Editor’s Note: A few months ago, the poet Thomas Lynch raised the question in our podcast: “How do we come to be the ones we are?” In response, the Reformed Journal occasionally runs personal reflection pieces that address that question. This is our latest offering in that series.
What holds a denomination together?
For many in the RCA and CRC, it’s traditionally been a Dutch ethnicity. But consider this: the minute I stepped on Calvin’s campus, I felt like I entered a different world. I was a well-traveled 21-year-old when I started my first semester as a transfer student. I had been to at least a dozen countries and had spent the previous nine months living in France. Calvin was so different. The people around me were tall and blond-haired, and I had never seen so many blue eyes. When I heard about the big rivalry with Hope College. I was clueless. Then they started talking about Christian Reformed vs. Reformed. I knew nothing about either.
Eventually, though, I would be adopted into the Reformed Church in America. My first in-depth exposure with those in the RCA were friends I made while planting a Wesleyan Church in West Michigan (I know, the irony). Church plants were something I knew, having grown up in a few of them with my parents in lay leadership. When the Wesleyan church plant had a dramatic ending and I was looking for a new church home, I found one at Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. A few years later, I began working at the RCA denominational offices supporting the human resources and development departments. It was a unique position, which I qualified for by having recently completed a Master’s in Public Administration with a concentration in Nonprofit Leadership and Management.
The non-denominational churches I knew had little external structure. Working for the RCA exposed me to a whole new way of doing church. I attended my first General Synod in 2013 in Pella, Iowa, and fell in love with church polity. For RCA staff, General Synod is an all-hands-on-deck event. I was assigned to work at the back table, assisting with projection and tabulating voting. I learned so much about the inner workings of the denomination. This was the synod where Transformed & Transforming was passed, offering vision for the future. The tone of synod was one of reconciliation and hope, and it was beautiful as we sang the doxology and held hands.
As I returned to everyday work at the RCA, I became more interested in fund development and became a regional fundraising coordinator. My favorite part of the job was meeting so many different people around the denomination. I did a lot of listening and heard about wonderful things happening from church to church. I very much enjoyed being able to link people and resources together. I also listened as people shared what they thought was wrong with the RCA. One of my takeaways during my travels was how strongly we desire to be connected and heard. Churches were grateful for my presence, not because of who I was, but because my presence helped them feel noticed by the denomination.
When I left that job, during my exit interview, I stated that the most important thing the denominational staff could do was public relations. RCA staff needed to be in churches and classis meetings, talking about denominational identity and demonstrating how they serve local congregations. Recently, I heard that some classes have requested RCA staff come and address the question of why they should remain part of the RCA. This is a good question, although if you think about it, it’s really the churches that make the denomination, not the denominational staff. Each church has to answer that question for itself.
Although I have left the denominational staff, I have not left the denomination. Yet the question has made me think: Why do I remain in the RCA? Here are a few reasons.
I know what it is like to be a part of a non-denominational church and, frankly, it is not better. The RCA provides accountability, order, and roots. More than that, the RCA is an extended family. Although not raised in this tradition, I can play “RCA” bingo as well as the next person (we really need to stop with the Dutch jokes – they exclude people like me). While traveling in RCA churches, it was typical to meet someone who went to school with my pastors in Grand Rapids, or knew my roommate’s aunt, or was my boss’s brother-in-law. Not only were we able to make these connections, but then they welcomed me as if we were old friends, or, better yet, relatives. I remember someone inviting me to stay in their home, even though we had never met, because they saw me as part of their family. Even when having conversations with people I disagreed with, there was always a deeper connection.
Accountability may not sound particularly winsome, but it also drew me into the RCA. In the church plants I had experienced, accountability came from the lay people inside the congregation. Yet the power structure between lay people and a minister is complicated. Ministers hold a certain type of spiritual power that makes it difficult for lay people to hold them accountable. In the RCA, the minister is not at the top. When issues arise, there is a wider body to help resolve problems. There is a classis which holds responsibility for the ministry of each congregation. The truth is ministers sometimes need to be held accountable, and having a structure in place that ensures this is wise.
Similarly, the denomination provides structure and order. Without a denomination, figuring out church order is difficult. What happens when a minister leaves? What makes a person qualified to be a minister in the first place? What happens to the assets of a church that closes? The leadership of a church with no denominational structure is a lonely place. Being a part of the RCA and having order and connections with other congregations gives me a peace and assurance that was lacking in my other church experiences. It is reassuring to know that I am not alone, and my church is not alone; there is something out there to guide us in our journey as a congregation.
The RCA provides a sense of belonging and rootedness. I grew up in a fairly transient home where we rarely had extended family nearby. We lived in various locations because of my parents’ work and the churches we attended met in movie theaters and elementary schools. Some of my pastors had not attended seminary. The songs we sang were less than a decade old and I don’t remember holding a hymn book as a child. We never talked about the “cloud of witnesses” who had gone before us. Everything needed to be new and exciting. My experience with the RCA has been different. The old has not been tossed aside, instead it has become the foundation of today’s church. The RCA is almost 400 years old and strives to remain rooted in its history as it looks forward to what God is calling it to. Part of my love for the RCA comes from seeing this in action and being part of that calling.
In the fall of 2020, I left the RCA staff to become chief of staff at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. This agency of the RCA is doing a new thing through its work in anti-racism and deconstructing power and privilege of all types. The seminary has a long history, some to be proud of, and some to lament and learn from. This is not always easy work, but it is necessary work. I am investing in the next generation of church leaders and find hope for the denomination’s future in the students who are pursuing RCA ordination. Students are being prepared not only to minister to a specific congregation but to minister to the wider church, and are receiving the tools that they need to preach and share the hope of Christ. Students are being equipped to listen to those in pain and in need, and are learning how their own power and privilege affects their leadership. This is the work I have been called to.
Some of those who held hands and sang the doxology with me back in 2012 have decided that they no longer can remain a part of the RCA. I mourn the lost connections. The RCA will look different in the future, and despite my sadness, I am excited to see how God will use this new season of life in the church. I am grateful for how God has brought the RCA into my faith journey. It has strengthened me and brought me understanding of the wider meaning of church.
The RCA has held together for centuries, yet, for some, what held us together no longer works. I ask God, in God’s mercy, to hear our prayers for the future. As we continue to navigate our calling together, I have hope that God is leading this denomination to new things.