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The General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, meeting in Tucson, Arizona, adjourned on Tuesday. The Reformed Journal asked six delegates to Synod to share a glimpse of the meeting. For the next three days, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we will be hearing from these delegates, two each day.
The Silent Secretary Speaks
Benjamin Van Zetten Bruins
The General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America (RCA) occupies the unwieldy position of having a high profile and a low amount of power. With the RCA tensely divided over human sexuality and more, any General Secretary might despair that the only unifying force in the denomination is mutual disappointment in him (no hers yet).
Before General Synod 2021, I heard people criticize the RCA’s current General Secretary, Eddy Alemán for being too quiet, for hiding, for not visibly leading the RCA out of its current impasse. Alemán’s first report as General Secretary to the 2019 General Synod needed to be delivered by Jill Ver Steeg, the RCA’s chief operating officer, as Alemán endured the symptoms of Bell’s Palsy.
Certainly, Alemán knew the magnitude of the RCA’s divisions and the uncertainty of its future when he accepted the position of General Secretary in 2018. He must also have known how few levers of authority he would have to pull and how few thanks he would receive from a denomination in numerical decline and tiptoeing toward the cliff of schism. Alemán summarized the challenging situation offered to him in the position of General Secretary saying, “this is crazy.”
Yet, Alemán took the job. People are prone to boldness when they hear the call of God.
Alemán’s first years as General Secretary may have been quiet. I recall hearing invitations to prayer and a few statements condemning racism, urging immigration reform, and responding to episodes of gun violence, but not much else. However, at the 2021 General Synod, Alemán found his voice.
In stark contrast to a divisive and graceless President’s report about building fences around doctrine, the General Secretary’s report winsomely communicated a vision of living together in theological diversity. Alemán deftly used humor to name the RCA’s current reality:
Internally—many have lost hope for the RCA and the RCA will experience significant decline for the next five years.
Externally—the center of the Christian world is shifting to the global south.
After describing the RCA’s current reality as “the most difficult times” Alemán made a rhetorical shift. He said, God specializes in complicated situations; God can make these the most amazing times too.
In a denomination where many are weary of fighting and hungry for hope, Alemán’s words were received as manna. I felt a sense of palpable relief wash over the RCA’s moderates as they heard Alemán say the RCA has a future and the opportunity to work with God to create something new.
Alemán continues to hold traditional views regarding human sexuality, but he said it is time for the denomination to move beyond its impasse. His words gave permission to delegates with traditional views to focus on the gospel of Christ over appeals to doctrinal purity.
Alemán defined the gospel as the story of Jesus—Christ’s incarnation, work of healing, teaching us how to love, dying & rising for our salvation—and our call to repentance, transformation, and cross carrying in our love for one another.
Alemán wisely did not waste the feel good moment he created. Yes, he said, the RCA has a future, but it won’t look like its past. The RCA’s future is multiethnic and multilingual. Five years from now the RCA will begin to grow again but it won’t be white, Dutch churches restored to their former glory. It will be church plants and congregations from the global south drawn to the theology and tradition of the RCA.
Alemán’s voice called General Synod to follow a path most were longing to find—a path that is honest about the pain of decline and hopeful about the promise of renewal. I’m certain the General Secretary will continue to disappoint many people most of the time, as that is the nature of the position. But at this General Synod, I am grateful Alemán found his voice and led those willing to follow toward a future filled with the resurrection hope of Christ.
We Are Family (I Think)
Megan J. Hodgin
“You’re here!” they shouted as they turned the corner, saw me in the lobby, and recognized what they could see of my face around the mask I was wearing. Among them were a couple of General Synod Council staff members, a few delegates, pastors and elders combined. In an impromptu call and response liturgy, the first around the corner exclaimed, “You made it!” and quickly the others followed: “You’re here! You made it! You’re here!”
Moments like this are the reason many of us like to think of the annual gathering of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America as a family reunion. As we assemble, we rejoice in the opportunities to see faces we have missed, to embrace one another, to learn new names, to lift our voices in song together, to pray and learn and do the hard work before us. Together. Like a family.
Born and raised in the United Methodist tradition, I consider myself an adoptee in the RCA, having discovered Reformed theology as a college student. While it has not been my church home from birth, I have been proud to claim the RCA as my chosen family — to learn from grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles in the faith; to grow up alongside my peers; to invest in the next generation of younger siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, and more.
I love that I know some members of this family well enough to guess what they are going to say at the microphone on the synod floor before they ever open their mouths. I love that we often introduce ourselves to one another by asking, “Where are you from?” or “Where do you serve?” and, after hearing the answer, many of us immediately follow up with another question, “Do you know so-and-so (insert the name of another “family” member who lives nearby the person we are addressing)?”
I love that we are a bi-national family worshiping in multiple languages and serving on mission in every corner of the world. I love the sound we make when we sing together. I love that we share a love for Jesus Christ and we practice our faith in many different ways.
I love this family. And, as is the case in many families, it also causes me great grief, disappointment, even pain at times.
At the end of this General Synod — where fewer women were invited into public leadership roles (such as preaching and worship leadership) than any other General Synod I have attended in the last decade, where not a single woman was nominated for the office of Vice President, and where awkward jokes and anecdotes shared by preachers and officers seemed to lean into the affectionately known “bro culture” — I find myself wondering about the destructive behaviors we have unintentionally condoned, excused, and perpetuated because “we’re family.”
At the end of this General Synod — where we fumbled our way through making a formal land acknowledgement to honor the indigenous peoples who first lived on the land upon which our meeting was held, where the merits and necessity of antiracism training were called into question, where names of individuals, tribes, locations, and even one of our own classes (Clasis de las Naciones) were consistently mispronounced, and where much of our language excluded our Canadian siblings — I find myself wondering about the ways we have cloaked our bias, our racism, and our prejudice in “family jokes,” unnecessary rituals we have praised as tradition, and more.
At this year’s “family reunion,” I was overcome more than once by my deep gratitude for all of the ways I have been embraced by this quirky, beautiful, difficult body known as the RCA. I was also deeply grieved by the reminders of our dysfunction.
My next step is to wonder about my contributions (conscious or otherwise) to these patterns. How have I offered others the familial embrace I have enjoyed? And when have I offered only a half-hearted embrace, or even turned a cold shoulder?
The answers to these questions scare me a bit. But exploring them is the only way, with the help of God, to break the patterns that need to be broken. God, give me courage.
Benjamin Van Zetten Bruins co-pastors with his wife, Sarah, at Trinity Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Megan Hodgin is a minister and teacher, a facilitator and coach, a collector of questions, a gatherer of stories and a seeker of shalom.
Thanks for this. For historical reasons I want to read that President’s Report, but I can no longer find it on the RCA website. Was it a true “State or Religion” report, which is what it’s supposed to be (and which they’ve rarely been of late)?
Thanks Megan and Benjamin for this! Eddy is right. When a church is oppressed, for whatever reason, it is a fertile ground for God to work through God’s people. Come Holy Spirit!
Ben, glad to have sat with you at the same table. I agree completely with your assessment of Eddy’s role at this General Synod. The tone, style, and content of his report, in stark contrast to the President, contributed to the overall spirit and mood at synod which enabled delegates to make positive and hopeful decisions for our future. One power of a general secretary is to try to nurture the overall atmosphere and sense of trust and respect in a gathering, and I think Eddy did that exceptionally well at this synod.
We are an old family welcoming new members. There is some awkwardness but hopefully also some grace. We all need to be slower to speak, more eager to listen, and extra sensitive to our newer members now & in the future of this denomination. Thanks for sharing and highlighting what you saw and heard and felt this time. There will be many changes in the next few years but I share Eddy’s confidence that we’ll be OK by 2030
I was very inspired by Eddy’s comments and am hopeful for the future of the R.C.A. I did not, however, experience E.J. to be graceless. I thought E.J. did a great job and contributed to the overall tenor of our time together. Clearly, he is “defined” in his thoughts, as we have been encouraged to be, and he remained connected to those with differing views. I actually thought he was quite gracious under accusation from the floor. I do wonder, if the Apostle Paul had been the moderator, if he too would be charged, “graceless”. I think I know the answer.