Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles highlighting the issues facing the delegates at the 2021 RCA General Synod, which begins October 14. This article is an edited excerpt from a podcast interview Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell did with Trisha Taylor and Jim Herrington.
Steve: It seems unlikely that two Baptists from the South would become kind of . . . you’re not going to like this, but I’m going to call you gurus to the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Over the past few years you’ve worked with about 120 RCA and CRC congregations. Roughly 60% of these are in the RCA and 40% CRC, and lately you’ve worked as facilitators with the RCA’s 2020 Vision Process.
How would you diagnose our little subculture, our world, and our quirks? What do you see? I always say passive aggressive is the Dutch Reformed emotion of choice. When you fly back to Houston do you say, “Can you believe these people? Their neuroses are just so thick”?
Jim: I would say three things. First, Trisha and I love people. From the left to the right, from the top to the bottom, all in all, we just love people. We don’t come away saying, “Oh, these neurotic people,” or calling them names. We come away saying what a great privilege it is to work with these people. There is much diversity here, much love for the Lord, and for his church.
Trisha: I want to say that’s really true. I want people to know that’s really true.
Jim: The second thing is that the Dutch Reformed churches, the CRC and the RCA, are just like the rest of the world. We are living through massive shifts that have everybody anxious. The paradigm shifts are from Christian to post-Christian, from modern to postmodern, and from industrial age to information age. People are responding by doing what anxious people do. They’re either doing conflict or they’re doing distance, or they’re doing over-functioning or under-functioning, or they’re doing projection.
My wife Betty and I have different styles of engaging conflict. I’m an Enneagram 8, and I say bring it on. But Betty is different, and all of our lives, people have said that Betty is a better Christian than me because my anxiety gets put on full display. When she gets anxious, she gets quiet and smiles and says, “Here, let me pour you some more tea.” She looks like a better person than me. Different people and different congregations express their anxiety in different ways.
The third thing is when you pick one issue, where there a variety of opinions, and then lay other issues on top of that, things get complicated quickly. When you take the human sexuality question, where there is polarization and disagreement and different opinions, and then put the unity question on top of that, it becomes very complex. And then add your loyalty to the denomination on top of that. There’s no quick fix.
Trisha, what would you add to that? Do you see that differently?
Trisha: No, I don’t see that differently. I’m glad that you said that most of what we see going on with the RCA and the CRC is happening universally. It’s not unique. But I do think there are some things about you that show up in how you interact together. One is your long history. The RCA’s claim to fame is being the oldest denomination in the United States. That shapes you. You have history embedded in you. This distinguishes you from other groups we do a lot of work with—for example, the Vineyard churches are a much younger movement. Your history makes a difference. And over your 400 years, the ways that you’ve been disproportionately influential is important. The RCA and CRC are fairly small denominations that have had massive influence on Protestant life in the United States and Canada, massive influence on Western thinking, and theology, and missiology, and church life. That’s really important.
We do talk sometimes about–we don’t say passive aggressive–but we do talk sometimes about how nice everybody is. That may be what you’re referring to, Steve.
One other thing that is somewhat distinctive: You come out of an immigrant experience, for some of you as recently as in our lifetime. That shapes the way churches see things. That long history along with the immigrant experience has set up a situation where, maybe even more than other denominations, you experience both a mainline stream and an evangelical stream, all trying to do church together. That can be a cause for mutual enrichment, but it also causes anxiety, stress, misunderstanding.
Those are some things that are distinctive. In general, I completely agree with Jim that in many ways you are struggling with what everyone is struggling with: how to be together in the face of disagreement. How are we, in this changing pluralistic world, with changing values, changing demographics, how are we going to be together? What is unity going to look like beyond mutual agreement? That’s the question everyone is facing.
Steve: Your answers help me see us better. We’ve mentioned the Vision 2020 Task Force. I’m not sure everyone knows what that is–it came out of the RCA General Synod to try and find a way forward amid tensions and disagreements. They were supposed to report back in 2020, but obviously with COVID, General Synod didn’t meet in 2020. The presenting issue was human sexuality—the welcoming and including of LGBTQ people.
If the RCA was a single congregation, rather than, 800 or 900 congregations, how would you advise that congregation? How could they move forward in this moment?
Jim: Before we answer that question. I want to clarify one thing. I don’t believe the 2020 team’s assignment was to address the human sexuality question. What was said was, “We’ve been working and fighting about this for 20, 30, 40, 50 years and it’s become really intense in this last decade and we’re not making any progress.” And so the question was not, “How do we solve the human sexuality issue?” The question was, “How are we going to be together in the face of so many different perspectives and opinions about that?” That’s a different assignment.
Steve: Fair enough–it’s not like we haven’t sent groups off in the past to write papers on human sexuality. This time it started with the recognition that we’re always in conflict and maybe at an impasse. What do we do now? That’s a better way of framing what the 2020 group was asked to do.
Trisha: There was a lot of disappointment among some people in the RCA that got expressed at General Synod 2019, from those who really did think that the 2020 team was going to go away and come back with a single voice on human sexuality, going to come back with the one right answer that the denomination would be called to rally around. The 2020 team realized pretty quickly that was not their assignment and was actually not even possible. What they were going to need to do was describe a way forward that people could then choose to join or not.
Jim: Exactly. And you know, Steve, we worked together for over two years and it was one of the most profound experiences of my adult life. The denomination did a terrific job of representing the diversity of the RCA, they didn’t stack the team in one way or another. There were men and women, there were people of color. There were people on the left and the right, there were people from New York to California and everywhere in between.
Over a two-year period of time, the most profound thing that happened was the deep sense of respect and affection that developed among these people who see the world differently. On more than one occasion, we had an experience that I would describe as seeing the Spirit work. When we were at an impasse or when we were seeing things differently, the Spirit generated alternatives or solutions or ways forward that you couldn’t say was any specific person’s idea. Solutions emerged out of the group process that I believe was the work of the Spirit.
In the world I grew up in, and in many places in the RCA, we place more focus on having the right beliefs than on having loving relationships. When I’m advising congregations today–and I’m coaching a congregation right now where they have some real differences of opinion–what we’re working on mostly is how do you listen deeply to each other? How do you respect the fact that somebody sees things differently without giving up on your relationship? What we practiced in the small group of 12 of the Vision 2020 team is something that we all could learn from. In a polarized world, with so much diversity, and so many differences of opinion, what does it look like to be together in the face of our disagreements?
Trisha: There is a set of skills around what Jim is talking about. Often when we go into churches, we have to teach skills so people can hear each other. Denominations could stand to learn some of those skills as well.
What holds us together? If agreement is what holds us together, then every so often when something emerges that we disagree on, we will have to go through this again and again, and again, and again. If what holds us together is our agreement, then just buckle up for serial conflict because we will have to slug it out often, because there’s always a new question. There’s always a new issue emerging. Think about your history, about how deep the conflict went over Masonic orders, for example. It’s hard for us to understand the intensity of that. That was the issue of that day and we have the issues of our day. Is there a kind of unity that is deeper and more Spirit-led than the unity that forms around agreement?
The other thing that I would say is that there’s some really good research that says in families, the two things that matter most are generosity and kindness. If churches and denominations could get on board with that, and see that what really matters and holds us together is generosity and kindness, we would be better off. We saw a lot of generosity and kindness in the way the 2020 team worked together.
Steve: I’m supposed to be the question-asker and not the opinionator here, but I’ve been around the RCA long enough to know that 20 years ago we were already asking, “What is the glue that holds the denomination together?” We saw it was no longer the Dutch immigrant experience. What you’re helping me see is that 2020 isn’t really only or even especially about human sexuality. It’s really the culmination of that question: Where is our unity? Is it found only in agreement?
As you were saying, your group really wasn’t sent off to come back with a new exegesis of Romans 1. We’ve done that like 14 times, and every time, that group–which is always diverse, like the 2020 team–comes back liking each other and saying, “We don’t agree, but there’s a way forward.”
Somehow we have never been able to get over the hurdle of getting that spirit of love and unity to the rest of the church. It’s always, “Hey, we eight people, we 12 people, we 20 people found out we have a lot in common and we all love Jesus,” but somehow that never gets from the small group into the life of the church. I’ve always been disappointed at that. It’s “Let’s send a group away to listen to what the Holy Spirit says,” and the Holy Spirit says, “You’re pretty nice people, stay together.” And then we get to General Synod and conclude we don’t think that was the Holy Spirit.
Anyway, I’ll stop talking and ask questions instead. What’s the best case scenario of where the RCA will be in three to five years?
Trisha: That’s hard to know. I have no idea. I think that there are much bigger forces creating a resorting of denominations. That’s much bigger than the RCA. My own denomination isn’t actually big enough to even be a denomination. They refer to themselves as a “denominetwork” because they have been part of the resorting.
We’re living in a time where denominational loyalties are changing. The role of denominations is changing. I don’t know that we can just look at the RCA without looking at that broader context. That’s hard to see. Jim, what do you see for the future?
Jim: Phyllis Tickle wrote a book, The Great Emergence, in which she said that every 500 years the church has gone through a major transformation. Something new gets birthed and something old gets reformed. I think she’s right. We’re in the middle of one of those. We think it’s bad, but it helps me to remember that in the Reformation, the Dutch Reformers and the Swiss Reformers and the German Reformers were trying to kill each other, trying to burn each other at the stake and drown each other.
That’s a picture of what happens when you live through the kind of transformation we’re living through. What’s different now is the pace of change. How long did it take the Swiss Reformers to hear what the Dutch Reformers were doing? It didn’t happen on Instagram or in a tweet.
Tickle said there are going to be churches that will die. Denominations will die. Some congregations will stay in place but get reshaped and reformed. And new expressions of the church will arise. My guess is they will be smaller and meet in houses and workplaces, the places where people spend most of their day. But I can see that very, very, dimly. I don’t know.
Steve: I hear you saying anxiety is rampant and, to be honest, when you say “a lot of things are going to die,” that doesn’t lower my anxiety. How can you be honest and, at the same time, walk with people through their anxiety? How do you do that?
Jim: We just did a series of podcasts entitled “Two Feet Walking,” and it was an attempt to give our very best insight on becoming effective leaders in the world that we’ve been describing. One foot is all about developing individuals, developing disciples, developing leaders, and the other foot is corporate, about the work mobilizing people around a shared vision. None of that is new. What is new is that there’s a whole different set of leadership skills required. When I went to seminary, nobody taught me how to have a crucial conversation. Nobody talked with me about my conflict style. Nobody told me that I could do conflict in a way that helps conversations move ahead. I was trained that my job was to teach the Bible, teach some spiritual disciplines, get people to come to church, and convince them to give and do some service. Almost all of those things happened in the church building.
All of that has changed. When I was a young pastor, we did what we called long-range planning. There was a green notebook that was provided by our denomination that said, preach the gospel, do Sunday school, discipleship training, youth ministry, men’s and women’s ministry, and music ministry. They provided forms for setting goals in all those ministries. If you reached those goals, you should be asking what that means for your parking lot and your building That was considered strategic planning. Now imagine you made a strategic plan that the church unanimously and collaboratively agreed to in January, 2020. The world is dramatically different since then. The pace of change makes mobilizing people around a shared vision way more complex.
Trisha: I might jump in and say there are a couple of things we are committed to teaching. First, leaders have to be focused on learning rapidly. Second, leaders need to see that they are isolated. Many pastors are lonely. They are under enormous pressure. They were before COVID, but the pressure is exponentially more serious now.
Steve: Where do you find hope? What gives you hope? What is sustaining you?
Jim: I am really hopeful. The thing that generates the most hope in me is that on any given day I’ll have anywhere from three to six or seven conversations with pastors or CEOs or congregational leaders. Amid all the challenges we’ve named, these people, with great resilience and faith, are stepping into those challenges They’re not just rolling over and playing dead. They’re not blaming all the rest of the world for the problems they’re facing.
I experience their resilience in these conversations and I notice that when I get off the call my energy level has gone up, I find myself thinking, “Those are the people who are going to help us find our way through this.”
Trisha: History gives me hope. Think back to all the times the church has been in chaos and struggled to make its way forward—you could go all the way back to the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts. God has guided the church, renewed the church, and brought us to the place we are now. A lot of my hope comes from the belief that God is doing a new thing. I may not live to see exactly what the new thing is because God’s vantage point is centuries and millennia. I try to keep history in front of me. Think about the huge sorting among congregations and denominations in the middle of the 19th century, preceding the Civil War. It must have seemed as though there was no hope for unity. Everything changed for denominations and for congregations and yet the church found a way forward. That gives me a lot of hope. And then, to pick up on what Jim said, we work with the RCA and the CRC and we have met the most amazing people. We have really gotten to share life with people who are seeking their own spiritual maturity, who are looking at their own transformation, and asking how they can bring that to the church. These are people willing to be courageous enough to take risks and lead others in that direction. I look at the courage that takes and the deep love they have. In many cases the soil they are working in is rich and fertile.
Steve: Well, thank you. That gives me hope. I concur, there are so many good people, and not just pastors. Every congregation has such deep saints in it. When Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, it means the survival of the church is not my deal. I can do my part, but the church isn’t going to live or die because of me. I just do my little part to be kind and faithful and creative. And I want to tell you that your work gives me hope. I’m grateful for my seminary training, but when I came out of seminary I was equipped to explain the synoptic problem or tell you the difference between Zwingli and Calvin’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I’m really glad I can do that, but nobody ever talked to me about being a healthy person or how to have tough conversations. The more the church can kind of lean into your kind of work, there’s hope there too. Thank you. Thank you, Jim Herrington, thank you, Trisha Taylor.