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I think I can say that the Reformed Church in America (RCA), the denomination to which I belong, suffers from a closed system of communication.
Additionally, I think I can say that this is an underlying problem in our disputes and divisions.
And finally I can say that if the denomination’s Restructuring Team does not address this problem, whatever else it recommends will solve little.
Control & Alignment
What distinguishes a closed communication system is control — the control of information and the control of discussion. The limiting of sharing. The careful selection of people for whatever. The careful interpretation of whatever news gets out, so that it supports the vision and rallies the cause. Key decisions and appointments are made in confidence, meaning secrecy. Leaders ask for “alignment” from the membership.
I am not saying that closed communication is always wrong. Not all promotion is propaganda. There are times and places for discretion, confidence, and closed doors. While serving as a pastor, I have led elders to make decisions about congregation members that we could not explain to the congregation.
Nonetheless, the RCA is constituted with a presbyterial-conciliar form of government that requires open communication, with its resultant lack of control and risk of non-alignment. So when the real power and direction in the denomination is managed within a closed system, it makes the RCA fight against itself, resulting in dysfunction, frustration, and a lack of trust on all sides.
It is not news that the RCA is troubled by dissension, division, and secession. One of the strategies intended to hold the denomination together is restructuring it, although the churches that the restructuring is supposed to satisfy are already on the way out. Now a Restructuring Team was commissioned by the General Synod Council (GSC) to make proposals for the future. What’s on the table? Regional synods and classes? The GSC itself? How about our habit of closed communication?
I am not optimistic. First, the Restructuring Team was selected behind closed doors by, we have to assume, a few persons from the GSC and the staff. The team appears to be working in strict confidence, so already it exhibits the very problem that must be addressed. For the team to question its own habit of being will be difficult, and challenging the habit of the patrons that commissioned it even more so. Right now loyalty is at a premium, and the membership of the Restructuring Team, for all its apparent diversity, looks to have been selected for loyalty and alignment.
Moreover, what I am calling the habit of the General Synod Council (GSC) is enshrined and codified in the policies and procedures of the Carver model of governance, to which the GSC is committed. The Carver model requires a closed and controlled system of communication. The GSC is expected to speak with “one voice” to the denomination. Apart from that one voice members are expected to keep confidence. The GSC may address the staff only through its “single employee,” the General Secretary, and even of the General Secretary there are questions it may not ask. I fear that if the Carver model is maintained, any other restructuring will be the proverbial deck chairs.
Lutherans & the CRC?
Still, it doesn’t have to be this way. I observed an open system in the Church Council of the Lutherans (ELCA) during the three years I was its representative from the RCA. The Council’s members are free to communicate “back home” as they see fit (the members who are bishops would tolerate no less). The senior program staff are all present at the meeting, are active with committees, and can be freely consulted by council members. Both the presiding bishop and the CEO are chosen at the Church-wide Assembly by free and open elections from a number of qualified candidates, so that to vote against a given nominee is not regarded as dissent. In contrast, the sole candidate for General Secretary of the RCA is nominated after a strictly confidential process. The actual “election” by the General Synod is but a rubber stamp, and any delegate who speaks against the candidate is suspect as divisive.
The habit of closed communication is deep and wide in the RCA. We use the same closed system for regional synod executives and for parish pastors. Our pastoral call process is done in strict confidence (for which there are reasons). But it wasn’t always so. I can remember when this process was done in the open. On a Sunday a group of visitors would show up and sit together in a back pew—a search committee! Pastors routinely received and considered calls to other congregations.
Not too long ago The Banner of the Christian Reformed Church regularly published a list of calls offered, accepted, and declined. One popular pastor in Ontario used to be called by two or three churches at a time. There must have been problems with this system to make us move away from it, or maybe it was more that the culture was driving the practice of the church, especially corporate culture in the case of denominational leadership.
The presbyterial-conciliar structure is inefficient, messy, and unwieldy — by design, in order to resist any one person wielding power. Our General Secretaries have been fighting against it, more or less, from the beginning. (I could offer a long list of examples.) I don’t question their good intentions, and they have been doing what they were hired to do. There’s been a felt need for someone to be in charge and for everyone else to line up and get with the program.
Since the 1960’s our system has evolved from a sprawling and inefficient system of competing boards (Foreign Missions, Women’s Foreign Missions, Domestic Missions, Education, Publication) with their own staffs and officers independently reporting to a loosely managed General Synod (that met for almost two weeks) to a single, centralized GSC that controls the agenda of a five-day General Synod.
The result is dramatically fewer spaces for people from across the RCA to work together, to share information and opinions, to be empowered, to take responsibility, and to just talk. We no longer have the working groups in which people from different regions of the RCA sustained conversations in support of denominational missions and programs, raised money and spent it, hired staff and held them accountable, and managed goals and strategies. Such working groups built trust across perceived lines, and a thicker network of trusting relationships better handled disagreements.
Now our only denominational communications are directed communications. When we lost the Church Herald we lost our last open forum, and its replacement by the late promotional magazine, RCA Today, only serves the point. Closed communication avoids conflict but does not solve it. Could the GSC and its staff face this self-critical reality if the Restructuring Team were to address it?
Community, Conversation & Creativity
I served on the search committee for the previous General Secretary. (Yes, we had to nominate only one person and we worked behind closed doors.) We differed in our views on pressing issues. But in our work together we developed fellowship and community. This happens time and again in the RCA whenever a special task group is commissioned; they always report experiencing fellowship despite their differences.
This too serves my point: not that we should work behind closed doors, but that the more we do actual work together and freely talk while we do that work the better we handle our differences. We also get creative, and creativity from below is always a problem for control. It threatens alignment and tests the vision of the leader.
Habits are hard to change. Habits protect our deep commitments and deeper anxieties. To address the closed communication habit of the RCA will be resisted because not only because we are used to it and it has produced the kind of leaders we now have, but it will challenge the power of the GSC and the job descriptions of the staff. At stake is how we view the very purpose of a denomination: is it a religious program corporation with an annual convention, or is it a conciliar structure of mutual accountability?
One of the frustrations for both sides in the human sexuality debate is that not once has the GSC hosted at successive General Synods a long, slow, patient, well-informed, expertly guided, and fully participatory Biblical-theological study. We talk best when we work together, and doing confessionally-informed Bible study together is our proper denominational work. But as the ELCA representative to the GSC was surprised to discover, Bible study is not on the agenda of the GSC.
Pentecost is but a few Sundays away. On that day, many churches will read the story of the Tower of Babel. God stopped the people from speaking in one voice as both a judgment and a gift, and I’m sure the leadership did not like it.