Parkinson’s Law in the Church

I have repeatedly chuckled over reading C. Northcote Parkinson’s book, Parkinson’s Law. In it he describes the almost automatic growth in the number of personnel in various kinds of administrative structures of government at an average rate of 5.75% per year regardless of whether the actual work load is increasing, decreasing or totally non-existent! I have often wished that someone with a similar touch of genius would write an ecclesiastical version of Parkinson’s Law. It could be at least as hilarious as the original—if its subject matter weren’t so serious.

Inevitably, in a growing denomination the overworked servants of the church who must handle details of the common missionary and educational activities need extra help, and requests for such help must be regarded sympathetically. At the same time we need to regard each such request critically—with something of the eye of a woman who is dress-shopping on a limited budget. If we do not, we shall find ourselves in various ways enmeshed in a growing web of institutions which, although they result from excellent intentions, are just not worth the expense and effort that they cost.

A striking example of such an administrative development that demands critical scrutiny before it is adopted by the church is that of the “Race Commission” which is being recommended by the Home Mission Board. For this matter, referred to this Board by the Synod of 1968, the Board has now according to the Grand. Rapids Press, formed a Race Commission with a 1970 budget of $29,600 to “be expanded to $72,400 next year.”

That in all areas of our Christian and church life we must seek to conform to the principle of the gospel that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free…for we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) is so obvious that no one should question it. But that we need or can profitably use such a special Race Commission of the proportions being proposed to study or tell us what we must do about race relations has by no means been demonstrated.

The more one reflects on this proposal the more questions arise concerning it. Its budget of $29,600 for this year and $72,400 for next year is no piddling Parkinson’s 5.75% expansion; it is 146% expansion in one year! What is this phenomenally growing infant to do? Its mandate, according to its secretary, the Grand Rapids Press informs us, is “a call to use all available resources to eliminate racism, both causes and effects, within the church and throughout the world.” Isn’t this a rather ambitious project even on a $72,400 budget? If the committee is going to attempt so grandiose a project as this, $72,000 can only be a beginning; its resources and power will have to be fantastically increased. No matter how big that budget becomes, however, can anyone be blamed for having some misgivings about the capacity of this committee to remove racism “throughout the world?” Did the synod actually expect the board of home missions to take on such an extra obligation as this? A look into the 1968 Acts of Synod (p. 18) reveals that someone is slightly misreading the mandate of the Synod. That mandate to the board was “to design, organize, and implement programs through which the denomination, individual churches, and members can effectively use all available resources to eliminate racism, both causes and effects, within the body of believers and throughout the world in which we live.” (Italics are mine.) In other words what the synod stated the “denomination, individual churches and members” should attempt to do in the places “in which we live”—the only places where we can do much concretely—the committee is taking as its province and extending to the whole world (if we can rely on its press release).

How does the commission propose to accomplish what it considers its fantastic mandate? By writing letters to our churches? We already get plenty of those telling us what we already know, to fill our overflowing waste baskets. Does it intend to organize meetings? We already have enough to crowd our church calendars. We understand that it proposes to study the problems of our cities? The government has already done that and published its conclusions in cheap 500 page paperbacks which can be purchased from the newsstands. Our Christian colleges also have their sociology departments concerned with the study of such problems. Why should we spend tens of thousands of dollars to duplicate what is already being done? What prompts our mission board to set up a permanent committee for this purpose? Is it the thought that everybody else is talking about the current anti-racist fad and that we must “get in on the act” in order to be up-to-date? If this commission intends to come into the congregations and investigate and correct the thinking and practice of our church members is it not usurping the pastoral responsibilities of consistories? By what authority does any committee of synod assume such a right within all of our churches? How can setting up a committee to deal with such primarily social and economic problems as unequal housing, for example, which is certainly involved in the mandate it is assuming, be harmonized with the basic principle of our church government expressed in Article 28 of our Church Order: “These assemblies shall transact ecclesiastical matters only, and shall deal with them in an ecclesiastical manner”? And by what kind of logic is the removal of racial inequalities and prejudices within the local churches being considered as properly the work of denominational home missions? That liberal churches who no longer believe the gospel substitute social projects such as this for bringing it should not surprise us. They have to find something to do to justify their continued existence—like the Unitarian navy chaplain who made one of his big concerns selling government life insurance. We hope that our churches have not drifted so far from Christ’s mandate to preach the gospel to the world. Is not using money our people have given to bring the gospel, for such projects as studying racial inequalities or eliminating discrimination in housing, a misappropriation of funds? (The business world uses blunter terms for it.) Must not the mission board’s embarking on such ventures as these inevitably further weaken the already shaken confidence of our churches in the integrity of our denominational enterprises? Will not such decisions accelerate the trend among our people to say that if our denomination no longer knows what Christ’s command to preach the gospel to the world means they will have to give their support to other missionary agencies who do?

It is to be hoped that our next synod will give this proposal the careful scrutiny each such administrative expansion deserves and, unless it can be justified with far better reasons than have so far been adduced, will refuse to buy this project as part of our missionary program.

Rev. Peter De Jong is pastor of Dutton Christian Reformed Church, Dutton, Michigan.