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Synod Votes to Simplify, Clarify Cross-Borders Relationship of the Christian Reformed Church

Task force proposal promises to help US and Canadian congregations work together more easily.
Synod Votes to Simplify, Clarify Cross-Borders Relationship of the Christian Reformed Church
Image: Screengrab / CRC Synod 2022
A delegate addresses proposed changes to structure of the relationship between Christian Reformed Churches in the US and Canada.

What’s the relationship between the Christian Reformed Church in North America in Canada and the Christian Reformed Church in North America in the United States?

It’s complicated.

The Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) is single denomination. But legally it exists as two separate entities—one incorporated in Michigan, the other north of the border. Bound together by faith and history, they carry out their work through joint ministry agreements.

How the two operate in unison can be a bit confusing even for those within the churches.

“There is a lot of fog in the system, and it is hard to figure out what is expected and how we can move forward for the benefit of the church,” said Albert Postma, newly appointed transitional Canadian executive director.

The Structure and Leadership Task Force (SALT) Report—presented for approval at the CRCNA Synod 2022 and formally passed on Wednesday, June 15—will hopefully add some clarity to the relationship and help the Canadian churches comply with recent changes in nonprofit tax law. Its recommendations include:

  • Clarify ecclesiastical, ecumenical, and synodical responsibilities between countries.
  • Clarify governance responsibilities and interrelationships between boards of directors and advisers in Canada and the United States.
  • Clarify the administrative responsibilities between countries.
  • Clarify ministry responsibilities between countries.
  • Affirm that joint ministry agreements will be approved by relevant governing authorities.
  • Affirm the process of developing and overseeing joint ministry agreements.

The task force is also recommending adjustments to the leadership structure, including the establishment of an office of general secretary.

Postma will be key to carrying the denomination through the coming transitions. Chris deWinter, who chaired the search team that recommended Postma for the position, believes Postma’s experience as a classis renewal leader and pastoring a church in Ontario have made him a good bridge builder. He describes Postma as a synthesizer and a collaborator.

“Those are two skill sets that we need right now, especially in the Canadian office and the work going on,” deWinter said. “He is able to pull all kinds of things together and collaborate with a team.”

Postma said he hopes the changes in the next few years are more than bureaucratic. He really wants to help the denomination figure out what it means to be a binational community of churches and clarify areas of independence and interdependence.

He believes there are benefits to being binational. Part of his job is to help local pastors see what they are.

“The big picture, overall hope, and what I would want to work towards is that every church and church leader and pastor is able to say that they are better off because they are part of this denomination,” Postma said. “I really think the Christian Reformed Church is a good denomination. It’s worth investing in. It’s worth being part of.”

The discussions that Postma are stepping into are certainly not new. It’s something the CRCNA has grappled with for decades.

The Christian Reformed Church was first established in the US in 1857, and while there were a few churches that were seen as missionary outposts in Canada over the years, it wasn’t until a large wave of immigration from the Netherlands to Canada after the Second World War that significant growth happened in the country. US churches helped with the establishment of those churches.

Today there are about 250 CRC churches in Canada and approximately 850 in the US. American citizens frequently pastor Canadian churches and many Canadian citizens pastor in US churches. Legal changes in Canadian tax law, requiring Canadian citizens have control over charitable funds donated by Canadians, prompted review of the relationship across the border, which is also frequently agitated by cultural differences.

The bureaucratic structures have sometimes led to uneasy communication and cooperation.

“It’s easy to only feel a burden and forget some of the great things God is doing right now through us and in us,” Postma said. “I really hope that we can not forget those things.”

Churches are sharing the gospel, discipling Christians, developing leaders, and welcoming refugees. The US and Canadian churches work together through joint ministry agreements that allow them to act as one while they stay within the legal parameters in their respective countries.

These agreements detail everything from the ministry purpose and goals to the resources, staff, and budget. This can include congregational ministries such as Faith Formation, Disability Concerns, Pastor Church Resources, and Safe Church, as well as missions.

In the past, joint ministry agreements were a little more “soft,” said Terry Veldboom, who worked for the CRC in Canada for 35 years in various administrative and finance roles and recently wrapped up a term as the interim executive director.

He said it’s always been a challenge to make sure their agreements met the legal requirements and also facilitated coordinated ministry, but he believes the approved changes will help in both areas.

“Over the last year, we established a new set of joint ministry agreements for all of our cross-border joint activities. They’re much more detailed and solid,” he said.

Now that they’ve got a good handle on the adjusted Canadian legal and governance framework, Veldboom believes there are other questions that need to be addressed on the sociopolitical side. Cultural differences, for example, have often been an issue. CRC churches in Canada tend to be more social-justice minded than those in the US, he said.

As an example, he notes that in Canada, indigenous issues are front and center, but they barely register as a concern in the US.

Can those differences be overcome?

“That’s the question of the hour,” Veldboom said.

He said there are lots of arguments for staying united and many believe that the areas they have in common are greater than those that separate them.

In that sense, Veldboom sees Postma’s appointment as a positive. He believes Postma’s experience with local churches has given him a sense of what things are like on the ground. At 38 years old, Postma is also at an age where he can be seen as someone who can relate to both younger and older generations.

Both Veldboom and Postma hope that by properly dealing with these differences, the CRCNA can come away stronger and richer by intentionally looking at differences in context or culture and what is essential for denominational unity.

“It’s a pain, but sometimes things that add challenge also give us an opportunity to live into those challenges and grow through them,” Postma said.

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