Why It is Time to Disband the General Synod Council

In the previous post, I discussed the General Synod Council (GSC) and its function in the life of the Reformed Church, including what it is and what it is not, what it does and what it does not do.

In this post, I am going to look at some of the troubling aspects of the General Synod Council, and argue why this council ought to be disbanded. While the GSC seeking to accumulate more power for itself is nothing new, there are two issues right now, which show that the GSC is unable or unwilling to operate within the constitution of the church.

Coordinator of Interreligious Relations

The 2018 General Synod adopted the following

To direct the general secretary to authorize and fund a halftime position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious
relations, to facilitate the RCA’s interreligious relations
work, including equipping congregations, leaders, and
students for missional interreligious engagement; and further,

To conduct the RCA’s interreligious work through a joint committee
with the CRCNA, consistent with the Reformed Collaborative.
The committee will be comprised of the RCA coordinator for
interreligious relations, the RCA ecumenical associate, CRCNA
staff, and practitioners and experts in interreligious relations
from both the RCA and CRCNA. The joint committee will report
its work to the General Synod each year through the Commission
on Christian Unity.

Both the position of coordinator for interreligious relations
and the joint committee shall be funded for a period of five
years, at which time the effectiveness of structuring the RCA’s
interreligious work in this manner will be evaluated and the
Commission on Christian Unity will bring recommendations to
the General Synod regarding whether to continue this structure
for interreligious work.

MGS 2018, p. 97.

As typically happens, the Synod makes decisions and then addresses the financial ramifications at the end of the meeting. When this was discussed, for some reason which neither I nor anyone else that I spoke to seems to understand, the GSC decided to insist that the General Synod front-load the funding for the position, so that the entire five years would have to be paid the first year. While some have argued that this is because one General Synod cannot bind a subsequent General Synod, this is not how we deal with staff. If this was the case, then every staff position that fits within the strategic goal must be funded for the entire fifteen years in the first year, and operational staff people must be funded for an entire lifetime in a single year.

Regardless, the unexplained insistence on funding the entire five years in a single year resulted in a significant increase in per-member assessments. What followed was a rather contentious discussion where ministers and elders, knowing how their church budgets work, were trying to get a handle on the denominational budget. But because the GSC never presents a denominational budget to the assembly that oversees it, the lack of transparency means that the church is never able to get a hold on the budget.

This dynamic created an “us” and “them” mentality. “Us” being the church and “them” or “you” being the denomination–something that tends to happen when there is a lack of transparency. There was tension on the floor because assessments are an increasing burden on local churches and classes (and at some point the Reformed Church will have to deal with this, but this was apparently not that point). In response, the General Synod voted,

To approve from the unspent reserves from the year 2017 to fund a half-time position, designated as the coordinator for interreligious relations, and a joint interreligious committee with the CRCNA.

MGS 2018, p. 66.

To be clear, my personal opinion is that this was a poor and misguided decision. It is true that the General Synod didn’t have good information about the reserves, restricted and unrestricted funds, the amount of funds needed on hand, and the intricacies of the finances of a major corporation, and the rest. However, the reason that the General Synod didn’t have good information was because the GSC does not provide that information. Regardless, what the General Synod decided was possible, that is not disputed, and while it may have not been a prudent decision, it was the General Synod’s decision, and it is the General Synod’s decision to make.

Subsequently, however, the GSC directed the General Secretary to not hire that position, but to delay it until they could bring this decision back to the following General Synod for reconsideration. There were three reasons given for this, although only one stands: some delegates expressed unease about that decision on their post-synod survey. And it was based on this that the GSC invented the ability to decide that the General Synod made a poor decision and stopped it.

This is unlawful.

As we clearly saw in the previous post, the GSC “shall implement the decisions…of the General Synod…” (1.IV.7.1). In no way is the GSC able to not implement a decision simply because they disagree with it or think it unwise. The General Synod has made unwise decisions innumerable times before; however, the responsibility of the GSC is to implement those decisions, not to act as a check or balance on those.

Some may argue that the GSC is not not-implementing that decision, it is simply postponing it. However, the fact remains, nothing allows the GSC to vote to postpone a directive of the General Synod (and at some point, postponing is nullifying). This was not an unfunded mandate–there was instruction given regarding the funding, and even if ill-advised, and it is possible to fund that position in that manner.

The other related concern is practical precedent that may be derived from this. While I continue to argue that precedent is not a thing in the church (this is true), it is worth acknowledging, at least, that people believe that it is, and this belief colors the way that we function and operate. Will this allow for the GSC to determine which decisions it approves of and which it doesn’t? Will it allow the GSC to simply postpone (indefinitely?) carrying out the directives of the General Synod? Again, I did not think it a wise action of the General Synod but it is not permitted for the GSC to review the decisions of the General Synod, it is there job to implement them. Shall means shall.

Asking the Commission on Church Order to Reconsider

Another troubling action that the GSC has taken as of late is formally asking the Commission on Church Order to revisit something in its report.

In 2017, as a result from an overture, the Synod voted to

To instruct the Commission on Church Order to propose constitutionally
appropriate amendments to the Book of Church Order to accomplish the intent of Overtures 16 and 17 for report to the 2018 General Synod

MGS 2017, p. 139.

The intent of the overtures was to make classical secession easier by instructing that the classis relinquish its constitutional obligation of oversight over any permanent disposition of a church’s property. (The matter of classical oversight of church property will be the topic of a subsequent post.)

The instructions are important here, “propose constitutionally appropriate amendments.” The Commission on Church Order presented a substantive report of the matter and concluded that there were no constitutionally appropriate amendments (MGS 2018, pp. 264-266). This, of course, is certainly within their right to do. Commissions are required to receive work from the General Synod, but commissions are not simply the scribes of the General Synod.

The troubling matter is that the GSC approached the Commission on Church Order to “revisit” their conclusions. How does something like this even come before the GSC? This is a mystery that is yet to be addressed. However, it is troubling that the GSC would encourage or suggest that a commission change the conclusions after it has already reported to the General Synod and the General Synod as adjourned.

This is unlawful.

Just as the GSC is not a check and balance on the General Synod, it is not a check and balance on the Commissions. The GSC does not oversee or supervise the commissions, the GSC is “to support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the commissions” (BCO, 3.I.3.6f). Approaching a commission to change their mind is a significant overreach of constitutional authority.T

The Root of the Problem

In one session, the GSC made two significant violations, not only of the Constitution but also of the Bylaws of the General Synod. And it seems that the GSC is unable to maintain its constitutional obligations.

While one possibility would be to vacate the council. However, the true problems with the GSC is not because of its current composition, it is a systemic problem with the council itself.

The GSC was formed from two different bodies that did two different things. The GSEC and GPC had different foci and different goals. One was an agent of the General Synod, the other was the executive committee of an assembly. The program of the denomination is not the church, and the church is not necessarily the denominational program. The General Synod is far more than simply a program body. The GSEC and GPC were, in part, set up to counterbalance one another, because of the differences in foci and differences in essence. With the creation of the GSC one combined an agent of the General Synod and the executive committee of an assembly. One took an apple and combined it with a potato.

This also had the effect of distributing power. With the consolidation into a single council, however, this also consolidated power–something that the Reformed have historically been rightly apprehensive to do. The only way that the GSC can be checked is for the General Synod to do so, and the General Synod does not seem to be aware of this, that the GSC is simply the workhorse of the General Synod, that the General Synod has the ultimate say over the GSC.

When we consider both the combining of two things that are fundamentally different, and the fact that the consolidation of power ought to disturb all of us to our core, it becomes apparent that the problem is not with the people that are on the GSC, but the GSC itself. The GSC has largely become an unaccountable body which has accumulated an inordinate amount of power.

The best solution would be to disband the GSC and reconstitute GSEC, or something like it, and GPC, or something like it and return the proper responsibilities to the proper group.

NOTE: I do think it is worth pointing out that I do not see some kind of nefarious plot here. Nor do I assume bad intentions on the part of the members of the GSC. I have tried to be clear above that the problem is not with the people but with the structure. These are simply natural lines to which such a structure brings us. We have bumbled into this situation together, and we can get out together.

What is the General Synod Council

The General Synod Council is established by and responsible to the General Synod. It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod. It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies. It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church.

BCO, 1.IV.7.1

Brief History

The General Synod Council (GSC) finds its origins in the 1990s with the merger of the General Program Council (GPC) and the General Synod Executive Committee (GSEC).

The 1960s was a significant decade for the Reformed Church, as it was a significant decade for the United States. Growing frustration with the federation of boards led to a desire to better coordinate the work and program of the Reformed Church. During this decade, two new bodies were created. The first, in 1961, was GSEC, an executive committee of the General Synod to coordinate the work of the various boards and to “implement all the actions and decisions and policies of the General Synod.” (MGS 1961, p. 272). Not long after, in 1967, the General Synod approved the merger of the Boards of North American Missions, World Missions, and Education with the Stewardship Council to create a single program arm of the Reformed Church, the GPC.

The GPC and GSEC were designed to work alongside one another, and sometimes to act as a counterbalance to the other. It was fitting for these to be separate bodies, after all, they were very different. While GPC dealt with program, GSEC primarily dealt with church. While today we tend to conflate them with little understanding of the difference between church and program, there is a significant difference. These two bodies would also, at times, have different goals and tensions would have to be worked through.

About three decades later, in 1991, the Ad Hoc Committee on Services, Structures, and Funding in the Reformed Church in America argued that these two bodies were inefficient and that there were redundancies and proposed a single body that would incorporate these two very different functions. This would be called the General Synod Council (GSC). This change was adopted into the church order in 1993.

The Function of the GSC

The Government gives three specific responsibilities to the GSC,

(a) “It shall act as the executive committee of the General Synod and it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.”

(b) “It shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod through proper channels and agencies.”

(c) “It shall support, strengthen, and coordinate the work of the several commissions, boards, institutions, and agencies of the Reformed Church in America, thus seeking to increase the effectiveness of the mission and witness of the church. “

“shall act as the executive committee”

The General Synod is a sizable assembly, and convening the General Synod is costly and takes a significant amount of time and work to make it possible. Particularly as the General Synod had begun supervising a large denominational apparatus (the denominational program: currently ‘Transformed and Transforming’), it is not possible for the General Synod to supervise and oversee that adequately. Indeed, the main expressed reason for the creation of an executive committee in the first place is to help coordinate the various ministries of the various constituent boards of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 271).

By the creation of an executive committee, the General Synod authorized this new body to act in specific ways on behalf of the General Synod, but always accountable to it. It did not work independently of the General Synod but always in its name. The executive committee receives its mandate, responsibility, constraints, and authority from the General Synod itself. This also contains a somewhat peculiar line, “it shall administer the affairs of the Reformed Church in America between the sessions of the General Synod.” This has led some to the mistaken belief that the GSC is somehow ‘the General Synod’ between sessions. This is certainly not the case.

In no way does the GSC adopt the authority of the General Synod during the 51 weeks (excepting a special session) when the General Synod is not in session. The GSC is responsible for keeping the lamps burning, so to speak. If there is a legal issue that arises, it is the responsibility of the GSC to handle that. If there is a sudden and pressing financial issue, it is the responsibility of the GSC to manage that. The GSC is to oversee the denominational program which supports the church.

I think of the children’s book, Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, in which a lighthouse keeper had to leave to get needed supplies and charged his daughter with tending the light, keeping the light burning. It wasn’t her place to decide to stop tending the light in the lighthouse, to relocate the lighthouse, the build another lighthouse. Her responsibility was to keep the light burning. Similarly, the GSC is charged with keeping the light burning. It charges the GSC with maintaining that which the General Synod has put into motion. Nothing more, and nothing less.

The General Synod is the assembly–the GSC is not.

“shall implement decisions, policies, and programs of the General Synod”

Ever since the genesis of GSEC, it was never intended to simply coordinate the denominational program, but also that it would be a body that would implement the decisions and actions of the General Synod (MGS 1961, p. 272).

The General Synod makes all sorts of decisions. Perhaps it will make a decision regarding the denominational program. It should make decisions regarding the church. Perhaps it may direct its stated clerk to write a letter to the President of the United States to express a viewpoint, perhaps it will seek closer ecumenical ties with other church communions, perhaps it will decide to enter the world of interfaith work with earnestness, or perhaps it will decide something as it did during Apartheid in South Africa and decide to divest thence. The entire synodical assembly is not able to carry out the details of implementation, it is so impractical to be nearly impossible for the synodical assembly to do this. This responsibility, then, falls to the GSC.

As the General Synod is the assembly and not the GSC, the GSC is not so much a check and balance on the General Synod as it is the synod’s workhorse. The GSC is charged with navigating the practicalities to turn the decision of the General Synod into a reality. The GSC, then, is charged with following directions.

Note the prescriptive language, “shall.” This means that the GSC does not have an option. It cannot decide that it does not like a decision or agree with it. The Synod is able to make bad decisions, and it often does. It is not the GSC’s responsibility to try to “fix” a wrong decision, it is their responsibility to carry out the directives that it receives. While the order is often reversed in the minds of the church, the GSC exists and works for the General Synod. The General Synod does not work for (or exist for) the GSC.

“shall support, strengthen, and coordinate”

This harkens back to one of the presenting reasons for the creation of an executive committee in the first place: support and coordination. Even with the merger of these two bodies with different foci, this responsibility still remains.

It is worth noting, however, that the GSC is to “support, strengthen, and coordinate,” not direct. That is, the commissions, boards, agencies, &c. of the General Synod do not report to the GSC and they are not to take direction from the GSC. The GSC has no authority over the decisions that they make. The Commissions, boards, and agencies are accountable directly to the General Synod.

While these other bodies do, at times, defer to the GSC, this is out of courtesy only and in no way out of duty or obligation.

Conclusion

Certainly, the GSC is an important body in the life of the Reformed Church. However, it is not in charge of the Reformed Church, nor does it oversee the Reformed Church, nor does it have broad and undefined powers. While the GSC has been expanding its understanding of its own role for years, and the General Synod has been all too compliant in the GSC’s accumulation of power, simply because something has been a particular way doesn’t mean that it must–or should–remain.