In Search of a General Secretary

Beginning about a year ago, it was my privilege to serve on the search committee for a new general secretary for the Reformed Church in America (RCA). The eventual result of our search was the nomination of Rev. Dr. Tom De Vries, and his subsequent election by the General Synod of the RCA last June. Enough time has elapsed now for me to offer these first reflections on the search committee process.

Right off, let me say that I have full confidence in Tom’s calling and capacity for this position, and I believe that the RCA will be well served by him. Let me also add that I am pledged to keep certain confidences, and that my reflections are solely my own, and not of anyone else on the committee.

The selection of a general secretary happens so rarely that it’s an ad hoc business, and outside the established patterns of church order. In 2010 the incumbent general secretary, Wesley Granberg- Michaelson, announced his retirement. Wes had been general secretary for seventeen years. He shaped the position by the force of his personality, brains, vision, and convictions. He also profoundly shaped the habits and structure of the General Synod. Under his leadership, the General Synod, not without some controversy, placed much of its power and discretion in a much-smaller General Synod Council (GSC). Quite without prejudice, no one expected his successor to be another Wes, but at the same time, whoever his successor was would have to fit the position and serve the structure that Wes had shaped.

What Happened

Upon Wes’s announcement, the General Synod Council acted with dispatch in order to get a finalist approved by June of 2011, affording no gap between occupants. The GSC regarded itself as empowered to direct the search process from beginning to end, without needing to have its process approved by the General Synod itself. No one has contested this—but more about that later.

The search committee was to be relatively small, thirteen people, balanced as much as possible for geographical representation, gender, and ethnicity. I do not know exactly how the GSC selected committee members from among the many who expressed interest. There were three women ministers, which, while not half the committee, still conveyed the RCA’s increasing assumption of gender equality. There were only two persons of color, which shows how far the RCA has to go on its commitment to racial diversity, but both persons wonderfully managed to represent the interests of both their constituencies and the church as a whole. At least two of us were considered to be among the “loyal opposition” to many current GSC policies. Our chair was a woman elder whose spirit, calm self-confidence, and experience set the tone for the committee. It speaks well of the RCA that every member of our committee experienced it as a team of remarkable harmony, candor, fellowship, and mutual respect. We had our disagreements on specific issues, but not one member failed to honor the views of the others. The committee developed, by scripture, prayer, and testimony, into a deep, genuine community.

The GSC had developed and provided us with a job description. Many of the elders on our committee had significant experience in human resources, which helped us come up with an application form, as well as instruments for analyzing and rating the applications we received. Between meetings, each member of our committee privately evaluated each application. When the window for applications had closed, we pooled our evaluations and generated a ranking of applicants. At our next meeting, we discussed each applicant and arrived at a preferred list out of the lot. We patiently discussed the candidates, one by one, member by member. After a couple of days, we had arrived at a list of five candidates to interview personally.

While the face-to-face interviews with the five finalists were draining, the discussions afterward were far more challenging and most fulfilling. We began to open our hearts and minds to each other. We had to trust each other. The issue of strict confidentiality was critical, considering the vulnerability we shared. We began to address our hopes and fears and dreams, not only for the RCA, but for our ministries, for service to the Lord Jesus in general, and for our own personal lives. I can’t think of a denominational experience when I have shared such positive and powerful community.

We settled, with some fear and trembling, on two finalists. Either one would have made an excellent general secretary, but we had to choose one. The GSC’s priority in its job description was on “leadership,” so we asked the two finalists to lead the first half of their interview, beginning with Bible study and worship. We followed this with spontaneous questions generated by their presentations and then with prepared questions intended to anticipate the questions and concerns of the larger church. These interviews and the discussion afterward were the hardest work I’ve done in a while. More prayer, more scripture, more candor, more vulnerability, more meditation, and the next morning the final discussion—each committee member in turn, not without tears and joy and music and more testimony. Then the decision, and the plans for followup.

“Many are called, but few are chosen.” Some fifteen candidates felt called, and a few felt profoundly called. Maybe they were. Maybe they would have been very good general secretaries. But only one was chosen. We recommended a name to the GSC, and somehow, immediately, and maybe not surprisingly, our confidentiality was broken. This “leak” caused some ill feeling in the larger church, though not, I think, among our committee. In a few weeks’ time, the GSC interviewed Tom and resolved to recommend him to the General Synod for the final approval, which, as it turned out, was roundly given.

Issues and Observations

Along the way, our committee made some important decisions about the process itself—decisions that have subsequently been called into question by some.

We agreed to a high standard of confidentiality. We wanted to prevent politicking and intrigue, to encourage full candor in our committee, and of course, to protect the applicants. Our standard of confidentiality was no different from that expected of most boards of elders and pastoral search committees. A great deal of trust had been placed in the committee, and though I am hardly impartial, I believe the committee earned the trust.

We agreed that we would not “search” for candidates ourselves, as search committees did in the old days. (I can remember search committees showing up in the back pews of my father’s churches, and we all knew what that meant.) Interested candidates would have to come to us. We believed the role entrusted to our committee, along with the short time frame, did not give us the capability to seek and solicit applicants in a suitable manner. Individual committee members were free to encourage good candidates to apply, but these potential applicants had to follow the same process as everyone else.

We agreed to do referrals and background checks in the same manner the RCA uses in all of its senior staff job searches. This meant that some persons who were expecting to receive calls from the committee concerning friends and colleagues did not receive those calls. Apparently, not to have been contacted left some confused and disappointed.

But there were some down sides to our decisions and process. Many members of the wider church expressed that they felt closed out of this most important choice. Why should a church have such a “closed” process when, for example, our political elections are so “open”? Can’t a mature church and mature people risk greater openness? There may or may not be some legitimate theological reasons for our relatively “closed” process. I believe it is fair to say, however, that our process decisions were not framed or made “theologically.”

Of course, the wider church was involved at the later stages of the selection process, in the roles of the GSC and the General Synod itself. But by that time, the only choice was “yes” or “no,” and the RCA does not like to say “no”—at least not when it comes to people. Personally, I wonder how the GSC’s “Carver Governance” policy of very limited and controlled disclosure on all matters affected the way our committee’s confidentiality was experienced. In an environment where great openness is not the norm, did our committee become the flashpoint for a more general, accumulated frustration? Without gainsaying our result, I do believe that this whole matter of open and closed processes deserves further consideration, and to be considered in a more theological than “practical” light.

The selection of a general secretary is so important (well, relatively!) and yet so rare. The process, for example, of the selection of a deacon in a local congregation is far more carefully defined by the RCA’s constitution than anything about selection of a general secretary. The GSC is empowered to choose the general secretary in whatever way it sees fit, subject only to the final vote of the General Synod. That we take this for granted should not only be startling; it should, and does, indicate some significant things.

The position of general secretary is actually not a church “office.” There is no theological identity behind the position, and no specific biblical mandate, unlike the offices of minister, elder, deacon, and professor of theology. In a real sense, and not to discount it, it’s an ad hoc job. That a single person should be both the “chief executive officer” as well as a “visionary leader” is almost impossible to justify in terms of historic Reformed church order. This is partly why each incumbent, more than the church at large, has initially defined the position for his successor.

The root of the position of general secretary is that of an officer of the General Synod (which is not the same as ecclesiastical “office”). However, over time, despite that root, the position’s main orientation has turned toward the GSC. In everyday reality, the general secretary works for the GSC. This evolution of the position, together with the great measure of authority and discretion assigned to the GSC, made it feel natural and legitimate for the GSC (and in keeping with Carver theory) to determine and carry through its own selection process, despite the much more open traditions of Reformed polity in times past, which we still follow in consistory elections.

Despite my own strong misgivings about all the power and discretion that the General Synod has agreed to invest in the GSC, it would have been unethical of me to serve on the committee and then not to cooperate with its policies. That meant agreeing to share in choosing a candidate who would express and advance the current GSC vision and structure, who would fit the position description drafted by the GSC (not the General Synod). While I served within these policies, decisions, and constraints, they do not prevent me from advocating that we need to rethink the standing of the GSC, as well as the accountability of the general secretary.

While I continue to believe the RCA has enormous liabilities and is making some serious mistakes (but what else is new!), still, if the committee was in any way representative, it speaks well for the culture of the RCA that we were able to produce such a harmonious cross-section of the church. Without an exception the members of the group, elders as well as ministers, were deeply devoted to the Lord Jesus, well versed in the scriptures, strong in prayer, articulate in speech, and competent in life, cheerfully contributing their various gifts and talents. I never stopped feeling a common desire to serve each other and the church at large, to seek unity when possible and show honor when otherwise, and to practice mutual submission in love.

I suspect that there is more general good feeling in the RCA than is often acknowledged. We do want to meet each other and respect each other and enjoy each other. But are we able to move from good feeling to serious discussion on matters that require informed and difficult decision-making? That’s much harder and requires shared disciplines. Our committee had the double advantage of a focused task and the presumption of high knowledge of the RCA’s theology and tradition. Does the RCA at-large have sufficient shared theology and tradition to rise from good feelings to difficult decision-making? I wonder if this is why we have moved much of our decision-making behind closed doors. I believe that we underestimate our capacity (and divine call) to develop our good feeling into an increased capacity for shared and open decision-making.

I am not sure the RCA fully understands itself as a Reformed denomination. By this I mean that a Reformed body is a system of office-bearers regularly meeting each other, in order to discern our direction from a shared listening to and exposition of scripture, as guided by our shared hermeneutic (that is, our doctrinal standards). What this implies is that a general secretary, who is called to be a “visionary leader,” does not so much say, “This is where we should go and these are the scriptures that are telling me so,” but rather, “Folks, let’s study these scriptures together, as guided by our doctrinal standards, in order for us to discern together where God is calling us.” That is a particular kind of leadership, and during the search process it’s what I looked for in every candidate. But it was not high on the GSC’s stated expectations, although I suspect it was a shared implicit expectation.

It is the rare person who is able to combine such leadership in group biblical interpretation with the required skills and experience in staff management and strategic planning that the general secretary’s job requires. But immediately you see that the most likely person to have that combination is going to be a senior pastor of a large church with a large staff. Now in hindsight, given the starting point of the GSC’s job description, that our search process would produce a candidate who indeed was a senior pastor of a large church is not in the least bit surprising.

Personally, I myself can’t imagine why anyone would want to spend as much time in airport terminals as a general secretary does. But that’s just proof I was not called to the position. I believe that the person we chose was.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.