Al Poppen on General Secretaries, Past & Future

The following was written by Al Poppen, who is in a better position than anyone else to comment on such things, in an e-mail to Jack Elliott. It is posted here with Al’s permission.

Dear Jack,

This is in response to your request to reflect on the office of Reformed Church General Secretary based on my association with those who have filled the position thus far.  As I have thought about what to write, I realize that what I can offer belongs more to the obvious than the profound, but since I guess I can be considered an eye-witness and a primary source as far as the history of the office is concerned, I will leave it to you to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The very fact that one person can relate first-hand experience with all four of the RCA’s General Secretaries points to my first observation.  This is a position with a very brief history, especially when viewed in the context of a denomination as old as the RCA.  Those who may assume that the RCA has always had an organization in which there was a clearly delineated “head of communion” (church language for CEO) need to be reminded that until the major restructure of the denominational boards and agencies in 1968-69, the title of General Secretary did not exist.  Prior to that time, General Synod had a Stated Clerk, a role not all that different from the same position in a classis or particular (regional) synod.  And in fact, it could be argued that the “re-structure” at that time, a response to perceived inefficiencies and competition among the various boards and their executive staff carried out according to business management philosophy by professional management consultants, turned out to be more of a re-alignment, re-naming, and re-staffing of existing organizational patterns.

This was certainly the way the first General Secretary, Marion (Mert) deVelder, carried out his role under the elevated status of a new title.  As the former Stated Clerk and the only incumbent executive who did not have to re-apply and undergo evaluation in order to have a place within the new structure, it does not seem that his day to day behavior in carrying out his job changed all that much.  As were those who followed him, he was a leader with significant gifts who exceeded the others in his keen political instincts.  And, as those who followed him, he worked hard, was dedicated to his task and did his best.  Mert’s ability to keep those with sharply opposing views in the church in relationship, to mediate conflicts and maintain peace and order was often tested but never lacking.

The most striking new ingredient in the position of “General Secretary” was that of chief ecumenical officer, and in that role he managed to keep a highly contentious minority which vociferously opposed the RCA’s National and World Council relationships in check.  It was the one issue for which he was willing, and did, put his job on the line.  At the same time, it became clear later that his role in those ecumenical organizations he so vigorously championed was to be present but not one of significant leadership.  His great contribution was to keep the RCA involved.  Other staff from the RCA made greater substantive contributions on the ecumenical stage and were recognized for it, both within ecumenical circles and within the denomination itself.  DeVelder’s was not the only voice heard. .

In every “inside the RCA” issue, he kept his finger in the wind, knew how strongly it was blowing from whatever direction, and placed full confidence in a young, inexperienced, but wonderfully talented staff–most of whom had been selected by the management consultants for their potential, not their achievements.  Over all this he maintained a benign and fatherly presence, but provided little control or genuine leadership–unless one defines excellent leadership by permitting others to work to the best of their ability with little interference from the one “in charge.”

After “hands off” leadership during the DeVelder era, the Arie Brouwer chapter provided a sharp contrast.

In my first e-mail I had just begun to reflect on the Brouwer era.  Before I go on with that, however, let me add a thought which came to me overnight.  I wonder to what degree the RCA choices of General Secretary reflected the notion of “leadership” then current in society at large.  The move to even create such a position came out of the Eisenhower era in which “the organization man” and “the man in the grey flannel suit” became popular book titles.  Marion deVelder’s portrait would have fit nicely among the top leaders shown on the slick front pages of the annual report of a major corporation.  He cast the “right” image for that time.  If this hunch is right, then once again the church simply reflected its social context rather than being intentional about shaping it, as usual lagging behind by a few years.  We might also project that hunch into the future, test it by the leadership images of those who were chosen later, and predict how it might play out from here on.  If there is any validity to this exercise, it could be a helpful corrective to simply repeating the prejudice without being aware of what is controlling group thinking.

Nonetheless, our first General Secretary was a Stated Clerk.  That simple fact may serve to confirm two observations about personnel selection:  First, the ability to get a position often does not correlate highly to what one does once hired.  The second observation which follows is one I have rarely if ever seen contradicted:  The best predictor of future performance is past performance.  Fortunately, the persons in the pool from which the next selection will be made are probably all known quantities and their past performance is there for all to see.  Don’t expect anyone to change very much; grow, yes, but what he or she did before and how they did it will say more about what kind of General Secretary they will be than any current images of leadership or vision casting.

Now on to Arie Brouwer:  More than any other, Arie’s understanding of his role was shaped by theology and his understanding of what the church is and should be.  He inspired those who worked with him to either deep loyalty or profound mistrust.  He was genuinely charismatic in leadership style, always one step ahead of the current situation, a flawless vote-counter who never hesitated to confront those who disagreed, and took risks when principles were at stake.  Contrary to his popular image of strong autocratic leadership, Arie listened well to those whose thinking he respected.  His passion for the church was that it be an instrument of justice and peace in the larger world and he took his convictions to Washington, El Salvador, South Africa, and Eastern Europe.  His participation in the ecumenical settings was as a leader and shaper of direction there as well, but he always tried to bring the RCA with him as he did.  Eventually his attempts to consolidate power (one thinks of Calvin’s Geneva) led him to over reach what the RCA would tolerate, but even that attempt was in order to make of us a church which made a difference in the world.

To a degree far greater than the RCA could acknowledge, Arie belonged on the world stage.  That his own brother had been killed in Korea made peace a top priority for him.  Did he too reflect the larger social understanding of leadership at the time?  If so, again, given the usual time lag, he was our Kennedy–and in fact, one of my colleagues from that time referred to the Brouwer era in print as “our Camelot.”  His only prior experience was that of a parish pastor, and he held no advanced degrees.  But he was a true “son of the prophets” and sadly and perhaps predictably, received “the prophet’s reward” from his beloved church.  For he did love the RCA, and one of my most vivid memories of him is of that day when he announced to staff his decision to move on to the World Council of Churches in Geneva.  After all the congratulations were over, he stepped into my office, closed the door, and we sat in silence for long moments as he wept profusely.  Neither of us said anything until he wiped his tears, said “thanks” and walked out.

If Arie was the model of the prophetic charismatic leader, Ed Mulder was the encourager and enabler.  Ed even referred to himself as a “Barnabas” and as a consequence those who worked with him were always helped along to fulfill their duties to the best of their ability.  For myself, the Mulder years were my most productive and creative and Ed had a lot to do with making that possible.  He came as a highly successful pastor in large congregations, and he served as if he were a senior pastor in a multiple staff setting.  He did not so much shape new directions as assist others in their own pursuits, and the downside of that may have been something of a directional drift.  Meetings which Ed led were often tedious, but he gave everyone their time and space.  Yet when no agreement was possible, he did not take control and force a decision but simply moved us on to the next item in the agenda.  He did stand firm on critical issues, and his leadership in the struggle against South African heresy was clear and strong.  When, at General Synod, Robert Schuller refused to permit Synod to hear an official of the African National Congress in the Crystal Cathedral, Ed moved the meeting to the Doubletree Hotel–a judicious compromise over which he struggled painfully.  He was deservedly beloved by all–staff and church alike–the consummate pastor of the denomination–thoughtful, considerate, conscientious, and surely the last General Secretary who will ever write all his letters by longhand.

The societal leadership model in play during the Mulder years?  Ronald Reagan?

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is unique in that he came from “outside” even though he had solid RCA credentials.  My sense is that as a visionary he had little patience or regard for RCA precedent or history.  Early in his tenure I managed to find him a copy of Corwin’s Manual (Joe Holbrook had several) but I was struck k by how little he seemed interested in what could be found there.  Wes, I have often observed, was mentored by two people:  Gordon Cosby, from whom he absorbed a vision of the church, and Mark Hatfield, which is where he learned administration.  His social activist instincts were honed at Sojourners, but none of this fit all that neatly into the RCA he was asked to lead.  He more than others embraced the CEO “Head of Communion” model, and in fact most staff gradually became almost anonymous and obscure during his tenure.  That simple fact fits the models he brought with him.

That said, he is wonderfully intelligent, devoutly Christian, and single-minded in his vision.  What the RCA is today has been greatly shaped and affected by his leadership.  He has become a world ecumenical leader, has made a great contribution beyond the RCA, but as far as I have been able to tell has not taken the larger church with him in those pursuits.  But that may be too harsh an assessment–ecumenism is clearly where Wes has made his greatest impact, and we should be glad to have enabled that to happen.

Finally, a word about denominational structures:  Just as the position of General Secretary has a brief history, so too does the machinery of the modern denomination.  Prior to the late 19th century not much of this existed–the earliest mission boards go back to the early 19th century.  The next oldest, pension boards and systems, not quite 100 years.  Denominational insurance programs arose during the latter half of the 20th century.  Prior to modern transportation, it was impractical to have a highly organized national church–regional structure was a far as one could relate.  While living in Pennsylvania, I learned that the German Reformed (now part of the UCC) split from us in part because of the hardship of travel between adjacent states–Pennsylvania and New Jersey!  But today the new era of technology and communication systems has made geography all but irrelevant, and the irony is that it takes us back to where we once were.  Who needs the board which could serve places and situation where the local congregation could no longer reach?  World mission boards once served a real need, and denominational publishing houses did the same for Christian education.  But is that not an era which is quickly passing into a post-denominational age in which political and social agendas are far more effective linkages than denominational affiliation once was?  If so, what then of Executive Secretaries, General Secretaries, and the staff who support them?  To move well ahead in the process, might a Stated Clerk be once more all we need or really want?  If so, whose previous performance best equips him or her to fill the General Secretary designation in that manner?  For no matter who is chosen, the office is still young and fluid enough that whoever fills it will shape it once again.

One thought on “Al Poppen on General Secretaries, Past & Future

  1. Al Poppen’s reflections are immensely helpful in thinking about denominational leadership. We have a President and even a vice-President of Synod. They are more like Paul than Peter. That sounds very missional to my Reformed ears.
    So what about Peter? Somehow the position of GSec has become the actual Petrine head — not only of the defacto administrative magisterium of the RCA, but also the face toward others as a ‘head of communion'(whatever that means various greatly within the Church’s denominations.

    I see a discussion about the role and place of a General Secretary as a moment of sober reassessment. Jesus’ question “Quo Vadis?” put to Peter outside the gate of Rome is interpreted by the Roman Church as a hyperbolic question that implies that Jesus wants Peter to go back (to Nero’s persecution). But what if Peter had said, “Lord I am going out into the world; just as I stepped out of the boat on the lake a few years ago, so I now go out into the world that needs to know but One NAME”? Sounds missional to me…
    What would happen if we pool the wisdom of the Stated Clerks of our Classes, or perhaps the Regional Synods? Can a Gsec not be more like them? ((I realize that would assume that the General Synod is still an assembly…)).

    Do we really need a head, other than the Head of the Body of the Church? Is it biblical? Kings don’t do so well in Scripture, nor High Priests.
    Sure, there are times when a Moses, Elijah or Nehemia figure arives on the scene, but they are exceptional. And in final analysis: Moses shows that the Law doesn’t guarantee entry into the promised land (even for the lawgiver!), and the prophets cannot keep the people there and are whisked off (Elijah into heaven and the people into exile).
    It is only Jesus who brings them back to Mt. Tabor as a glimpse of God’s eternal plan ‘not to let go of the work of his hands.’

    I am glad the RCA is taking time to discern the will of God in the matter at hand. No need to rush and build Peter’s tent on a mountaintop. Jesus thought it to be a misunderstanding.
    What say you?

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