RCA Vision 2020 Report – Summary by Rev. Jeff Knol
Introduction and Context:
In the face of decades of division and struggle, related to issues of human sexuality, in 2018 a denominational leader proposed the vision 2020 team, which would thoroughly examine and discern the following scenarios for the denomination:
1. Staying together
2. Radical Reconstituting and reorganizing
3. Grace-filled separation
The Team and its Work:
The team composed twelve members who were selected in part to represent the diversity of the RCA, including all regional synods and racial/ethnic councils. Two other RCA leaders served as ex officio members, but did not have a vote. They began their work by building relationships with one another and practicing the skill of dialogue with coaching and guidance. Trust grew and authentic and vulnerable dialogue was the commitment of the group for their work.
The team worked to understand the situation of the denomination.
Delegates to the 2019 General Synod (the annual meeting of church leaders held each June) engaged in dialogue and feedback for the group. It was clear that there was a desire for unity, but the reality that it was unlikely that the RCA would find unity on the topic of human sexuality. “The RCA is both deeply convicted and deeply divided on this topic, and none of the many efforts to date have produced a clear path forward without loss.” An online survey was sent out for as many people in the denomination to take as possible and the team considered the results of that survey. They also conducted interviews with church leaders, experts, and denominational teams to understand the possible impacts of their recommendations.
In the fall of 2019 the team met. They reflected that the denomination has existed for many years as, what they would call, “defined and connected.” By this, they mean that we are unified in our core theological convictions, shared history, and practices (RCA standards and polity) and yet diverse (as allowed by our polity) in some of our interpretations and practices where we lack full agreement (such as sexuality, women in leadership, gun control, immigration, global warming, etc.). Some people are comfortable to continue in a denomination that is diversely defined on such topics, while others see this as an untenable dilution of their theological position.
This understanding moved the team to view the three scenarios—staying together, radically restructuring, and moving apart—less as mutually exclusive and more as pieces that would all be required in the final recommendation.
Some churches will separate for the denomination, and we want to provide a way for them to do that well. Some will stay, and we want what remains to be a healthy organization for them. Lastly, the landscape on which we all live out our faith is rapidly shifting, and new strategies may be needed for the RCA to not only survive but actually thrive in this rapidly changing context.
Recommendations and rationale
“We were originally asked to imagine what it would mean for the denomination to embark on one of three possible paths: staying together, radically reorganizing the denomination, or grace-filled separation. Throughout our time together, we’ve come to believe that the most fruitful future for the RCA would involve all three of these things. Already we’re aware that some churches plan to leave the denomination regardless of what decisions are made, and these congregations deserve a thoughtful and generous separation. Others are committed to staying and helping to shape what remains into an organization equipped to live in theological tension and thrive in a changing context. We want to give them our best thinking on what that may look like. Some are waiting to see what comes of this report before choosing their paths. We have held all three of these groups in mind in crafting what follows.
Based on our time together, our study of relevant data, and the many generous ways RCA members have responded to our work to date, we plan to present the following recommendations to the next meeting of General Synod, which we anticipate will be in June 2021. While we hope and recommend that all three are adopted, we have structured them in such a way that each can exist independent of the others.”
Recommendation 1 – Restructure the Denomination:
Functional issues are calling us to restructure the denomination. We are a small denomination and we are getting smaller. Also, a majority of denominations in North America have changed their model of existence. Many have moved away from a model where the denomination has a corporate-like central hub that delivers a product out to the churches, to a model where the central organization empowers local groups (churches/classes) to make the best decisions for their local contexts. Due to our small size as a denomination, some of our current structures (regional synods) need to be reconsidered.
Tensions around belief and practice have always existed in our denomination. We have regional differences between the Eastern, Midwestern/Canadian and Western sectors of our denomination. Because of our differences we differ on our sense of mission and our interpretation of God’s word. Due to these differences and our small size, it would be best to re-organize our classis around an affinity model so that we can focus on our work rather than our disagreements.
What should be done:
A team should be created to propose a restructuring of the denomination with these goals:
1. Classes are reorganized as affinity-based rather than geographically-based. Churches choose their classis. Churches aligned themselves around shared values, understandings, and practices.
2. Classes are responsible for decisions related to ordination and marriage.
3. Discipline of individual consistories occurs at classis level.
4. The viability, responsibility, and effectiveness of regional synods and general synod are examined – in light of the size, scope, and structure of the denomination that remains. Likely regional synods go away and classes and General Synod take up what the Regional synods had been doing.
Formal Recommendation 1
“To direct the General Synod Council to appoint a team of at least 10 but no more than 15 people tasked with the specific work of developing a restructuring plan for the denomination with a view to optimizing the RCA’s sustained spiritual and organizational health, in consultation with the Commission on Church Order and any other bodies it finds necessary. This team should be composed of several executive RCA staff members, and of representatives from around the RCA drawn from regional or local assemblies that have expressed an intention to remain in the Reformed Church in America, and should be representative of the racial, ethnic, gender, age, socio-economic, geographic, and other forms of diversity present in the RCA. This team should use the four principles stated above as it does its work and should bring any recommendations for restructuring that require General Synod approval, including any proposed changes to the Book of Church Order, to General Synod 2023.”
Recommendation 2 – A New Mission Agency
It seems that a lot of what the group heard from people in the denomination is the desire to protect, continue, and preserve the global mission work of the RCA. This work is threatened by ongoing decline in the denomination, the threat that many churches or whole classes may leave the denomination, and by the potential restructuring of the denomination.
The proposal is to make a separate and new mission organization, outside of the RCA, which can continue the work currently being done within the RCA. Being outside of the denomination it could be supported by any current RCA church/classes even if there are significant separations in the future of the denomination.
Potential staff and seed funding for this new agency could come from within the resources already within the RCA.
Formal Recommendation 2
“To form a new nonprofit mission agency independent of the RCA that will house what currently makes up the RCA’s work in global missions; and further,
To direct the GSC to form an implementation team that will be tasked with incorporating the new agency as a 501(c)(3), drafting bylaws, and recruiting a board of directors, who would then be responsible for appointing an executive director for the new agency in the manner specified in the bylaws. The implementation team should work closely with the RCA Global Mission team to ensure diligent care for current RCA missionaries during the transition to the new agency. And further,
To instruct the general secretary to transfer a portion of the current RCA missions budget to the new agency as seed money (to be determined by the general secretary in consultation with GSC); and further,
To urge RCA churches and individuals that currently support RCA missionaries and mission projects through Partnership-in-Mission (PIM) shares to continue that support through the new agency.”
Two members of the team opposed Recommendation 2. Their rational is that mission should take place within the “covenant” relationship of the church. The mission of God is worked out through the church – not through a para-church organization. We should stay in our covenant community and have our hard conversations here within the covenant community.
Recommendation 3 – Mutually Generous Separation:
Some separation is inevitable and there should be a generous exit path for those churches which decide to leave. Churches who are leaving should also be generous. Generosity should be prescribed, not just permitted.
1. Individual churches and ministers are permitted to leave as already provided for in the Book of Church order, but not whole classes or regional synods.
2. Regarding a church’s financial relationship with and commitments to the RCA:
A. Churches keep their property, other assets, and liabilities
B. Classes have to allow exiting churches to leave with their assets and liabilities and Regional synods would not impede churches moving into a different regional synod.
C. You have to give two years notice before severing supportive relationships to RCA mission personnel or partnerships.
D. If you leave you still have to pay all assessments for a two year period of time
E. “that where applicable, churches, classes, and regional synods would maintain their savings certificate investments with the Church Growth Fund (CGF) according to the existing terms, and when investments are maturing or if they become able to redeem the funds, would consider renewing and continuing their investments for a period of at least two years.”
F. “that where applicable, churches would be required to continue paying off loans to classes, regional synods, and the Church Growth Fund (CGF), as agreed upon by those organizations and in accordance with the rules and bylaws of those organizations. Further, that CGF bylaws be changed to allow churches leaving the RCA to continue their borrowing relationship with the CGF.”
G. “that consistories fulfill any and all outstanding obligations they have as adopting employers to properly fund all accounts maintained for their employees in retirement plans (i.e., the Board of Benefits Services or the Regional Synod of Canada plan), as promised in the provisions of the call form (BCO, Formulary No. 5 [2019 edition, pp. 134–135]) and outlined in Chapter 1, Part I, Article 2, Section 7 (2019 edition, p. 15) of the BCO.”
3. Regarding RCA employees – RCA leadership should be compassionate to consider what is best in terms of staff structuring, salaries, benefits, and severance packages if downsizing is required.
Timing issues have been made difficult due to the coronavirus and the postponing of GS 2020. Now it will be at least 2022 before these provisions become part of the Book of Church order. There should be a provision for “retroactive generosity.” Essentially, if a church is going to leave, they should make that known as soon as possible so that the timing on a two-year provision in the proposal can begin now, rather than later, when the provision is formally adopted.
We are at a cross roads. The team explored the different paths and came back to say, “take all of them.” We should stay together, radically restructure, and have grace-filled separation. There will be loss and opportunity. Some will stay within a newly organized denomination. Some will leave with provision for their journey. And we can create a new mission agency to preserve some of our best work.