Vision 2020 Team Will Present Scenarios at General Synod for Feedback
Dear sisters and brothers in the RCA,
We, the Vision 2020 Team, gathered in Houston, Texas, on February 26 and 27—our final in-person gathering before General Synod 2019.
Before we say more about what we did at this gathering, we want to catch you up on the process so far.
Last June, interim general secretary Don Poest brought a proposal to the General Synod, asking for a team to be assembled that would consider the future of the denomination in light of deep divisions. Delegates approved the recommendation, and the 12 of us, plus Don and general secretary Eddy Alemán, began working as that team, in consultation with Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor and their colleague, Ryan Donovan, consultants who have a long relationship with the RCA and help congregations and denominations with strategy planning, conflict resolution, and leadership development. Our work is to identify and explore possible scenarios, strategies, and consequences for these future options for the Reformed Church in America: (1) staying together; (2) radical reconstituting and reorganization; (3) grace-filled separation.
In making his proposal, Don identified something that has rung true as we’ve done our work: The RCA is at a crossroads. Our denomination as we know it will never be the same—and we believe that gives us the opportunity to write the next hopeful chapter.
Over the past few months, in sub-committees, our team has imagined a number of possible next chapters for the RCA and diligently researched their implications. We’ve tried to imagine the impact of each scenario on people in different regions, on commissions and mission agencies, and on the overarching work of the denomination. We’ve sought to consider in what ways each scenario bears witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and in what ways it fails to.
One thing that has become clear through our research is that “doing nothing”—or even making minor adjustments to our denominational structure—will not lead to a future where God’s kingdom thrives in our midst. To continue with status quo would be to continue patterns of institutional dysfunction and would involve loss. Some congregations would leave the denomination. Others would stay and would find it increasingly difficult to do the work of the gospel in the surviving system. However, making deep change would also not be easy. Any change, even good change, also involves loss. Opening ourselves up to something new would require us to redefine some of our ideas about success, about who we are as the RCA, and about what it means to be the church. If we propose a radical new action, some congregations and classes would leave the denomination. Others would stay and would be tasked with the hard work of writing a new chapter. It is critical that we as a denomination embrace the reality that change or no change, the impact will be serious.
So we are convinced that the RCA should do something if it wants to live out the gospel—whether that something is intentionally staying together, radically reorganizing ourselves to bring better alignment between our structure and our theology, or separating in a way that extends to each other the same grace God has given us in Christ. As we’ve said, each of these scenarios will be disruptive. We have before us a complex problem involving 1,000 churches and 100,000 people. And complex problems require complex solutions. Still, our team continues to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide our denomination toward a hopeful way forward.
During our time together last week, we worked on some of these possible solutions. Our sub-committees shared with each other drafts outlining the three scenarios, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each, as well as any outstanding questions that will require additional research. Obviously, we can’t predict the way any scenario will play out, but we are doing our best to hold these scenarios to the light and consider all facets of them—their implications for everything from pastors’ retirement accounts to the Book of Church Order to relationships between people. We are not developing these scenarios as plans with step-by-step instructions that the RCA must follow; rather, they are intended to help the denomination think about the implications of going down a variety of different paths.
Between now and General Synod 2019, we will refine those scenarios so that we can present them to you, the RCA. We want you to wrestle with the implications of each scenario as we have. We want feedback from you about implications that we may not see. As we do, we want to reiterate the diversity of perspectives within our team. Jim, Trisha, and Ryan have helped us create spaces that invite high levels of authenticity, meaning that we’ve been able to speak our minds, which often reveals enormous differences between us and creates tension. While we agree that the RCA needs to do something, we disagree on what that something is. That’s why we want you to join us in moving past emotional reactivity into a place of curiosity and creativity about the impacts of each scenario and their implications. Your feedback will be invaluable to us as together we continue to seek God’s wisdom. Ultimately, the decision is not up to us or to Eddy or to denominational staff; General Synod 2020 will vote on whatever recommendation or recommendations we present.
It’s been a surprising pleasure for us to be part of a team that, despite its great differences, has learned to trust each other and work together. These relationships have become significant. We don’t say that to make others jealous of our awesome team dynamics; we say it because we yearn for you, the RCA, to experience it, too. If we’re a diverse group, the RCA as a whole is far more diverse, and one of our goals is to create spaces at General Synod 2019 that invite the same respectful authenticity that we’ve experienced together.
At this most recent gathering, we did some group exercises that developed our own capacities to speak forthrightly while remaining connected to each other. The exercises increased our ability to notice our discomfort during hard conversations so that we’re not hijacked by anxiety. We explored integrity and learned how to clean up the mess when we fail to keep our word. Our conversations often grew intense, giving us opportunities to practice listening and cleaning up the messes we made.
Together we reflected on the current culture of General Synod and how our team can help delegates prepare to show up to synod ready to have fruitful, authentic conversations within an atmosphere of love and trust this June and beyond. Recognizing that delegates don’t have the luxury of spending time getting to know each other well, we grappled with how to translate our group’s learnings to the RCA as a whole.
In order to facilitate this kind of healthy conversation, the schedule for General Synod 2019 is being redesigned, with significant time given for delegates to develop their deep conversation skills and to begin to process the scenarios we present. One of our values is broad participation in this process; we want to hear your hearts on this! In January, we created a survey that was distributed throughout the RCA, and nearly 4,000 people responded. If you missed that opportunity, we are creating another survey that will be shared sometime after General Synod to solicit feedback on the scenarios. Between General Synod 2019 and Synod 2020, we intend to provide some mechanisms for conversation within congregations and classes and for feedback to us.
Your feedback, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may lead our team to recommend things we can’t foresee yet. This process really is that open-ended. We’re not even halfway through the process, and there’s still so much for us to discern.
Would you listen with us? Would you help us listen by praying for us? We feel the prayers you’ve already offered on behalf of our team. We don’t take our work lightly, and we couldn’t do it without the grace and strength of God. Would you continue to pray for the task we’ve been given and for the denomination as a whole?
Here are some specific ways you can pray:
- Give thanks to God for already answering prayers: God has given us strength for this work, has helped us move beyond polarization to authentic dialogue, has opened our eyes to the impacts of these scenarios, and has met us in our work and in each other.
- Pray for stamina for our team. We are throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into this work, but we have many other commitments. Pray that God would sustain us and give us the energy to go about our work with joy, dedication, and humility.
- Thank God for the dedication of Jim, Trisha, and Ryan, whom God has gifted with immense wisdom, insight, and grace. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
- Pray for the sub-committees as they refine the scenarios. We still have a lot of questions to answer, concerns to address, and possibilities to flesh out. Ask God to give us the mind of Christ as we work.
- Envisioning the future takes creativity! Ask for Spirit-inspired imaginations in our team. What possibilities could be true that we haven’t yet considered?
- Even as we analyze the results of the survey we sent out, we are mindful of the limits of quantitative data. Pray that the Holy Spirit sharpens our vision to see the data truly and to hear your hearts—and God’s heart—through it.
- Ask God to give our team wisdom as we work with Jim, Trisha, and Ryan to develop spaces at General Synod for delegates to build trust, practice listening, and engage the three scenarios.
- While we hope that these scenarios are just a starting point, we expect that further conversation won’t be possible if people are too anxious or already have their minds made up. Pray for yourself and your church, for other congregations and classes across the RCA, and for the delegates of this coming General Synod—that God would cultivate the soil of all our hearts to receive the scenarios with grace and a willingness to engage them seriously.
- Beyond synod itself, pray that God would root all of us in the RCA deeply in Jesus Christ. Our team is hyper-aware of the magnitude of the changes that are ahead (whether we move toward any of these scenarios or not) and the loss and grief that will accompany those changes. Pray that our denomination would be secure in its identity in Jesus in order to step into the future with courage.
- Spend time listening to God and seeking God’s will for our future, and pray for our team’s ability to hear what God is speaking.
The Vision 2020 Team
Eddy Alemán, ex officio
Don Poest, ex officio