On Saturday afternoon, the General Synod approved a recommendation that changes the status of Western Theological Seminary (WTS) from an Reformed Church in America (RCA) seminary to an “officially related” institution of the denomination. A similar change to Western’s bylaws—to be an affiliated institution—was brought before the General Synod in October 2021, but the recommendation was referred to the General Synod Council (GSC) in consultation with the Commission on Church Order. After incorporating changes from the commission, the GSC voted in its March 2022 meeting to bring the revised bylaws to the General Synod this year.
The change of status was approved by a majority vote after lengthy consideration. The afternoon included a five-minute pause for people to process and pray with others at their table.
Delegates asked many questions, including about the motivation of the seminary in requesting this change. They expressed concern over a decreased relationship between the denomination and the seminary, and asked for additional details about how the change would benefit the seminary. WTS board president Steve Spoelhof and WTS president Felix Theonugraha answered these concerns, pointing to a need for greater sustainability for the seminary, wanting to attract a wider pool of incoming students, and hoping to raise support from a broader group of donors. In their report to the General Synod, Western’s board of trustees cited changing demographic trends in theological education as the key motivation behind the status change.
“Let me be clear: we are not leaving the RCA. I believe that this decision will actually strengthen the RCA,” said Theonugraha. “Two years ago, 30 percent of our incoming class belonged to an RCA church; by the time of their graduation, 70 percent of them [were pursuing ordination] in the RCA. I believe that the more students we have, the more candidates for ordained ministers of Word and sacrament we will actually provide for the Reformed Church in America.
“I am full of hope, and I am hope-filled with anticipation to see how Western Theological Seminary can play an unmistakable and critical role in the revitalization of the Reformed Church in America as we continue to serve the RCA and God’s church around the world,” he added.
According to the Book of Church Order, status as an “officially related” institution means that Western’s organizing documents must be approved by the General Synod, and its governing board must include three General Synod–appointed trustees at all times. In addition, “any amendments to the bylaws regarding the three General Synod–appointed trustees as well as the reversion of assets clause would require approval by the General Synod,” says the Commission on Church Order (CCO). The reversion of assets clause is included “so that if the seminary ever ceases operation, the assets will revert to the RCA.”
“I am incredibly grateful to the General Synod delegates for their support of our request,” said Theonugraha. “Today’s affirmation of Western Theological Seminary’s new status as an officially related institution of the RCA will allow us to respond with agility and creativity to meet the changing demands of theological education. This will ensure that Western Theological Seminary will be increasingly sustainable for the future.”
As RCA seminaries, Western and New Brunswick Theological Seminaries have both been incorporated with the General Synod as the sole member of their corporations, and the boards of trustees serve as agents of the General Synod, says the CCO. Now, Western will be solely governed by the board, with the aforementioned limitations as suggested by the CCO. New Brunswick’s bylaws—and status as an RCA seminary—will remain unchanged.
The new relationship between Western and the RCA is the same as that between the denomination and its affiliated colleges: Central, Hope, and Northwestern.
A related recommendation designating Western Theological Seminary as a theological agent of the General Synod was also approved. Theological agents grant Certificates of Fitness for Ministry to candidates for ordination and can nominate faculty to become General Synod professors of theology, the fourth office in the RCA alongside elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and sacrament.
Questions surrounding the implications of Western’s status change, including the issuing of Certificates of Fitness for Ministry and the ability of Western professors to be General Synod professors, were ultimately what caused the bylaws changes to be reviewed and revised after General Synod 2021. On Monday, delegates will consider proposed changes to the Certificate of Fitness for Ministry process.
However, with Western being approved as an agent of the General Synod, Western students who are currently enrolled as candidates for ministry shouldn’t experience disruption, and Western’s General Synod professors can remain as such with no immediate impact.
The designation of Western as an agent of the General Synod will be evaluated in five years, with recommendation for renewal of the designation. Specifics of that evaluation are yet to be determined.
No further action is needed to approve the bylaws, which will become effective at a date to be specified by Western. The restated bylaws can be found in full here, in the Report of Referrals from General Synod 2021 in the 2022 General Synod Workbook.