A Pastoral Letter from the Members of the Council of Synod Executives to the Reformed Church in America in Light of Our Current Division
In January 2018, the members of the Council of Synod Executives (COSE) of the Reformed Church in America met together to pray, to discuss the current reality of our denomination, to listen to one another, and to consider the future.
Until this time, we had only ever met as a kind of ad hoc committee that gathered two or three times a year for business meetings in which we shared updates from our regions and experienced occasional learning opportunities. But as the divisions in our denomination increased, we could see that the way our council interacted was not fostering community or supporting understanding. We were not able, with all of our differences, to navigate the current tensions or to dream about the future together. Our disagreements were getting in the way of the work we were called to do. We felt stuck and we knew we had to try something different.
For that reason, we gathered together at the end of January in a retreat setting for two and a half days of facilitated community-building. We prayed and read the Scriptures together. We practiced saying what each one of us believes is true and right, while at the same time staying connected to one another. We sought to listen respectfully to other perspectives. We asked about the impact of our actions on one another, and tried to hear others’ answers without defensiveness. We cleaned up several relational messes and misunderstandings from the past. We discussed the current reality of our denomination (as each of us perceives it), shared our anxieties about where things might go in the future, and dreamed about a number of possible ways forward for the RCA. Finally, we discussed our group’s part to play in moving forward.
It was an intense time, often uncomfortable, sometimes funny, but also healing, and in the end, we found our hope together in Christ. One of the things we discovered was that our group’s function has never been clearly articulated. Who are we as a group? How do we serve the church together? What is our collective goal? So, for our own sense of purpose, and especially in light of the current climate in our denomination, we developed a new purpose statement for our group:
We, the members of the Council of Synod Executives (COSE) of the Reformed Church in America, are a binational covenant community made up of representatives from eight distinct geographical regions. Though we have significant differences, we are seeking to learn and lead together in love, and to positively use our learning to serve the RCA for the kingdom of God. We will do this by:
- Collectively providing leadership and influence in the RCA.
- Supporting and challenging one another in community as members of the Council of Synod Executives (COSE).
- Connecting our eight regions when appropriate through fellowship, resources, learning opportunities and missional engagement.
The members of the Council of Synod Executive (COSE) of the Reformed Church in America make the following statement:
We, the members of the Council of Synod Executives of the RCA, love Jesus, and we hold the Word of God to be the only rule of faith and life. However, within our own group we have deep theological and practical differences, and the idea of being in fellowship with one another while holding those differences causes us anxiety. Sometimes when we are anxious we mistrust and criticize one another and pull away from one another. Sometimes we hurt and even harm one another.
Yet, there are also great blessings in our work. As a group we are positioned to see the full breadth of the Reformed Church in America, and what we see is that within our denomination each one of us is seeking to love Christ in our own way, is trying to honor the Scriptures to the best of our own ability, and is committed to the mission of making disciples so that the world will know the Lord is God. Up until now, the RCA has worked to do these things as a family with many differing viewpoints. In light of our current denominational disagreements, we are not sure the RCA can do that anymore.
However, before taking the step of separating the family, we, the members of the Council of Synod Executives, would like to commit to “trying on” a more faithful way of relating to one another in the tension of an authentic, disagreeing community, while together seeking God’s emerging future for our denomination. This will involve courageously defining ourselves as individuals, while working hard to stay connected in Christ-centered relationship. And we would like to invite you to join us in this work.
Our council will begin by developing the community within our own group. In the short term, this will mean more frequent face-to-face meetings in which we continue to seek the Lord together in prayer and study the Scriptures. We will practice saying what each one of us believes is true and right, while at the same time staying connected to one another. We will listen respectfully to other perspectives. We will ask about the impact of our actions on one another, and try to hear others’ answers without defensiveness. We will continue to work on cleaning up relational messes and misunderstandings from the past. We will share the stories of our lives and regions. We will dream together about the future God intends for the RCA. In the long term, we plan to test a number of other high-impact practices for deepening “authentic, disagreeing community” which could be shared with the entire denomination. We have a long way to go, and we know it will be difficult, but we are willing to try this out together.
Ultimately, we know that we cannot personally fix our denomination’s disagreements. We know that a split, or at least a radical rearrangement of the organization is a possibility for our future. This grieves us all and some of us still pray that we can stay together. However, we also know that though we cannot change the disagreement, we can change the way each one of us “shows up” and the way we relate to one another in honesty and love. Whatever happens, we believe this is an important part of our witness to the world.
We plan to do this experiment of authentic community for as long as possible and we ask you to join us. We ask the entire Reformed Church in America to join us. We also ask for your prayers. Further, we commit to you that we will share with you our ideas for deepening and authenticating our relationships, while staying well defined as individuals. We will also share with you the outcomes of this experiment in our own lives and witness.
To God be the glory,
Bruce Bugbee, regional executive of the Synod of the Far West
Stephen Eckert, stated clerk of the Synod of the Mid-Atlantics
John Messer, regional executive of the Synod of the Great Lakes
Abby Norton-Levering, ministries coordinator of the Regional Synod of Albany
Amy Nyland, executive minister of the Regional Synod of New York
Tom Smith, ministry coordinator for the Regional Synod of the Heartland
Marijke Strong, executive secretary of the Regional Synod of Canada
Wayne Van Regenmorter, regional executive/visionary leader of the Synod of Mid-America
The Reformed Church in America is divided into eight geographical regions, called “regional synods.” The Council of Synod Executives (COSE) is made up representatives from each of those eight regions. Each representative is an upper-level staff member in her or his region. Though we all have slightly different job descriptions, we are all tasked with providing vision and leadership, and with supporting and resourcing the classes within our regional bounds. You can read more about the regional synods here: http://about.rca.org/how-we-work/regional-synod