and New Brunswick Theological Seminary. In addition, I encouraged the students in my RCA Polity online course to discuss their observations about both Synod and the Vision 2020 report. It is important to me that I hear different perspectives and that I be objective in my analysis. Whether I am able to accomplish this remains a question. I have a deep affection for the RCA and tend to be blindly loyal at times.
When I drove away from Tucson, I was feeling a multitude of emotions. Much of my “self-talk” was a lackluster attempt at conjuring up hope and optimism. After all there were several positive events, such as Synod voting to keep RCA Global Missions an in-house effort as well as reports of numerous multi-ethnic and multi-racial churches joining the RCA. Personally, the approval of the theological assessment and its formula meant that MFCA would continue to exist for the next year despite the fact that the General Synod Council had decided to dissolve the agency in 2020. Overall, the conversations at Synod were respectful and our dialogue was mostly productive. These were positive developments that could and should be celebrated.
And yet, I was pessimistic on the drive home and felt a deep sense of loss. Some of my feelings came from the proposed formation of affinity classes. The idea that we can divide the denomination into affinity classes and retreat into silos of theological choice feels wrong to me. I have struggled with the idea of an affinity classis since the day it was introduced about a decade ago, with the formation of the Classis of the City, of which, ironically, I am a member. Although I have reconciled myself to the concept of affinity coming from a common mission, such as ministry to the city, I have never come to terms with the idea that the solution to our debate around sexuality could be solved by forming affinity classes.
I prefer regional classes, even though technology no longer confines us geographically. The idea of a regional classis has its roots in scripture. New Testament churches were addressed by region; the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus for example. But admittedly, there is nothing sacred implied by Paul’s choice in how he directed his correspondence.
What concerns me about affinity classes is the potential for division every time there is disagreement. What will be the next hot-button cultural issue? I cringe at how churches and families are being divided by COVID-19 and whether or not to vaccinate. Could that, or matters such as immigration, be the next reason for division? Although I’m uneasy about affinity classes, the appeal is that folks are willing to remain under one umbrella, to remain a part of the family.
Even more discouraging is the fact that some have already left, while others are seriously weighing leaving the RCA. This creates a deep sadness in me, despite it being camouflaged as “generous and gracious,” the wording used in the third recommendation of the Vision 2020 report. This recommendation was approved by the General Synod assembly in Tucson, giving classes permission to allow churches to leave the RCA without penalty.
Post General Synod, I attended the congregational meeting of the church our family has been a part of for the past 30 years. At that meeting an overwhelming majority voted for the church to leave the RCA and join the Kingdom Network; a group of churches that was established in August of this year. The arguments provided by the leadership of our church were convincing and were primarily focused on the idea that scripture teaches that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman. With segments of the RCA disagreeing with this position, the argument was that it is no longer reasonable to remain in relationship. There were secondary issues as well, including a financial incentive since assessments would be reduced significantly by joining the Kingdom Network.
I want the denomination to hold together, yet my own congregation has decided to leave. It has been a number of weeks since the congregational meeting but there remains within me a profound sadness. Without a doubt, the church will continue to be a thriving ministry, growing disciples and church leaders as it has for decades. Many of the members don’t know what the Reformed Church in America actually is and what has been lost. My sadness is due to the fact that I do know the richness of the RCA connection.
There is reluctance on my part to accept separation as a viable option. Everything within me says that this should not be so, despite the Acts 15 argument used by some of my colleagues, suggesting that if Paul and Barnabas could separate when they disagreed, we have permission to do so as well. I personally don’t consider that account prescriptive for our context. John Wesley says it best:
“Do not even give a single thought of separating from your brethren, whether their opinions agree with yours or not. Just because someone does not agree with everything you say does not mean that they are sinning. Nor is this or that opinion essential to the work of God. Be patient with those who disagree with you. Do not condemn those who do not see things just as you do, or who think it is their duty to contradict you, whether in a great thing or a small.” (Devotional Classics, Pg. 284)
For many of the churches separating, part of the motivation to leave and not coexist in a denomination with varying approaches to same sex marriage is financial. Why continue to pay high assessment amounts to belong to a denomination where there is such disagreement since there is the opportunity to be a part of a network that is more like-minded and asks for a fraction of the financial commitment? To be able to pay $15,000 annually as opposed to $100,000 is certainly an incentive to leave if you feel alienated and are tired of the continual debates about matters that you feel are clearly spelled out in scripture. The money saved can be directed toward local ministry.
Not only that, but as a part of Vision 2020’s gracious and generous separation provisions, churches are able to leave with their buildings, property, and bank accounts. This is attractive and it is only natural to see now as the opportune time to make the move in case things change and that door is closed in the future.
I suspect that the financial component is playing a significant part in the decision-making of many churches and I would speculate that there would be more willingness to live in the tension of diverse perspectives and practices if not for the financial dimension. Perhaps Vision 2020’s considerations for restructuring should have included an upheaval of our funding structures and operations as a denomination?
What might that look like? Although I don’t remember the exact details, I recall being amazed at the model of one of the Presbyterian denominations in Brazil. I met with a delegation a number of years ago and learned that each of the staff was a volunteer. Each individual was bi-vocational and served in denominational staff positions while earning their livelihood doing something else (many as the pastor of a local church). This meant that the denomination had very little paid staff and churches had very small assessments to pay to the denomination.
Could the RCA adopt a similar model and reduce operating costs significantly? Could we revisit the Book of Church Order and give local congregations ownership of their properties and bank accounts? Such ideas are most likely too late to consider as many churches are already on their way out. Yet if the committees and task forces assigned to study restructuring are seriously attempting to find solutions to keep the RCA viable, perhaps such radical ideas should be introduced. I believe we should do everything within our means to stay together and not divide and separate.
More than a month has passed since General Synod. Time has allowed me to sort through my emotions and become what I believe is more objective about the RCA and its future. In a way, I wish I could have been at the point that I am now prior to General Synod. I see glimmers of hope for the RCA and I acknowledge that God is doing a new thing through the chaos in which we find ourselves. Yet I continue to hold the conviction that the RCA would be better off to remain together and strive to live in diversity. Our tradition has been to remain together, to dialogue about our disagreements, and to live with tension. I cannot support the division and separation that I am witnessing.