Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Future of RCA Communications...

It's been a privilege for me to participate in the 2009 General Synod as a delegate and as one invited to participate here on the RCA's General Synod blog. All my interactions with staff have been positive and affirming. This year's Synod was well-run and there was a good spirit in evidence from beginning to end.


As I've previously written here, the one aspect of Synod 2009 which did not seem to me to have worked well was our deliberations on the communications issue which culminated Tuesday with Synod approval of two bundled recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication. The extensive debate surrounding the six communications-related recommendations was commendably respectful and thoughtful. The parliamentary intricacies were occasionally daunting (including at least one challenge to a ruling of the chair, a reversal of the vote on the first recommendation which had initially appeared to pass by one vote, bundling five recommendations and subsequently unbundling them into two groups, etc.) but very well-handled by General Synod President Carol Bechtel.

To many of us, the main problem seemed to be the sketchiness of the three options presented to the delegates by GSC. Each seemed to envision the possibility of some future role for the Church Herald in an overall communications strategy. In retrospect, I firmly believe that assigning three such options to the advisory committees was a regrettable miscalculation. Especially problematic was the shortage of objective data which could have better informed the deliberations of the delegates. A primary reason why the advisory groups produced more than forty different recommendations was the fact they were based on a variety of assumptions which sometimes seemed contradictory. More substantial resourcing of the deliberations could have improved their quality. That's now water under the bridge. Hopefully a few lessons might be learned from this experience which may be beneficial to future General Synods.


I am struck by one apparent irony about RCA communications. While it may be true that members "voted with their feet" so to speak with regard to the Church Herald's diminishing subscription base, there would appear to be no empirical evidence that the RCA Today publication (which is very good) would necessarily fare any better if it were sustained solely on a subscription basis. RCA Today is supported by assessments and distributed extensively but not through subscriptions. So comparing one publication to the other is (in terms of viability), akin to comparing apples to oranges. None of delegates who spoke in support of the recommendations that the Church Herald cease publication acknowledged this crucial distinction. Yes, the subscription model no longer seems to work for a printed denominational magazine. Everyone at Synod seemed to agree that electronic communications is the wave of the future. And that is precisely where there seems to be a glaring inconsistency between Tuesday's Synod actions and the behavior of online consumers of information about the 2009 RCA General Synod!

At least two "official" blogs covered this year's General Synod--one on this official RCA General Synod web site as well as a separate one operated by the Church Herald. Commendably, administrators of the two blogs consulted with each other in advance and cross-promoted both blogs. A marvelous example of cooperation! It is striking to me that, for whatever reason, that the activity level at the Church Herald blog appeared to be higher than it was here on the RCA's official General Synod blog. That seems to empirically contradict the assumption that RCA members have decisively "voted with their feet (i.e. magazine subscriptions)" to effectively "kill" the Church Herald. Online, at least, it would appear that considerable interest remains in the independent perspective which the Church Herald provides. And everyone at General Synod seemed convinced that the future of RCA communications is becoming increasingly electronic. So, might that suggest that there could be a future role for an independent voice such as the Church Herald?

I am truly not interested in tilting at windmills, so to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:2 applies to organizations, too. But I wonder if the high level of interest in the Church Herald's General Synod blog might point to a viable future role in some electronic form?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Final Sessions

This morning's General Synod session was intense and draining as the delegates sought to forge a comprehensive communications strategy for the RCA. The advisory committee's six recommendations were extensively debated in three parts. The first narrowly rejected (after an initial one-vote plurality), a recommended two-year independent study of denominational communications. The second part was a bundled group of three recommendations concerning the future direction for the RCA Today magazine. An amendment was approved which instructed the GSC to consult with the Church Herald Editorial Council in the near to mid-term future. A third part was a bundle of two recommendations to effectively terminate the Church Herald's ministry. In apparent contradiction of the earlier amended bundle, the General Synod approved the third bundle which means that the Church Herald will almost certainly cease publication by the end of 2009.

In this delegate's opinion, the process which produced this result was (in retrospect) awkward and difficult. The final result is painful and might have been avoidable. But, nevertheless, the Lord is sovereign and His will be done.

Thanks to all who've prayed during this General Synod!

RCA General Synod: A Day in the Life of Synod

Final unofficial staff video of RCA General Synod, this time, they quiz delegates and volunteers!

Theological History

I sat in Synod today thinking about all the conversations that have taken place throughout history on important theological matters. I thought about the great councils of our early fathers and the debates that would take place on the third person in the trinity, God's grace or human will, and many more conversations that have so profoundly shaped what we call the Reformed tradition.

Today was one of those historic days.

All of us physically present and all of those praying at home, we were part of one of those historic theological decisions. I don't think we truly understand just how momentous this is, and maybe, neither should we. We are simply listening to the spirit of God and what God is calling us to affirm (and for some deny). As a body we spoke, we want to adopt the Belhar Confession as one of our standards.

We in the Reformed Church in America made a statement today that we stand for reconciliation, justice, and unity. The work continues as now 2/3 of the classes have to vote to affirm the Belhar confession. I trust the spirit of the Lord will continue present in those classis meeting just as the Spirit was present with us today. The poise, honesty, and theological convictions that people spoke from were remarkably encouraging to me. No, I don't agree with every statement that was said, but I think that is what makes the Belhar so convicting for me now.

What does it look like for me to live in reconciliation, unity, and justice with my neighbor that I disagree?

The Belhar Confession...voted in unanimous support from the what we want to confess to at our ordination vows.

Spirit guide us to be the disciples you are calling us to be.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Communications Recommendations

The Report of the Advisory Committees on the RCA Dialogue on Communication and the Church Herald presented tonight to delegates proposes an end to the ministry of the Church Herald. Among the six recommendations:

"R-68 To instruct the General Synod Council, in its capacity as the executive committee of the General Synod, in cooperation with the Church Herald Editorial Council, to facilitate an orderly cessation of publication of the Church Herald; and further, to ensure that the orderly cessation include appropriate severance for Church Herald personnel."

"R-69 To offer thanks to God for the ministry of the Church Herald."

Compared with the three "merger" options initially presented to the delegates, these recommendations appear to be much less amenable to the Church Herald's future than any of the three proposed options.

In the advisory group I participated in, there seemed to be little support for adding any assessment for communications. Accordingly, it seems difficult to imagine a workable alternative.

General Synod WILL Meet in 2010 After All!

By a vote of 145-72 the delegates reversed their Friday decision to effectively cancel General Synod in 2010. So General Synod plans to meet in Orange City, Iowa in 2010 after all.

The initial vote on Friday was 120-100 in favor of an amended GSC motion to not hold General Synod in 2010. Upon further reflection, the thinking of this year's delegates obviously changed.

What WE Believe.

No need to use some lame metaphor for this occasion.

The Reformed Church in America has just adopted the Belhar Confession as a fourth standard of unity for our church. I have to admit that I was more moved by the affirming response than I had imagined. At first I thought it was because I had invest so much time and energy over the past few days in the conversation and proposal (realizing it pales in comparison to those who have been working for decades on this). However, I think it was more that I feel that the RCA affirmed that they believe what I believe.

To give you a small window in to the process of offering advice, we had difficulty in crafting advice that clearly reflected the the advice of the whole synod. We had to wrestle with words that often seem so insignificant in other writings; words like "some" or "others" or "many." We had to decide if it really was accurate to say that "so many people said..." Often times we couldn't be so emphatic with certainty and would simply have to say "some." However, in one regard we felt confident that we could write "so many." And that is "so many people told us that they were ready to live out their faith."

I think this is what resonated with me the most and what makes this moment such a special one. It seems that the voice of the people revealed the prompting, the urging, the pulling, of the Spirit of God. There was a hunger in "so many" people to enter into ministries of reconciliation and justice and unity. Some of them just needed the permission as one pastor said when he considered preaching on issues of justice and privilege. Others needed the courage and, still others, needed the assurance that all of this talk of unity and justice and reconciliation was faithful to God's Word and to the calling on God's church. So many people now know that the RCA now believes what they believe.

For those who are still uncertain about the need for a new confession I'll offer once more my thoughts on that. Each of our previous three confessions arose out of conflict that was physically violent at times. It's difficult for us to imagine that such conflict over theological disputes around the Lord's Supper or the depravity of man should result in violence, but it did. The church responded with confessions to take a stand on the issues at hand and in hopes that the church could find unity. Since that time, the conflicts and violence have not ceased. However, the reasons for violence have changed. Since that time violence has erupted around issues of gender, of race, of class, of tribe. Out of the violence, cries arose, "God help us." Too often the church stared, perhaps with tears, but did nothing in response; their silence implying that God does not care about such "political" or "social" struggles and forgetting that God's children were dying.

Finally, finally, finally, finally, the church has answered those cries, belatedly for the past, but just in time for the future. We acknowledge their pain. We acknowledge worth. We acknowledge with them that God does care about their suffering. We have now said that we believe what they believe. In adopting the Belhar Confession as a standard of our faith we have taken a stand to say that God is a God of justice as much as God is three-in-one, that Jesus is much a reconciler of races as he is God incarnate, that the Spirit moves for unity as much as for morality. Having adopted the Belhar as a Standard of Unity, no one ever again can say otherwise. And to those who try the RCA now says, "We DO NOT believe what you believe."

I am proud of the Reformed Church in America and I say "Thank you."