Synod 1993 concluded its sessions late Thursday afternoon, June 17. The final gavel sounded and the delegates prepared to return to their respective homes, churches and communities. Some left with a sense of major accomplishment while others left with heavy hearts and a deep concern for the denomination. Throughout the sessions synod attempted to divert the church’s attention from the arguments and divisions that separate us to the celebration of the blessing and unity that is shared in Christ. The fact that approximately 7500 discontented members have left the CRC and formed an estimated 32 independent churches coupled with another 12 churches who engaged in ecclesiastical disobedience seemed to cast a shadow over the plea for “unity amid diversity.” Concerns were voiced by some church leaders about members who have been left behind in the ruins of painful church splits and others whose loyalty to the denomination has been seriously damaged for various reasons. In my judgment, Synod 1993has added more reasons for concern, placed further obstacles in the path to unity and joy and undermined its own integrity by the decisions that were made. We pray that this may not result in a further exodus of members, which many of us fear, or cause any withholding of funds that would curtail the ministry of our denominational agencies. Synod 1993 began its work overshadowed by the apparent lack of commitment to a denominational covenant and the absence of mutual agreement among our churches.
Synod’s advisory committee on Education and Publications recommended appointment of 13 new additions to the staff of Calvin College; 13 reappointments with tenure and advance in rank were also approved. Seven staff members were granted retirement following a combined total of more than 200 years of service to the college.
Seven members of the Calvin Seminary faculty were approved for reappointment. 33 seminarians were declared candidates for the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the CRC and eligible for call to the churches on June 25, 1993. Synod sent off the candidates and their families with a prayer, a blessing and a standing ovation. In view of the more than 150 vacancies in our denomination, it appears that some congregations may experience extended periods of vacancy. Some concern was expressed about the small number of ministerial candidates available to the churches, but it must be remembered that several have opted to study at other seminaries and may seek candidacy at some future time. A change in the bylaws for both Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary were approved.
Considerable discussion centered around the single nomination of Rev. John Suk for the position of editor-in-chief of Tile Banner. It appears that the Search Committee had received 36 names submitted to them by councils and others. Eleven allowed their names to remain in consideration. The committee narrowed the list to four and finally two names were submitted to the Board of Publications, who in turn chose to present only one name to synod.
The synod expressed dissatisfaction with only one candidate for the position of The Banner editor, especially since no grounds were presented for doing so. In response to the criticism that there was no choice, the Board of Publications responded by saying that there was a clear choice; it was either Yes or No. Their defense of a single nomination was that one of the candidates was clearly superior in editorial skills. After an hour-long public interview Synod voted 155 -23 to approve Rev. John Suk for a two-year appointment as the youngest editor-in-chief of The Banner. Only the future will reveal whether this appointment will reverse the downward trend of The Banner subscriptions. Some of us have reservations.
A recommendation to approve sacramental forms for provisional use until final ratification by Synod 1995 was defeated. Criticism of the proposed forms ranged from baptismal regeneration to “unsound and unreformed theology.” It was misgivings such as these which caused synod to send the forms to the churches for their study and response. The alarming element in the debate lay in the fact that many delegates saw no difficulties with the forms or their provisional use.
FEMINIZING OF GOD
In response to an overture raising concerns about inappropriate language addressed to God by certain individuals and publications, synod judged that adequate safeguards had already been established by Synod 1992. However the following recommendation was adopted: “That synod instruct the churches and agencies not to name God with feminine nouns and pronouns.”
Synod took no action on the request to augment statements on homosexualism indicating that our present position on homosexuality speaks clearly to the questions raised.
INSTITUTIONS AND MINISTRIES
Synod’s attention was also directed to the work and ministries of Dordt, Redeemer, King’s and Trinity Colleges, the Institute for Christian Studies, Reformed Bible College and United Calvinist Youth.
The Advisory Committee on Pastoral Ministries considered a wide range of reports. The Committee on Disability Concerns called attention to the fact that there are probably 50,000 people with disabilities in our denomination today and that the number of people with disabilities is increasing at a rate faster than the population. This underscores the need for the church to respond clearly and compassionately to the needs of this segment of society. Although churches are often excluded from legal directives on making buildings accessible to persons with disabilities, the synod heartily recommended that its churches fully comply with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act PL101-336 and its accompanying regulations in all portions of the CRC located in the US and Canada. The vote on this issue was close at 92–87, but the majority felt that these legal provisions are in harmony with the historic commitment of the church to values of non-discrimination, integration and inclusivity. They also felt these laws harmonize with Biblical teachings and that they will “strengthen the church’s outreach efforts to those who have traditionally been excluded or made to feel excluded from organized religion.”
Synod took grateful note that the CRC has received the 1993 Ministry to the Pastoral Family Award from th e National Association of Evangelicals in recognition of the work that our Pastoral Church Relations Committee has done in providing care for pastors and their families.
SCORR urged the denomination to appropriately observe All Nations Heritage Week from September 26 through October 2, 1994. Attention was also called to the fact that mi· norities are often excluded from denominational boards and agencies with the result that we do not reflect our true diversity, nor do we benefit from the special insights that minorities could contribute to the on-going ministry of the church.
Several delegates observed the danger of “tokenism” as it relates to ethnic minorities and that we should be more concerned about abilities and qualifications rather than gender and minority representation.
Rather than appointing a new study committee to investigate clergy abuse of office as was requested by a group of Kalamazoo churches, synod mandated several existing committees to cover three aspects of this issue: (1) Develop a dear statement of professional conduct for ministerial personnel that addresses issues related to appropriate interpersonal relationships; (2) Develop clear guidelines concerning the church’s response to ministerial misconduct and abuse of office; (3) Recommend strategies for insuring appropriate supervision and accountability of those pastors serving in specialized ministries.
It appears that there are instances when some who are involved in specialized ministries engage in private counseling as a sideline. Abuses often occur in such settings and therefore a study on this issue is clearly needed.
The Finance Advisory Committee proposed for synod’s adoption the following minimum salary for ministers serving churches receiving assistance from the Fund for Smaller Churches (FSC). The minimum salary for such ministers is set at $25,450 for 1994 ($24,700 in 1993), with a service increment of $100 per year up to thirty years of service; a child allowance of $600 for every unmarried child up to age 19 (age 23 if enrolled full-time at an educationaI institution in an undergraduate program). The per family contribution toward the minister’s salary in a congregation receiving assistance from FSC be not less than, and, if possible, more than, $425 per family. A 10 percent cost-of-living differential must be added to the salary of the pastor’s serving FSC churches in Canada. A $350 continuing education allowance plus $600 for each child attending a Christian school is required also.
The minister’s retirement pension was designated as housing allowance for US income-tax purposes. The churches were reminded to participate in the annual minister’s compensation questionnaire. A list of benevolent and educational agencies for both the US and Canada were approved.
The Synod of 1992 adopted the recommendation that beginning with the calendar year 1994, ministry shares (formerly quotas) would be determined on the basis of professing members rather than on the family count as in prior years. Professing members for denominational ministry shares shall be those professing members who are eighteen years and older. Classes may grant attainable ministry shares when a local congregation believes it cannot pay the full allocation. This may occur when a significant number of the professing members are unemployed or are low income and perhaps on public assistance, or full-time students.
One of the main issues addressed by this advisory committee was the financial impact which this change would have on individual churches and classes. Switching to a member-based ministry share in one year would have significant effect on some churches with many single members. Synod gave its approval that the change from family-based to member-based calculation take place over a five year period beginning in 1994 with a calculation of 80 percent (family-based share) plus 20 percent (member-based share). Each year the family-based share would be reduced by 20 per cent and the member-based share be increased by the same amount. For 1994 the per member ministry share is $227.12 per professing member and $545.10 per family share.
The trend of many CRC members shifting their financial support to para-church organizations and agencies raises the concern that our denominational funding may continue to decrease. The actions of this year’s synod have done little to reverse this trend and regain the confidence of our people.
Synod’s advisory committee dealing with the subject of regional synods agreed with the conclusions of the study committee that the frustrations with the limitations of the existing Council of the Christian Reformed Churches of Canada (CCRC) are not overcome by the establishing of regional synods. Though such regional synods initially appear to be an attractive alternative in the Canadian context, ecclesiastical balance would necessitate establishing similar regional synods for the United States churches who are not asking for it. The introduction of regional synods would necessitate major changes in the Church Order with far-reaching ramifications for the entire denomination. Using regional synods to correct one problem would almost certainly create numerous others. Such actions would be disruptive, costly, and would necessitate duplication of office and staff in various regions. Synod however, did appoint a two-year committee to develop a proposal for a more effective structure for ministry in Canada. Canadian churches do need freedom to carryon ministries which address challenges unique to their national and cultural setting.
CHILDREN AT THE LORD’S SUPPER
Another “hot issue” came to the floor of synod via Advisory Committee 10 dealing with the subject of children at the Lord’s Supper. For the third time in the past seven years, synod debated the subject at length and was faced with divided reports from its advisory committee. The latest study committee had been asked to clarify a decision of 1988 that encourages young children to make public profession of their faith so they may partake of the Lord’s Supper. However, churches encountered practical difficulties with this decision, such as when and how children who make an early profession should take on adult responsibilities like agreeing with the creeds and voting at congregational meetings. In the course of its discussion on the issue, synod got bogged down on the meaning and implications of profession of faith. For some it was sufficient that a child of four or five years of age would say, “I love Jesus.” This would permit them to share in the celebration of the covenant meal. Others insisted that there be a second profession later in which the young person would publicly accept the creeds of the church. The debate was very emotional at times but there was very little progress. After nearly five hours of discussion, synod sent the matter back to the study committee to work out the details and make recommendations to Synod 1994. It became painfully obvious that the study committee had not completed its assignment. Hopefully further reflection and study will give more light. Synod 1991 asked for clarification, not a set of regulations when it appointed the current study committee. If synod had accepted the committee’s report, it would have adopted a particular way of implementing the Synod 1988 decision. We believe that the churches will be better served by allowing local consistories to address and answer the regulative questions that have been raised and supervise the practice of admitting persons to the Lord’s Supper upon a public profession of faith according to the Reformed creeds. The privileges and responsibilities of professing members can best be determined by the local consistory in ways which are appropriate to their age, ability and spiritual giftedness.
Synod 1993 had a light agenda but was heavy on debate. 184 delegates came from every section on the North American continent to study overtures and make recommendations. And what is the conclusion of the matter? From my perspective, we are still a broken, troubled and divided church family. May the King of the Church continue to guide us by His Word and Spirit and grant us the peace which is found only in the Prince of Peace whose benediction we all seek.
Rev. Engbers, a delegate to Synod 1993, is pastor of the Chandler CRC, Chandler, MN.