Editor’s Note: We invited several members of the Christian Reformed Church to respond to this summer’s Synod. The first response, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, is on our blog today. Additional responses are below, with another series of responses coming next week.
In many ways the decisions of Synod 2023 were made before the first assembly was even held. At the opening ice cream social – a time to connect and reconnect with other delegates – the following conversation played out right in front of me: “We have 100, 30 are on the bubble, and, well, the other 50 don’t matter.” I knew I wasn’t in the 100 and no one had approached me about the 30 which meant I was in the “50 who don’t matter” group. According to these men, my presence at Synod did not matter. The presence of some 49 other delegates did not matter. Our thoughts and prayers and questions and hopes for our beloved denomination did not matter. It was over before it had even begun. I wanted to be wrong. I hoped and prayed for space to speak of grace(!) and inclusion for all of God’s children, but as the long, long week played out, it was obvious that our voices weren’t going to be heard and our hearts were going to break. And they did.
Synod is meant to be a deliberative body. Delegates are meant to listen and discern as recommendations are presented. There are all kinds of opportunities to speak for or against a motion and then there is time for prayer. This year there were passionate arguments for easing or even erasing the confessional status of the Human Sexuality Report (HSR). There were moving testimonies of how all of God’s children were showing his love and grace(!) in their congregations and communities. And it didn’t matter. At one point my table neighbor leaned over and asked, “Why isn’t the ‘other side’ saying anything?” And the answer was simple: they didn’t need to. They had the votes to continue the hardline confessional status of the HSR. And so they sat with their arms crossed and heads bowed and waited for the question to be called (which seemed like a game. Would it be Person A or Person B to call it this time?). As the week dragged on and frustration began to set in as things weren’t moving fast enough for some delegates, the claws came out as the delegates were told to put “their big boy pants on” (never mind that 30 some delegates were women) and another delegate told a weeping female to “be an adult already.” This is not how people who matter to each other behave.
Synod is rarely easy, but it can still be good. (I had attended twice before). This year there was very little that was good. This still has me tossing and turning late into the night. I was baptized, made profession of faith, married, had three children baptized and witnessed their professions, and am now ordained as a Minister of the Word in the CRCNA. But I have to leave. I have to leave because I believe all of God’s children matter and because his grace should always be grace(!), not “grace and what Synod deems acceptable.”
Mary, a native of Grand Rapids, MI and a life-long member of the CRCNA, has been a pastor for 11.5 years. She served the Ridgewood CRC in New Jersey from 2012 until the church closed in June of 2022. She began as the interim pastor of the Ramapo Reformed Church in Oct. of 2021 and was called to be their full time pastor in July of 2022. She has been married to Jim for nearly 40 years and they have 3 children, 3 grandchildren, and one incredibly spoiled dog who attends worship with them every Sunday. She is passionate about music, books, and preaching the grace(!) of our Lord.
When it comes to human sexuality, Synod 2023 didn’t do much of anything. Despite reading a thousand pages to prepare and expending immense energy over six days of meetings, we ended up where we started. We chose not to accede to 34 overtures related to human sexuality and assented to just one recommendation of one overture (21B, if you’re curious). We also rejected Neland Avenue’s appeal. That is a great deal of time spent to change absolutely nothing from the decisions of last year. Of course, time ended up being a problem, so key recommendations clarifying gravamina and what we expect of office bearers got punted to next year’s synod.
Where does that leave me? Doing what I’ve been doing for a year: working within the boundaries set by Synod 2022. It hasn’t been easy. I serve as a campus minister at the University of Michigan, and, unsurprisingly, conversations about human sexuality are not unusual. After 11 years of this work, I’m very good at articulating our denominational position. But for the last year, that’s where my conversations with our ministry’s students and young adults have stopped. I meet their curiosity and wrestling with the clear and definitive denominational answer (as winsomely as I can). If that’s not satisfying to them, I suggest colleagues from other Christian traditions who can offer more robust engagement. It goes against my instincts as a Reformed campus minister, but this is what I’ve agreed to.
Continuing in this path is my plan for the coming year, though I imagine things will change after Synod 2024. This is because I am not a rebel (despite the impression my floor speeches at Synod might have given). At heart, I’m an institutionalist who believes in the importance of wise structures and Holy Spirit-led deliberative bodies. I take my commitment to the denomination seriously, even though I fear the CRC is not healthy right now.
What do I mean by that? As we were getting into the thick of the sexuality debate at Synod, I realized we weren’t actually deliberating. Nearly everyone who spoke was advocating for a progressive or at least moderate approach, while conservative people in the room chose to remain silent. Some of the people who have had the most to say about sexuality in recent years had nothing to say now, perhaps because they knew they had the votes. Engagement and curiosity were in short supply, so it seems we are more stuck than ever.
Because of this, another response to Synod for me is to dig into different ways of being in covenant community. I long to see us take the path of restorative practices. Maybe we should trade the Synodical Rules for Procedure for listening circles, and let our indigenous siblings in Christ lead the way. What if restorative practices became a hallmark of our Reformed identity? Engaging one another without fear and listening without defensiveness align deeply with a Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty and the cosmic scope of Christ’s redemptive work.
For now, I will stay and continue to share the beautiful, transformational Kuyperian Reformed accent of the gospel with my campus. I will try to listen well with curiosity and empathy. And I will heed one thing synod 2023 did manage to do: encourage congregations to, “in accordance with scripture and our confessions, be places of belonging for LGBTQ+ members seeking to follow Christ.” That is a vision I lean into with joy and energy.
Matt Ackerman is a pastor at the Campus Chapel, the CRC campus ministry at the University of Michigan, and the director of its Center for Faith & Scholarship. He has been journeying toward this vocation since he was a kid and would crash the graduate student Bible study his parents hosted in their home. He and his spouse have two daughters and are also foster parents
Each morning at Synod, I placed a five-inch olivewood carving on my table: a shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders. This little guy, squished amid candy, laptops, and water bottles, helped me focus on my two most important jobs as a delegate.
“I am the sheep,” I said to my tablemates, caressing the tiny animal’s head. Remembering that was my first job. Remembering I was lost but then found. Embraced, rejoiced over, carried. By Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who came to earth to bring life to the full.
As the oldest child of four, born to parents active in church and school communities, I came out of the womb feeling responsible. Which made me a sought-after babysitter and a high-functioning student. And which, no doubt, helps me as a lead pastor. But feeling responsible is dangerous. I’ve been learning, throughout my adult life, I am not in charge. God is in charge. I’m learning to declare, “When I feel weighed down, I hand over the burden to Jesus, with whom I am yoked; he does the heavy lifting.”
Jesus helped me as a delegate to abandon any illusion that the future of his Church is up to me. Instead, he filled me with wonder over God’s presence and grace, even on the messiest days of Synod. He helped me acknowledge, after short sleeps and emotionally charged discussions, that I am a human with limits. He gifted me with peace over weeping like a child, even on the floor of Synod, even at the microphone.
“I am the sheep,” I said to my tablemates, “—and so are you, and you, and you.” My second job as delegate: remember the Synod floor was packed with Jesus’ sheep. No matter how painfully divided we became, Jesus continued to love and offer full life to the whole sorry lot of us.
And, so, Jesus called me to walk onto the Synod floor each day with open arms. Identifying God’s image in each person. Praying for empathy. Recognizing my own vulnerabilities voiced by others, even those whose vision of the CRC felt so different from my own.
This call to hospitality is what helped me, I think, to be honest when my trust in people and process was most at risk. When Synod voted in its final hours to cease debate—after it had barely started—about the process of using gravamina, I voiced at the mic how much my trust had been damaged by this seemingly underhanded move. But also, throughout the week of Synod, I spoke more than once with my advisory committee chair about trust. He had a public record of speaking passionately about the topics we were assigned to address, and I feared he would not facilitate our work fairly. I told him so—but added I wanted to trust him. He said he wanted to lead well, and so we worked hard to accomplish our tasks with respect and care. As our opposing Majority and Minority reports were read shortly before Synod adjourned, we stood with teary eyes but, I believe, with clear hearts.
It was Jesus’ model of hospitality compelling me, after adjournment, to walk over to Synod’s Vice President (a.k.a. Jesus’ sheep named Chad) and thank him for his work as officer, acknowledge the weight he bore as Chair of Abide, and wish him well.
Wonder and hospitality. That’s what Jesus our Good Shepherd helped me remember at Synod. Not that different, really, from Loving God and Loving Others. As I sit now in what still feels like a post-Synod fog, all I know is he is telling me to do the same things. To wonder at my belovedness, to rest in God’s strength, to accept my limitations. And to approach others with as much love and curiosity as I—God’s Spirit in me—can muster. For now, I’m letting others strategize, plan, envision. My hope is in the Lord, the Shepherd carrying me.
Married to Dave, with three teenaged children, Cara DeHaan is one of the sheep at Faith Church in Burlington, Ontario, where she serves as Lead Pastor. This was her first experience as a synod delegate.