I have been toying with this sketch, partially in response to the accusation that those of us who have problems with the MSTF Report and other GSC proposals don’t propose any positive ways for the RCA to adapt and move into the future. Comments are welcome—and, I am sure, inevitable.
The premise here is that, as many of us have said, the existing assemblies are perfectly capable of—in fact, even designed for—carrying out the work of outreach and mission; that if we did the work of fully realizing the calling of our offices and assemblies, we could do the kind of mission that our General Secretary and others have envisioned. We must, within this context, also confess that the RCA has historically neglected to live into those structures, and so has not lived into the understanding of the Church that we profess. But instead of a whole new ecclesiology—or arguably abandonment of ecclesiology in favor of a secular business plan—this sketch envisions us working just as hard to live into a gift we have always had but never truly opened.
Stated problem: Too much bureaucracy, overly rigid interpretations of BCO, territorial attitudes among assemblies inhibiting mission of RCA congregations.
Stated goal: Revise structures to free up money and personnel for ministry
Possible solution: Reclaim original RCA Constitution plan of triennial General Synods;[i] devolve most program responsibilities to regional synods, which become the annual connective assembly for RCA classes.
- Regional synods to appoint classical delegations to GS
- Each regional synod (assembled classes) to determine what programs/staffing/funding most effective for ministry in its region.
Reclaim functional concept of RCA assemblies and offices[ii]
- There is no hierarchy of assemblies or offices; they differ according to function
Consistories take responsibility for the life of local congregations[iii]
- All ordained elders and deacons take primary responsibility for local ministry life of congregations
- Installed active consistories take primary responsibility for institutional life of congregations
- Deacons administrate material needs and lead the congregations into ministry in their communities
- Elders administrate spiritual/membership needs
- Ministers divide work three ways: pastoral (primary worship planning, supervision visitation and members care); teaching; participation in classical/synodical work according to gifts (cells in the corporate bishop)
Classes do what local congregations cannot do alone
- Center of episcopal authority: providing pastoral care and supervision of ministers and candidates for ministry; ordaining and installing ministers; creating and disbanding congregations; forum for congregations’ mutual planning and support; creation of sub-clusters of congregations/ministers as needed.[iv]
- Strongly encourage creation of diaconal networks
- Create means of fraternal communication among congregations
Regional Synods do what classes cannot do alone
- Center for mutual support and supervision of classes: staffing to support programs and/or classical objectives as mutually agreed upon; creation of clusters of classes as needed.
- Strongly encourage creation of diaconal networks
- Create means of fraternal communication among classes[v]
- We must expect that this will vary according to region.
General Synod does what regional synods cannot do alone
- Maintenance of doctrine, liturgy, and government
- Maintenance of denominational standards for training of ministers (as mutual admonition and support of classical responsibility)
- Maintenance of global mission; forum for regional synods to mutually support and strategize evangelistic and diaconal efforts; ethnic councils
- Maintenance/creation/distribution of published resources for denominationally distinct needs (order, education, history), including historic preservation of resources and records management
- Maintenance of benefit services for those involved in vocational ministries of the church (economies of scale make this something best done on a denominational level, though this may now be changing for insurance; covenant makes whole church theologically responsible).
- Create means of fraternal communication among regional synods
In keeping with these principles; GS should not be a continuing body, nor should it require a continuing executive or programmatic body.
- The church comes together as a General Synod in order to supervise and set a course for above tasks.
- In between, three boards, with membership appointed by the regional synods and advice from GS commissions, carry out the majority of the above work.
o Board of Missions: could be divided into sub-boards for foreign and domestic missions; supervision of missionaries; racial/ethnic councils; support of regional synodical building and extension work; women’s ministries; primary home of ecumenical work; social witness; forum for denominational diaconcal network among regional synods
§ Commissions that relate primarily to this board: Race & Ethnicity, Christian Action, Christian Unity, Women
o Board of Publications (primarily current Reformed Church Press): creation and distribution of educational, worship, theological, and historical resources, and management of records retention/archival work
§ Commissions the relate primarily to this board: Education & Discipleship, Theology, History, Order
o Board of Benefit Services: keeps doing what it’s doing. The changing health insurance reality in the US, however, might make that portion of its work obsolete.
- A “council of the theological professorate” is formed among the professors of theology, with, perhaps, one elder delegate from each regional synod.
o Meeting at least biennially, functions as a classis, of sorts, for the professors of theology (who are amenable to the GS), providing for their mutual support and admonition
o Awards certificates of fitness for ministry
o Provides tools and support for classes to supervise students under care as needed
o Seminaries provide time and support for GS professors to participate in this work in partial exchange for assessment support for their work (assessments might be pro-rated according to number of GS professors at each seminary)
- The GS would assess regional synods for the work of the boards and seminaries based upon triennial budgets approved by GS. Boards would share any costs required for minimal necessary GS administration. Assessments would be paid by regional synods directly to the boards (they would have ongoing corporate existence and ability to receive assets). Regional synods would assess classes, and classes congregations, as they saw fit.
- Necessary GS administration could be carried out by the office of the Stated Clerk of General Synod. This office could provide clerking functions for the boards and the council of the theological professorate, and could maintain networking among the classical and synodical clerks. The clerk’s office would also administrate the judiciary envisioned by the 2007 Church Order report.
Additional benefit to all this: Rather than larger assemblies doing work for the smaller assemblies, and thus making them dependent, the emphasis would be on larger assemblies assisting and equipping the smaller assemblies, office bearers, and members for ministry, thus building up the body of Christ rather than a franchise operation.
Potential problem: What if some consistories/classes/regional synods do not avail themselves of all of these possibilities and opportunities?
Unfortunately, this is always a possibility in any organizational structure that relies on human free will (a problem God has been dealing with since the dawn of Creation). While the RCA does not have to reward assemblies for such behavior, it will often be necessary to wait and pray for such behavior to change, and to watch and see if, perhaps, God is actually speaking through that assembly in a way the rest of the church could not recognize.
[i] Instead of a Pharisaic, technical response to the BCO, the intent is to embrace the spirit of the Constitution’s concept of church order.
[ii] Without abandoning ontological concepts of the offices.
[iii] One of the stated reasons that assemblies do not work is that they lack sufficient personnel because ministers are too busy managing congregations as non-profit local institutions.
[iv] This was the original purpose of a coetus (no doubt we need a new name, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking we’re doing a new thing).
[v] This was originally done with synod deputies from each classis, who also helped insure the quality of classis examinations of ministry candidates.