A Report to Consistory on the RCA Conversations Event in Orlando, Florida, February 10-12, 2012
This is a time when the general populace views many institutions critically and without much respect. What pertains to banks, hospitals and the various levels of government also pertains to the church.
In front of this background it makes only sense that our denomination extended an open invitation to all RCA congregations and interest groups to send representatives for a few days of opinion polling regarding the future direction of our denomination. The results will be shared with General Synod Council (GSC). From there, they will be forwarded to the 2013 General Synod (GS) and then returned to the various Classes.
People followed the call from every part of the United States and Canada and beyond. There were missionaries, professors and chaplains, members of the military, Sunday school leaders and pastors of every variety.
We worshipped together, met in several large groups and broke out into smaller ones. It was a carefully organized process designed to give voice to the great diversity of opinions, needs and heritages within the Reformed Church in America.
Day 1 featured a huge worship in the plenary and a message by General Secretary Tom DeVries. Day 2 was the day of work. We met in large groups of perhaps 25 people and introduced each other by responding to questions like, “How is God working within / through / ahead of you?”
My response was simple. I referred to the contrasts in ministry as I experience them. During the week before Orlando, I was involved with the construction on our church; read a book on perspectives on death and dying in medicine, psychology and law; contributed a few lines to a Muslim publication; and preached and visited and taught an adult education class as well as a confirmation class. There was also a committee meeting, an architect’s reception at a private school and the work for the ecumenical study group for Lent. Can I be an expert or even just a professional in all these things? Most likely not! And so I said to the group in Orlando, “God must be at work in all of this, because left alone I’m not good at doing the splits.”
Following this, we told our congregational stories. This was a moment when it dawned on me how much our congregation owes to someone like Dr. John Henry Livingston. In the late 18th century, he prepared our denomination’s independence from the European mother church. He also was our interim pastor. As such, he dedicated our new sanctuary in 1812. Later he was buried with his wife in our cemetery. When our neighborhood declined in the second half of the 20th century, we pondered moving on innumerable occasions, but never could – not with the graves of Dr. Livingston and other dignitaries behind the church. This forced us to reinvent ourselves and to claim a place in this city. Today it is clear: Many of our ministries would not take place had it not been for the continuing presence of Dr. Livingston!
After lunch, we shifted from the local to the denomination’s context. “Why the RCA?”we asked ourselves, and the responses were as manifold as the people in the room. Value of theological training, willingness to cope with change, our understanding of depravity and election in contrast to the grain of Evangelical American Protestantism, our rich and diverse history – these were among the responses from members of my group.
The next section was spent with recognizing RCA ministries on the denominational level. In our group, these included things like: Network of Pastors, Reformed Church World Service, Global Mission, Interfaith Dialog, Historical Series of RCA Publications, Ecumenical Relations, Social Action, Church Growth Fund, RCA colleges and seminaries, Worship & Liturgies, Disability Awareness and Board of Benefit Services. Each ministry received a paper banner with its name and was posted to the wall.
Once this was accomplished, we used sticky notes to write personal comments for as many ministries as we chose. The comments could be positive or negative. The question, however, was, “How has each ministry had an impact on the life of my home congregation or in our particular context of ministry.”
We meditated the great scope of comments and reconvened in small groups with the task of discerning the general themes from among the previous comments. Then we recorded the themes of special importance to the group members on newsprint to be shared with the larger group. In the end, several such newsprints were put up on the walls. Each member of the large group received five sticky dots to be placed behind the themes we felt should have the highest priority in the future of our denomination’s work. GSC and GS will take it from there. We ended with worship on Saturday night and again on Sunday morning. The latter included a rich sermon by General Secretary Tom DeVries. Its strength was in the questions Tom raised regarding the future of the RCA: Will there be reconciliation and justice for all? Will there be compassion? And: Will we consider others better than ourselves? He could not have said it more appropriately.
My summary is this: We may say a lot of things about our denomination’s course, but we can no longer say we were not asked. The event’s context contributed to its positive atmosphere: The hotel and conference center was in the middle of Walt Disney World Resort with its various theme parks, the food was magnificent, and you could not leave your room without meeting colleagues and friends from every corner of the RCA.