Turning the Page: An Interview with Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

In June, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson will step down as the general secretary of the Reformed Church in America after 17 years of service. In February, Granberg-Michaelson had this conversation with Trygve Johnson, Dean of the Chapel at Hope College. We join them mid-conversation, when the topic is Richard Wolffe’s book Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House.

WGM: I’m about halfway through Revival by Richard Wolffe, which is a story of the first eighteen months of the Obama administration.

TJ: Is there anything in it illuminating to this conversation about your time as general secretary?

WGM: There’s the tension of the activists who are kind of disappointed with President Obama, because they think he’s forgotten about the movement. Then internally he’s got a group of people who are all about governing and getting something done. And another group of people are about the campaign, keeping people inspired. It kind of makes sense to me. There’s a big difference between leading a movement and governing. And Obama’s caught right in the middle.

TJ: In your own leadership, do you see this tension, as you said, between campaigning and governing?

WGM: I think that there is a built-in dichotomy or built-in tension. I sometimes say to people that the title of general secretary is very apt and correct, because half the church wants me to be a general and half the church wants me to be a secretary. That’s true. The church is very schizophrenic in its expectations of the person who serves as the general secretary.

There are people who kind of think the general secretary should be like a clerk of a classis, which means you take the minutes and see that the machinery runs right. There are others who feel the general secretary should be responsible for articulating the vision and direction of the denomination. It’s the classic difference between leadership and management. In this position you have to constantly negotiate that polarity. You have to see that the administrative side is done. Wes You’ve got about $17 million and staff of 100 people and then big pension programs and insurance programs and loan programs for new churches. All that is an important part. But right in the job description, you’re also responsible for helping articulate a sense of where God is calling the denomination, what its sense of vision is, having clarity around its mission. That requires an interaction with the church at large. It requires really a kind of dialogue with leadership and dialogue with the congregations, the classes, and synods that asks, “Where is God really calling us?”

You have really two different tasks [and] you’ve got to see that they both get done. I’ve come to adjust over the years to see that much administrative work is done well by a really strong team. Then I’m able to do the external part because no one else can do the external part in the same way. That’s evolved over these years and it will evolve with the new general secretary as well.

TJ: As you talk about the leader’s job to articulate a sense of God’s call, how do you describe how you’ve heard that during your tenure as general secretary? What specifically do you think God has used you to help clarify, push, and name in the church? Do you have any hopes or insight from your position as to where God is calling us in the next season?

WGM: Because we’re Calvinists we get real cautious about what we say. A lot of it will get sorted out in retrospect. When I made my decision to finish my time as general secretary, I actually took the notes that I had when I was interviewed and the remarks I gave the General Synod when I went on retreat. It was reading those things that helped convince me I’d really done what I was called to do. When I was being interviewed back in 1994, it was real clear that the search committee was looking for a general secretary who could help the denomination articulate a sense of vision and direction for the future.

When you talk about vision, I think the most persuasive definition of vision that I’ve heard is a “compelling picture of God’s desired future.” There seemed to be a growing sense of discernment that, to put it real simply, our congregations are really being called to look up and to look out, instead of look down and look in. We have to be radically attentive to the world that is outside of our doors. It is so easy to be so excessively focused on internal life and on internal satisfaction and whether people who come to a congregation are fulfilled and happy. But in that, it’s very, very easy to lose sight of the fact that the church is really called to join God’s mission in the world. I would even argue that it’s God’s mission, led by the Spirit, that calls the church into being, so that the church’s mission is at our essence. Mission is not a program. It’s not something we add on, but it’s something that’s at the core of who we are and what we do.

TJ: How would you define or express “God’s mission”? That language can mean lots of things to lots of people, but as you use it and have wanted to help the church embody it, what does that look like?

WGM: The best way I can define it is to say mission means the crossing of boundaries in word and deed with the love of God known in Jesus Christ. In mission, we are called to cross boundaries. It combines both evangelism and work for God’s justice in ways that are seamless and that aren’t divided. A church that’s a missional church is a church that has decided that its life and identity is to be found in joining in God’s mission in the world. Certainly for us, it’s taken the shape of a whole new vision and movement around church starts. We’re now starting one new RCA congregation every 10 days. This is something we have not experienced for probably 50 years, 60 years. But that is only significant in as much as it is one way in which we are expressing our response to God’s mission in the world.

On top of that, you see our ongoing commitment to be engaged with partners in God’s mission around the world, where we’ve been in places like Myanmar. These folks actually discovered us on our web site and were inspired by our mission and vision statement. We went on to form a partnership. One of their leaders comes to us in seminary now. There are churches being planted throughout what is probably one of the most repressive societies in the world. I think we’re trying to overcome the dichotomy between what happens in a local congregation and what happens across an ocean. Wherever the church is, it’s called to be engaged in joining God’s mission.

TJ: You took over as general secretary in 1994. What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

WGM: First of all that long-term service makes a difference. I never ever dreamt that I’d be doing this for 17 years. I haven’t done anything in my life for 17 years. I’ve learned that if the fit is right and the call is really a call of God, then long-term service ends up achieving a kind of fruitfulness that is important. I learned secondly that changing culture is much more important than changing structure. You need to do both, but you need to get the relationship right. The most important changes we’ve tried to make are really in our shared culture. What we expect, what our values are, what we hold ourselves accountable to and our actions toward one another and the guiding kinds of principles that shape our life–those things have a moral, lasting effect much deeper than simply doing structural change. We still need to do a lot of structural change, but that’s not the place to start. That was definitely a learning that I had.

I also learned that the kind of leadership people desire is, in the end, rooted in a genuine spirituality. Even with the range of expectations towards what a general secretary should be, people are helped if they sense that there’s a genuine spirituality that undergirds one’s work and one’s leadership. I also think I’ve learned that how we work in our assemblies, at General Synod, our regional synods, at classis and consistory, you have to make space for spiritual discernment. We tend to do business well. We know how to get things done, but it’s much harder to know how to open up space to discern where we’re really being called to go in the future. That’s hard for a consistory, or a classis, or the General Synod, but that work is often the most important work.

TJ: What insights would you give to the next general secretary about how to do that?

WGM: Well, I think he or she is going to discover their own gifts and their own style. I don’t think there’s any one way. But I do think that the next general secretary will have to be intentional about creating time and space for a deeper level of conversation and discernment to happen.

I remember when I started as general secretary. At that point the General Synod Council (GSC) was a group of 67 people meeting three times a year in addition to the annual meeting of the General Synod. I talked with Ed Mulder, my predecessor as general secretary, trying to get oriented. I asked what happens at these GSC meetings. He said, “Well we come with a workbook, about this thick, and we work through it all.” And I said, “After that, you’ve got another meeting coming in three months?” Ed said, “Yes, then we go back and start working on the next workbook for the next meeting.” It was kind of over-governed.

I came and said to the GSC, “What would happen if we took our next meeting and went on retreat? Didn’t have any workbook, but simply read the book of Acts before we came? And [what if] we then gather and dialogue around what we’ve heard? The only reason GSC said “yes” was because I was the new kid on the block and they weren’t going to turn me down. That turned into the beginning of how we developed the mission and vision statement. Since that time, I’ve learned that in any of our assemblies, if you don’t figure out a way to intentionally create time and space for that kind of interaction to happen, it just won’t happen. You’ll just do the agenda and be done. It’s similar to our personal lives. If you’re not intentional in doing something to create the space in your life for your kind of spiritual practice or discipline, it’s just not going to happen automatically.

TJ: Can you single out a moment or event that’s been the most memorable or joyful during the last 17 years?

WGM: Certainly one of them that was especially joyful was arriving at the “One Thing” event in San Antonio about 4 or 5 years ago. We tried to gather the full diversity of the RCA. We were trying to have a gathering that wasn’t for governance, but was for inspiring and directing us in terms of RCA’s future. When I came into the room and saw the faces of the 800 people who were gathering–younger people, people from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, many people who had come to the RCA, not because they were born in it, but they were drawn to it–I looked at that group and I felt this is really a glimpse of the future of the RCA. It was deeply inspiring.

TJ: That’s a beautiful picture. Over the last 17 years, what have been some of your biggest struggles or disappointments?

WGM: One of the saddest moments was the trial of Norm Kansfield. (Editor’s note: Kansfield, who was then the president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary and also held the office of General Synod Professor of Theology, was disciplined by the General Synod after he officiated at his daughter’s wedding to a woman.) This isn’t to say anything about where one would stand on the questions that were adjudicated in that trial. But having the highest body of the Reformed Church in America consumed in an actual trial represented to me that we had failed. We had not found a way to resolve the differences, short of this radical action. We had 100 inquiries from press around the country and even beyond the country, who wanted to hear and see the church in this unflattering situation. It was like the last scene in the world I would want for the RCA.

After the verdict I knew that the next day General Synod would have to make choices about whether they were going to go down the line of seeking to draw lines in the sand. To decide who was going to be “in” or “out” around this issue. Or were we going to go in another direction? I remember in the middle of the night feeling I had to say something to warn the church about going in a direction that, in my judgment, would only lead to further tension and division and disruption. It would take us away from our mission. I think, in fact, we did turn in another direction since then.

TJ: You don’t have a crystal ball, but do you have any insight, hopes, or predictions about how the RCA is going to continue in this conversation about homosexuality over the next 10 years or so?

WGM: I actually feel reasonably optimistic. I think that the RCA has made the decision, really since the Kansfield trial, that this is an issue we’re going to talk about rather than vote on. We’re going to continue to seek discernment around rather than to write resolutions around. Most important, I think we’ve decided that this is not the question that’s going to cause us to draw a line in the sand, to raise this question to status confessionis. When I look at other denominations that have gone in the direction of forcing this as a constitutional question, the outcomes I see are essentially no-win. I see people being divided. I see congregations leaving. I think the RCA is taking a different path and saying, “We’ve held a position on homosexuality for some time, but we’ve also said this is a question where we need to listen to one another and we need to be in dialogue with one another.”

I think, in the culture at large, issues around sexuality are huge. The church has something very important to say. Sexuality is a gift of God that’s connected to covenant and connected to commitment. It isn’t just recreation or reckless, the way in which sexuality has been so trivialized within our society. To put all the focus on the issue of same-sex relationships simply draws us away from the real challenge. To pretend that people who are engaged in covenanted same-sex relationships are somehow destroying heterosexual marriage is utter nonsense. The people who are destroying heterosexual marriage are heterosexuals. Better stop there.

TJ: What are some of the other significant challenges you see facing both the RCA specifically and the church at large?

WGM: There are several that come to mind. One of them that I really worry about is the question of our younger generation. I have Robert Putnam’s new book American Grace on my desk. Of the many statistics in there, one that really I’ve been thinking about is that when you ask young people, maybe 30 or younger, “What is your religious affiliation?” 27 percent answer “none.” That’s higher than it’s been in any recent time. We’re living with a younger generation, where more and more folks are saying they don’t see the relevance of Christian faith or the church. How does the church really present the gospel, and how do we present the model of love and grace in Jesus Christ to that whole rising generation? I think we’ve still got to figure it out.

We’ve come so far in overcoming the dichotomy between evangelical and ecumenical–those concerned with converting people and those concerned with justice and witness in the world. I think one of the gifts of the RCA is that we can demonstrate a holistic gospel and how the evangelical/ ecumenical dichotomy is overcome. I still worry about how, at least in parts of the church, we’re more shaped by the gods of materialism and the gods of nationalism than the words of Jesus. I just listened to 15 economists talk about the economic recovery and so forth, basically saying that there are likely going to be 18 million people in the United States who are going to stay on the underside of society. Then you think about everything the Bible says around the issues of poverty and wealth. It is so easy to be captured by the values of the culture rather than captured by the savior who is to be our Lord. It isn’t just the future of the RCA but the future of Christian faith in our culture that is going to depend on many ways of recovering our sense of what it really means to be a disciple of Jesus. And frankly that is the only thing that’s going to convince young people to be part of the church. That’s the only kind of a church they’re interested in.

TJ: If you were talking to a young person who was thinking about a life of ministry, or even a life of an active lay presence in a church, why the RCA? What would you say about whether this should be a place for them and their future?

WGM: That isn’t hypothetical. I’ve gone on retreats with what we call “emerging leaders,” and some of them have come asking exactly that question. The answer I give is probably framed in three ways. First, you have a tradition here that has some real theological depth, that believes in integrating the Word and the world, making sense out of our experience in the world through the appropriation of God’s Word. Sure, other denominations do this, but this is one thing that the Reformed tradition does particularly well.

Secondly, in the RCA you have a denomination that’s become increasingly clear about how it’s driven by a sense of mission and by following God’s call. If you join the RCA, you aren’t joining simply a denominational structure that’s going to give you health insurance and a pension. You can get that in lots of places. But in the RCA, you’re joining a denomination that in a pretty unique way has said, “We are committed to being a missional church and we want to draw leaders in who want to take part in that, whether it’s in the new churches we plant or in the existing congregations.” There’s a sense of movement and purpose. I think that offers something special.

Third, I think the RCA is a place where we take our relationships seriously. We do value one another. You look at the fact we have now about 72 pastoral networks, about 450 pastors, and they’re in these groups that are built around accountability and transformational learning and mutual trust and collegiality. Groups like the Lilly Foundation who study what makes for successful pastors or those pastors who leave or who burn out [have found that] the single most important thing is whether they’re connected with peers in the community. We’ve taken that with tremendous seriousness and really are making that a part of our culture. So you come in as a pastor in the RCA, the expectation is that you’re not going to be a lone ranger. The expectation now is that you’re going to be part of the community with your peers that are going to accompany you. No one can do the job of congregational transformation if they’re not supported by others outside that congregation.

To the extent that some of those young people do want to relate with one another around faith issues, they will go on mission trips. They want to serve. They want to connect with one another. They value, I think, mystery and the transcendent. But how do they organize themselves religiously? It often looks different than what we call an “organized church.” How do we make space to connect with this generation’s genuine religious aspirations in ways that are not immediately going to fit into our ecclesiastical boxes? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that’s a question that we’ve got to be asking.

TJ: Does the RCA survive the next 25 years with its current polity and structure?

WGM: I think that we still haven’t solved the question of how we govern ourselves well. Our most important assembly is the classis. The classis carries our most important responsibilities in terms of our polity, but it is also the place that has the least external resources given to it. It often feels, not just to me, but to those who are in our classes, [like] what they’re called to do was beyond what they’re able to do. One of the things I feel that we haven’t done and that I’ve failed in is trying to help the church envision how it governs itself better. We do have lots of examples of classes that are trying new things, but we still have a long way to go and I am concerned about that.

I don’t think we will survive with the present structure the way it is. I think it will continue to evolve. I think it should continue to evolve. We’ve got about a thousand congregations and we’ve got one General Synod that meets every year. We have our regional synods and then we have our 46 classes. I think that in the long run it’s a structure that doesn’t do a good job in stewarding the resources of the church. I think we’ve got one too many levels of governance. It’s been very hard to get a really honest and open discussion around that question, because people immediately feel threatened. But at some point, we will confront the fact that we can’t do a good job in governing this church with the multiple levels we presently have. My guess is that we will eventually move to a system where we will have [something] like a “super-classis.” It will be larger than our present classis, smaller than our regional synods, and these will be well resourced. And within that you’d have smaller networks of pastors and I would hope elders that really provide a deep sense of community and accountability. We’re going to have to experiment more with those questions as we go into the future.

TJ: In some quarters, there have been conversations around the relationship between the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church. Do you see any prospect or hopes for these two sibling denominations to once again come together?

WGM: The differences between us are basically cultural. There aren’t any theological differences. Differences in polity are so minor that they are unimportant. There are some cultural differences, but I frankly think those are differences that are diminishing over the generations. The differences aren’t deep enough that they should keep us apart. My guess is that this discussion will be taken a lot more seriously in the years ahead. I’m not sure what will happen, but I think it is right that those expectations have grown.

What we have done, in my relationships with Peter Borgdorff and now with Jerry Dykstra, is ask, “where can we cooperate more?” One of the big things we’re looking at right now is our whole church multiplication effort. We’re seeing how we can do that together. We’ve already built cooperation around our publishing and distribution arm, disabilities ministries, and a joint hymnal. There’s a long, long list of stuff where we’re cooperating. That makes sense, especially if it can help us be more nimble, can help us be more focused by not reinventing the wheel.

When you get, however, to the question of merger, becoming one denomination, then a whole other set of questions come on the table. What do you do with both group’s seminaries and colleges? You have institutions that have to figure out how they relate and how they govern. You’ve got insurance systems and pension systems. That doesn’t necessarily mean things can’t be put together, but it does mean it would take 5 to 10 years. It would take a whole lot of energy and at the end of the game I think the question you have to ask is, “What makes us more flexible and nimble and able to respond to God’s mission?”

TJ: What do you find personally gratifying about being general secretary?

WGM: I think having the rare ability to feel that maybe you’ve done things or said things or helped make things happen that have meant there are people being drawn into the community of God’s grace and truth in Christ who otherwise wouldn’t have been. For any one of us in ministry to stand back and say, “God has, despite our faults, been able to use who we are in ways that really have expanded God’s kingdom,” that is such an awesome thing, even to believe that it is possible.

TJ: One final question: what do you plan to do next?

WGM: I’ll want to work, to be active, but at a little different pace. I really don’t fully know the answer. When I was on retreat and made my decision to finish my work as general secretary, one of the last things I wrote in my journal was, “You can’t expect God to write a new chapter in your life if you’re not willing to turn the page.” I feel like it’s time to turn the page. I’ll certainly want to be involved ecumenically. I think some of the really wonderful experiences that I’ve had as general secretary have been some of the ecumenical work I’ve been able to do. Also, I really have a heart for young emerging leaders and for wanting to work with younger people who are sensing or discerning their future and their call.