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This is the last of three days of reflections and reports from delegates to the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, which adjourned Tuesday in Tucson, Arizona. Thanks to our guest bloggers — Ben, Megan, Dwayne, Sophie, Sarah, and Chad.
Conversations at the Table
In my experience, meals at General Synod have often felt like a return to the Middle School lunchroom. You go through the line to get your food and wander between the tables wondering, “Where are my friends? Who will it be safe to sit with today?” At the past two Synods I have experienced (2016 and 2018) the lines seemed to be firmly drawn as to where I was welcome and not welcome to sit.
At the first meal of General Synod 2021 I sought out the people I knew and the friends with whom I was personally excited to reconnect. As I glanced around the terrace where some sat outside to eat and others inside, I was disheartened to see that Synod very much reflected a Middle School lunchroom map of pre-established groups divided by region, race, language, and shared opinions.
I personally did not want to see these table divisions continue and made a goal to be present at meals with people I did not know and who did not look like me. It seemed as if many other delegates made this conscious choice as well. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, for the most part, this Middle School lunchroom mentality did not continue at Synod.
As we met in our discernment groups those first two days and engaged in deep listening and healthy dialogue over the Vision 2020 report, I noticed a spirit of curiosity and grace that began to prevail among the delegates.
Mealtimes became a space to reflect together and to ask questions of one another — not out of discontent or seeking insider information to report back to the opposition — but out of genuine curiosity and a willingness to listen and learn.
A dinner conversation I had with delegates from Dakota Classis began with these questions, “I heard you mention on the plenary floor that your church is leaving? Would you mind sharing more about that? How has the process been for the church? How are you doing?” The conversation that followed was filled with honesty, pastoral care, lament, and grief. No one attempted to change anyone’s mind or defend one position over another. It was a sacred space of painful storytelling, and those at the table respected that space.
My Sunday evening dinner conversation with elders and pastors from Michigan, Iowa, New York, and New Jersey, was filled with laughter and tears. Laughter over the adventures that took place during our free time that afternoon: hiking in the desert, soaking up the sun by the pool, taking naps, and gaining speed going down the water slide. Tears over our shared stories of the challenges of ministry during the pandemic. Between meetings, the resort offered a retreat space needed for weary church leaders. There was a shared recognition that night of how much we needed that space of rest.
Yet one of the things I grieved over at Synod this year was the experience of more hospitality, invitation, and grace expressed at the meal tables than at the Communion Table. Covid precautions aside, (Does anyone really enjoy receiving the elements in a Happy Meal style prepackaged wafer and cup?), the liturgy was robotic; the presiders at the table did not reflect the full body of Christ present at Synod; triumphalist atonement theology was rampant. The words of the Intercessory Prayer following Communion in the RCA liturgy, which in my opinion, named much of what we were discerning at Synod, were never spoken.
As the RCA continues to ponder what God has in store for us as a church, I hope we do not return to the Middle School lunchroom. I hope we continue to engage in conversation in the diversity of our persons and opinions with courageous honesty, humility, curiosity, and respect. I hope we continue to make the conscious choice to learn from one another and dialogue well in our differences. I hope we continue to remind each other, above all else, our unity is in Christ.
I left Synod with far more hope for the church than I have in a long time. I also left with the awareness that there is still a lot of work ahead for the Reformed Church in America and the question still lingers for far too many, “Is there space at the table for me?”
O God the Creator,
we pray for all nations and peoples.
Take away the mistrust and lack of understanding
that divide your creatures;
Increase in us the recognition that we are all your children.
O Savior God,
Look upon your church in its struggle upon the earth.
Have mercy on its weakness,
Bring an end to its unhappy divisions,
And scatter its fears.
Look also upon the ministry of your church.
Increase its courage, strengthen its faith,
And inspire its witness to all people,
Even to the ends of the earth.
An excerpt from the prayer of intercession in the RCA Communion Liturgy
Dancing Together And Stepping on Feet
As I sat through General Synod, I experienced a lamentful hope. I had entered Synod feeling like I was traveling across the country to participate in a divorce trial in which I would be both a judge and one of the spouses involved in the break up. What I experienced was something incredibly more meaningful.
To be sure, there was plenty to lament. At times the divisiveness, the arrogance, the patriarchy, the poor hermeneutics, and the politics made me both angry and sad. The fact that this was modeled and maybe encouraged by some of our leaders was downright depressing. I lament for my LGBTQ+ siblings who once again had to hear hurtful comments, even if they were said in painful love. I also lament for many good people who feel like Scripture is being ignored for the sake of unity.
In addition, and maybe even more so, I lament the loss. Once again at Synod, I met the rich diversity of the RCA. No matter how many Synods I attend, I am always blessed to meet so many new people. I sat in circles with, prayed with, and broke bread with people I had never met, many who come from contexts so different from my own. Some of them confessed that they were “on the way out.” I was heartbroken by the tears they shed as they spoke of the history they had with the Reformed Church, some going back generations, and the pain they were experiencing as they felt the need to leave. Selfishly, I lament those broken relationships and the stunting of my own growth that will come from our losses.
I lament for those who have already left, for whom the decision to continue to be a “big tent” came a bit too late. I can only beg, please come back. And yet I bless each of them on their journeys. I lament what could have been if the spirit at this Synod could have been present five years ago.
But I do not grieve as one who has no hope. For the swords that I had expected to be wielded at Synod were by and large beaten into plowshares. I have hope because so many people on both sides of the debate wanted to continue to dance together, even though they know their feet will continue to be stepped on. I have hope that we witnessed what it means to be kindred in Christ. Being part of the church is painful, but we are in it together. I have hope because, as our General Secretary stated, the church is called to move forward together in gospel ministry.
I have hope because we recommitted to Global Missions. We saw in videos and heard stories of the power of the gospel at work in the world, and we decided together that we did not want to “farm that out.” We believe in the work of our missionaries, our denominational staff, and the commitment to partnering with local organizations around the globe to carry on the rich tradition of the RCA in proclaiming God’s kingdom across the globe.
I have hope because we resisted the current cultural norm of running to our silos, sitting in our own predetermined circles, and telling each other how right we are. Rather, in groups that I was blessed to be a part of, we cared for each other, we listened to each other, we heard each other, and we hoped for each other.
Sooner than we anticipate, a new something will attempt to divide us. I have hope because when it does, General Synod 2021 will remind me that we will be able to weather it…together.
Sarah Palsma is the associate pastor of New Hope Church in Powell, Ohio.
Chad Pierce is pastor of Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.