‘A Grace-Filled Process’ through an Outside Voice
The COVID-19 pandemic broke out soon after Jake Porter became pastor of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich., in 2019.
Meanwhile, other changes were either happening or in the offing. The congregation was undergoing transition after deciding to include women as elders. In addition, church leaders were discussing the matter of discontinuing the Sunday-evening worship service.
Added to the mix was the fact that Porter came in after an interim following the 20-year tenure of its previous pastor, with whom the church had been very comfortable.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about what my role was and what I’d be doing,” said Porter, who had come to Immanuel from Hamilton (Mich.) CRC. “I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know the best questions to ask. In the end, we decided we need an outside voice to help us move forward.”
Aware of the services offered by the CRCNA ministry that was then called Pastor Church Resources, Porter contacted the ministry and connected with Zach Olson, who now serves in a similar capacity for Thrive, the new CRC agency that combines the expertise of nine formerly specialized ministries. Funded by ministry shares, Olsen was able to meet with Immanuel’s leaders and act as that outside voice.
“I was able to come in and ask questions that the church leaders may not have been asking themselves,” said Olson. “I was able to get an outside view of what was happening, what was important to the church leaders, and what they hoped to see for themselves.”
Essentially, ministry consultants such as Olson are trained to come in to assist a church in times of growth, transition, or other challenges. They hold one-on-one consultations and lead workshops for church councils and congregations. Basically, their role is to listen carefully to what a church is facing and then to offer solutions a congregation can follow.
In the case of Immanuel, Olson said, he had the chance to meet with the church council to define, discuss, and resolve issues that had come up between the church and its new pastor.
“I was able to meet with the council and with Jake and to ask questions and listen to everyone as they talked about their situation and some of the challenges they faced,” said Olson.
After spending time with the pastor and the council, Olson wrote up recommendations for how they could resolve some of their challenges and move ahead with a greater sense of togetherness and harmony.
“We helped to clarify everyone’s role and responsibility and what they should do. In our role, we work to help people come together in a gospel kind of way.”
Jim Krikke, a retired Grand Valley State University chemistry professor, was a member of the council when Porter came to Immanuel and noted that during that time it became clear that the pastor and the council were facing some bumps in the road.
“Jake got hired just as COVID arrived, and during that time we voted to include women elders – and because of that we lost several families,” said Krikke. “There were some challenges, and Jake became anxious and felt it might all be his fault.”
Krikke strongly supported the decision to ask a ministry consultant to help Immanuel work through the challenges, another of which was a controversy over the type of music that ought to be offered during Sunday worship services.
“There was just a bunch of stuff happening,” said Krikke.
Added to all of the changes and challenges for Immanuel at that time, added Krikke, was the fact that Porter hadn’t grown up in the CRC and wasn’t totally familiar with the Dutch subculture that had shaped the outlook and ministry of members of Immanuel.
To help Porter better understand the community he was called to serve as pastor, Krikke suggested that he read and then talk with him about London Street, a memoir by Jane E. Griffioen, a poet and author who grew up in a Dutch enclave in Grand Rapids, Mich.
According to a synopsis of it, the book highlights Griffioen’s “struggles within the tight-knit community to understand the secrets and events involving her family. . . . Her endurance to preserve a loving relationship with her family is an intimate story of triumph over community bigotry and religious zeal gone too far.”
“[Porter] is not from a Dutch lineage, and I think reading the book helped to ease his mind and helped him understand some of the reasons why we might be doing things a certain way,” said Krikke.
Olson added that an important task the church council undertook was to look through and change the congregation’s long-outdated church handbook. In the process, they were able to update policies and processes and to more clearly define the roles of the pastor, the council, and others.
“For instance,” said Olsen, ‘they were able to clarify their complaint policy,” which covers “who responds to complaints, how long it should take to respond” and how complaints should be resolved.
Further, he said, “They were able to come up with a communication covenant on how to treat each other with grace.”
Olson said he appreciated that Immanuel decided to ask for an outside voice before any of the challenges grew into what could have become insoluble problems.
“They didn’t wait too long to call us,” he explained. “It is important to consider that conflict is often an opportunity to grow together. If you wait too long, you can grow too far apart” to resolve major concerns.
Porter said he is grateful that Immanuel was willing to invite Olson in to help them navigate through the challenges they were experiencing.
“We were able to go through this in a way that helped all of us feel safe and have a chance to voice the concerns that were on our hearts,” said the pastor. “They used a grace-filled process of intentional listening to help us understand where we were at.”
This fall, CRC News is sharing stories that demonstrate the impact of ministry shares. To learn more, visit crcna.org/ministryshares or invite Jeff Bolt (U.S.) or Roshani Morton (Canada) to speak to your council, congregation, or classis.