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Delegation votes on remaining restructuring team recommendations

On Saturday morning, the General Synod continued its deliberation and voting on the restructuring team’s recommendations for a denominational structure optimized for spiritual and organizational health. The first half of the recommendations were acted upon on Friday evening; read the summary of decisions from Friday. Various team members presented the remaining recommendations.

An equitable and just ordination and reception process

With strong support following two amendments, the General Synod approved the restructuring team’s recommendation to ensure that the ordination and reception process into ministry in the RCA is equitable and just across languages, cultures, and ministry experiences.

The two amendments to the original recommendation added a guideline that ensures the theology of a candidate is in alignment with the theology of the RCA, as well as consultation with additional commissions as part of the review.

The final recommendation that was approved directs the Pastoral Formation Oversight Board (PFOB) to consult with the Commission on Church Order, the Commission on Theology, the Commission for Women, and the Commission on Race and Ethnicity to develop guidelines for middle assemblies in this regard. The guidelines from the restructuring team seek to clarify and equalize the process for ordaining and receiving ordained ministers from other denominations, including those from outside of North America, where the master of divinity degree might not be offered.

“We are not recommending that we downsize or downplay theological education. We don’t want to minimize what we do. Theological education to me is critical, but we need to make it equitable for others,” said Rev. Dr. Micah McCreary, a member of the restructuring team, a member of PFOB, a General Synod professor, and president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. “One of the things we’re working on in the Pastoral Formation Oversight Board is actually being able to look at what other people bring and what they do, as well.”

In recent years, the RCA has experienced an influx of ministers and candidates for ministry who received their theological training outside the U.S. and Canada. Classes need tools to assess the equivalency of such training.

“As someone who has come from Classis de las Naciones, I can attest to the quality of candidates who have come forward,” said delegate Rev. Dylan Kallioinen. “In sitting in many of the examining situations down there, they have exercised and shown themselves to be men and women workers approved.”

The recommendation was approved 177-6.

Adjustments to commissions’ sizes and membership requirements

The delegation discussed the size, volunteer capacity, and meeting format of the RCA’s commissions. Commissions are standing committees of the General Synod established to advise the General Synod body in particular areas of the life of the church. Currently, there are 11 General Synod commissions.

The Book of Church Order gives specific instructions for size and membership of each commission. In consultation with a number of groups, particularly the Commission on Nominations, the restructuring team found that it is increasingly difficult to fulfill all of the commissions’ volunteer roles with their current specifications. Presently, filling all of the roles in the 11 commissions requires 90 volunteers.

The RF 24-6 recommendation was a referral to the General Synod Council, in consultation with the Commission on Nominations and the Commission on Church Order, to reduce the number of members on commissions and simplify the requirements for commission representation in order to right-size the volunteer requirements for a smaller denomination. The recommendation received extensive debate.

A significant amendment was made by delegate Rev. Marcy Ryan, changing the recommendation to maintain the budget for at least one in-person meeting for each commission. The amendment would also lengthen the timeline for study, and give direction to adjust commission sizes rather than reduce the size of commissions. Moderators and delegates from many of the commissions spoke in a unified voice, in favor of the amendment.

Philip De Koster of the Commission on Church Order spoke in favor of the amendment, saying, “I think it’s imperative for commissions to be able to meet in person. Many of the conversations the [commission] has are difficult, and without the opportunity to form those relationships in a healthy way, those difficult conversations would not happen well.”

The amendment was approved 168-8.

After more discussion affirming the value and necessity of RCA commissions and the volunteers who make up those commissions, the amended version of RF 24-6 was approved 178-2. In 2027, GSC will present its recommendations for adjustments to the makeup of commissions.

Gifted elders receive initial approval to serve as church supervisors

General Synod voted to move forward in allowing gifted elders to serve as supervisors of churches without an installed minister. The body approved the recommendation of the restructuring team to amend the Book of Church Order to give this flexibility for classes, with a 106-37 vote.

Currently, the supervisor role is limited to ministers of Word and sacrament. With both a decline in full-time ministers and an increase in vacant churches needing supervisors, some classes are finding it difficult to appoint church supervisors.

The restructuring team stated that, in fact, commissioned pastors, who technically are gifted elders, are already serving in this capacity. Thus, the amendments reflect a growing reality in the denomination.

The Advisory Committee on Church Order and Governance advised an amendment that the classis shall determine the appropriate training and responsibilities of the gifted elder (amendment in italics). That amendment was almost unanimously approved, while a separate amendment from the floor was overturned.

This is a constitutional change; now that the amendments have been approved by General Synod 2024, the changes must receive approval by two-thirds of classes and then ratification by a subsequent General Synod.

Deacons will not serve as voting delegates to middle assemblies

In the closest vote of the synod so far, delegates voted not to add deacons as voting delegates to classes/middle assemblies.

The restructuring team had recommended including deacons in voting delegations to classes/middle assemblies, which are currently composed of ministers and elders. This question was first considered more than 100 years ago. In half an hour of debate, delegates expressed appreciation for deacons’ call to mercy and service and their practical gifts, considered the role of the classis/middle assembly, and contemplated how the role of deacons might fit at that assembly. Ultimately, the recommendation failed by two votes, 89-91.

2% rate limit for covenant shares voted down

After significant debate, General Synod voted down a recommendation to limit the percentage rate of General Synod covenant shares.

Covenant shares, previously called assessments under a different method of collection, fund a third of the RCA’s work. Last year, the first covenant shares rate was set to 2.7 percent of contributions received in churches. The restructuring team recommended limiting the maximum covenant shares rate to 2.0 percent by 2027, with a goal of no more than 1.75 percent.

Delegates voiced different perspectives, noting both the benefits and downfalls of the recommendation—including making an amendment to shorten the timeline of implementation by one year. While limiting General Synod covenant shares would have kept more resources at the local level, there was an expressed concern over the loss of staff and resources to operate General Synod, resource churches, and fund the commissions to carry out the extensive work newly assigned to them by this General Synod.

“To be fair, I came into General Synod to silently vote in favor of [this recommendation], knowing that my congregation’s budget continues to stretch and struggle,” said delegate Rev. Chris Heitkamp from Classis Delaware-Raritan. “But after listening to the debate last night, I woke up this morning with a word in my heart that changed my point of view. I believe this recommendation is in contradiction to the covenant of care that is asked to provide for our denomination and our churches, just as the same covenant of care is made between our churches and our staff.

“The RCA staff works harder and harder to provide what is needed for our congregations and yet the financial care needed to provide for their purposes continues to be reduced,” he added. “This body should open the hearts of generosity to allow the RCA to support, develop, teach, and guide our congregations to better serve our communities in their contexts of which the RCA currently exists.”

General secretary Rev. Eddy Alemán was called upon to share the implications of budget cuts to covenant share income, while director of finance and facilities Lisa Stover and chief financial officer Tony Schmid gave clarity to what covenant shares fund and the financial implications of running a similar-sized General Synod meeting in 2026 if a reduced budget was passed.

Several delegates spoke to the appreciation of the RCA staff and their work and encouraged a spirit of trust in the abilities of the General Secretary’s office to be stewards of congregations’ covenant share contributions. Some delegates also expressed confidence in the work of the covenant shares review committee, which is ensuring that covenant shares are equitable for all churches. The committee and GSC finance staff will be evaluating the method over the first three years (2023 to 2026) under the new assessment method. This committee will report significant issues and make recommendations to the GSC as it deems necessary.

With this motion being voted down (113-65), the General Synod will vote annually to approve or disapprove a recommended covenant share percentage from the RCA finance department, as has been the standard process. The proposed rate of 2.5 percent for 2025 is expected to come to the synod floor on Monday afternoon.

Experiment with consensus model for decision-making

The final recommendation put before the General Synod by the restructuring team related to how business is conducted—experimenting with a consensus model alongside Robert’s Rules of Order, which is currently used.

The restructuring team reported the goal of this experimentation is to work together in unity more effectively. Principles of Robert’s Rules hold the rights of minorities and individuals, but it is a complex and nuanced system and that can be a barrier to participation, especially for those who do not speak English.

Rationale given by the restructuring team is that consensus practices can be used within the framework of Robert’s Rules. Consensus practices create more space for nuanced conversations and creative solutions that listen to all voices. These models may be more easily understood by all.

To better understand what a consensus model might look like, restructuring team member Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen pointed delegates to, referenced in the team’s report.

Speaking in favor of the recommendation, delegate Rev. Beth Carroll shared, “We have begun using a consensus model with Robert’s Rules [in our congregation]. … Using a consensus model has been such a gift to our congregation, fostering unity, relationship, and has helped strengthen us in the midst of a really challenging time.”

The recommendation was approved 161-20.

Gratitude for the restructuring process

With the votes recorded and next steps provided, the restructuring team has completed its task. It seems fitting that this team, approved by the General Synod in 2021 in Tucson, now concludes its work in Tucson. The General Synod again recognized the hard work of the team members and thanked them with applause. Almost all team members were present, with the exception of a few who were not able to travel.

The team expressed their own thanks at the end of the team’s report, specifically naming gratitude for two team members not in attendance, facilitator Bob Logan, staff person Liz Brand, the GSC staff, the Commission on Church Order, and the delegation and members of the RCA for their engagement over the last few years.

Team members are Eddy Alemán, Dale Assink, Greg Brower, Michelle Chahine, Chad Farrand, Andrea Godwin-Stremler, Sung Kim, Micah McCreary, Sherri Meyer-Veen, Ina Montoya, Young Na, Andres Serrano, and Gildo Vieira.

As delegates continued clapping and rose to their feet, Rev. Brian Keepers, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, stepped to the mic.

“It was three years ago that the Vision 2020 Team sat up where this team is sitting right now. I believe that I was the one that got to present the recommendation for the restructuring team. To my knowledge I may be the only one from that Vision 2020 Team that’s here [at this General Synod].

“From the bottom of my heart, well done. You have not only given us an excellent report, but you have given us the gift of an excellent process. I know what it’s like in terms of the amount of time and energy you all have put into this and trying to incorporate all the feedback.

“I believe the fruit of how this has gone last night and today testifies to your faithfulness and integrity. I just want to celebrate that.”

For full coverage of General Synod 2024, visit