Dear Members and friends,
By the time you read this, I will likely be in the Netherlands for a couple of weeks. As I’m going for business and not leisure, I will be going alone and Marie and Hendrik will be staying here. So what am I doing in the Netherlands?
I will be on study leave doing a couple of things. First, I will be attending an international conference, “The Church and Civil Society.” This conference will have participants from the United States, the Netherlands, Romania, and Hungary. It is a wonderful opportunity to connect with Christians in the Reformed tradition from other places in the world. This is one of the most interesting things about participation in international conferences—while the Reformed Church is relatively small in the United States, there is a very large global Reformed community. The lectures in the conference will address how the church relates to civil society in the modern world, a topic which is very relevant not only for the big-picture purposes, but even for our church as well.
The second thing that I will be doing is working on my research. I am in the very beginnings of a research project through the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam—very beginnings in that I am still working on a research proposal that is yet to be accepted. This will morph and change a bit through the process, but I wanted to share with you a bit of the general trajectory of my work on this project.
In the Reformed Church, one of the tensions that has existed from the 1500s and continues to exist is about authority in church governance. This is part of a much larger conversation, one that I’d be happy to share if you’re interested, but for these purposes I will keep it brief. The tension particularly exists around the broadest governing body in the Reformed Church, the General Synod (“General” meaning broad or whole, and “Synod” being Latin for “together on the road”).
Over time, the way that the General Synod has existed and functioned has changed. Change, of course isn’t bad. Further, it is often good to look at the “how” and the “why” of changes. How has something changed, and why did it change? What were the influences? What does this mean for today and the future? How will this help us understand better?
These are the kinds of questions that I’m seeking to address. While it isn’t a topic which is particularly exciting to most people, it is one that is important. A church is not just an organization among others, but is a body called into being by Christ. Therefore, “success” and “effectiveness” is not just about the visible results (numbers and budgets), but also, and even more importantly, how we find our life and being as a church in this context. So this is not just a question about organization or church law or who makes what decisions, it is part of striving to seek to discern how God desires the church to function in the contexts in which God has placed us.
Thus, part of my time in the Netherlands will be spent meeting with a church governance scholar and a church historian, both internationally recognized authorities in their fields. I do hope to have some fun while there, but much of it will be work. When I was first in conversations with ARC, one of the ways that I described myself is a pastor-theologian rather than a pastor-manager. That is, my primary giftedness is not in managing an organization (although there are those aspects), but in being someone who is involved in theological work and scholarship, both for the local church and beyond. Which is part of the reason why I teach for the two theological seminaries of the Reformed Church, and why I’m away from time to time at conferences or other events, either attending or presenting.
So, in this column, I wanted to share some of this with you. And it is an invitation, as well. If you are interested in talking more about any of these things, I’m happy to do so! Don’t want to hear more about them? I’ll try not to subject you to it. I’m happy to engage in conversations about a host of topics from everyday life to the deep things of the faith. More than “happy,” this is part of who I am and how I thrive.
With deep and abiding love,