Administrators seek to send message of consistency, clarity to denomination as Synod approaches
April 15, 2023
Late last month, Calvin President Wiebe Boer, Provost Noah Toly, Vice President for Advancement Gregory Elzinga and University Pastor Mary Hulst met with Abide Project, an affinity group for members of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) founded in 2021 to — per its mission statement – “strive for the Christian Reformed Church to uphold the beautiful, Biblical, confessional, and historic doctrine of sexuality in doctrine, discipleship, and discipline.”
The meeting, which sparked controversy on campus and on social media, was one manifestation of an ongoing administrative strategy of connecting with denominational stakeholders prior to this year’s Synod, the annual meeting of the CRCNA. After Abide requested to meet with Calvin, administrators extended invitations to All One Body, a group that advocates for affirming stances in the CRCNA and Better Together, a group which believes CRCNA members “can disagree on ethical issues such as same-sex marriage,” according to their website.
People with traditional views of marriage make up a significant and influential portion of the CRCNA. Micah Watson, professor of political science, told Chimes that he was not surprised by Calvin’s decision to meet with Abide. “One of the priorities for [Boer’s] administration is to deepen or reestablish ties with the denomination,” Watson said. “An administration has to engage with all sorts of different constituencies, and CRC members who are traditional on Christian sexual ethics make up a significant –– not all-encompassing, but significant –– part of our constituency.”
Last year, Synod voted to elevate the CRCNA’s stance against “homosexual sex” to confessional status, and the University found itself in a new situation. Faculty members at Calvin are considered office-bearers of the CRCNA, and the faculty handbook requires professors to “teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions.” Some faculty members, however, disagree with the CRCNA’s stance on sexuality. The elevation of the church’s stance on sexuality pushed Calvin to make use of an official process for disagreement in which faculty file statements of disagreement (called gravamina) which are approved on an individual basis by the Professional Status Committee and the Board of Trustees. In November 2022, all faculty who filed gravamen last year in response to Synod’s decision were approved for continued employment.
The goal is to clarify that Calvin is following the positions, policies and procedures laid out by the church and adapted in the faculty handbook.
Now the stakes are high for Calvin as Synod 2023 approaches.
According to a report from The Banner, several requests from classes (regional groupings of congregations) have already been made to Synod to limit the acceptable use of gravamen by office-bearers. Restrictions on gravamen use that apply to Calvin faculty could determine who the university is able to hire or retain in the future.
The Abide Project initially reached out to Boer and asked Calvin administrators to appear in their monthly lecture series in an effort to learn more about the gravamen process.
“The goal is to clarify that Calvin is following the positions, policies and procedures laid out by the church and adapted in the faculty handbook,” Boer told Chimes. He said that the gravamen process is not a new one and that it is “consistent with approaches to confessional subscription endorsed by Synod in 1996 and 2014.”
Toly’s March 28 presentation to Abide, which is now posted on YouTube, was based on information already shared with Calvin employees: Both Watson and Emily Helder, professor of psychology at Calvin, said that the content of Toly’s lecture was familiar to them.
The presentation largely focused on specific guidelines for faculty post-Synod 2022. The presentation also emphasized Calvin’s close ties with the CRCNA, faculty members’ overall commitment to the confessions and the important balancing act of “confessional commitment and academic freedom” at the university.
During the question and answer portion of the event, which was not recorded, audience members asked Calvin administrators several questions about the gravamen process.
In the future, Abide would like to see faculty members “flourish in their role as educators and mentors,” and “serve with integrity to what they … have covenanted with the broader Christian church by signing the Covenant for Faculty Members,” Abide member Chad Steenwyk told Chimes. “This is something Synod will need to discuss and define so there is greater clarity,” Steenwyk told Chimes.
Calvin’s strategy involves trying to connect with a range of stakeholders in the CRC community – not just Abide.
After administrators accepted Abide’s invitation, Hulst reached out to All One Body – an affirming CRC group – on behalf of Calvin’s administration and offered to give a version of the same presentation that they had given to Abide.
All One Body works to promote “100% full inclusion for LGBTQIA+ Christians in the church,” according to Lies Rosema, a member of All One Body’s board.
Helder told Chimes she believes administration’s offer to present to All One Body was an attempt to dispel any impressions that they intended to support one perspective over another. “They didn’t want to give that impression, because that wasn’t their intent,” Helder said.
Ultimately, the board of All One Body declined Calvin’s offer. Rosema told Chimes that she had previously worked at Calvin and already had a thorough understanding of the gravamen process.
Personally, there’s this dissonance between what I’m being asked to do in terms of not advocating – even though I don’t always know what that means – and what is important to me given relationships in my life with LGBTQ folks.
“Our assumption was that it wasn’t going to be anything interactional. They weren’t looking for opinions from our board or anything like that,” Rosema said. “If it wasn’t something where they were asking for our opinion, then there wasn’t a whole lot to be gained by getting more information about it.” Because All One Body is a small organization, limitations on time and resources also played a role in declining the offer.
Rosema told Chimes that All One Body would be open to a future event with Calvin. At the moment, however, the group is not focused on Calvin’s internal policies –– although it would like to see full inclusion at Calvin.
Calvin administrators also offered the same presentation to Better Together, a CRC group that focuses on unity despite disagreement. Better Together declined, too, according to Boer.
Concerns about the administration’s strategy
The announcement of the Abide event sparked conversations on campus and online, particularly on Yammer and Facebook. Faculty were not all in agreement, but some were concerned with the meeting’s “marketing and framing,” according to Helder. “To me, it initially appeared as though Calvin was partnering with Abide,” she said. (Steenwyk said he was unaware that any people had this “misconception.”)
Helder had “complicated” feelings about Abide itself, particularly because of the group’s history. Helder told Chimes she believes Abide grew out of the Returning Church Facebook group, a group she said had certain members involved in “disparaging people in the [CRCNA’s] Office of Social Justice (OSJ).” (In 2021, The Banner reported on the “long-standing harassment” experienced by OSJ staff, sometimes at the hands of CRC members and office-bearers.) Nevertheless, Helder was not against the idea of a conversation between Calvin administration and Abide as an opportunity to correct misconceptions.
However, Helder told Chimes she would have preferred that Calvin host the event. “Then, an invitation could have been extended to [Abide] and to other groups, so that it would have been more of a diverse audience, and we would be able to control the messaging and advertising around it,” she said.
“Disagree but abide”
An overarching theme of Calvin administration’s messaging in response to Synod 2022, which was highlighted in the discussion period of the event, has been the concept of “disagree but abide.” Currently, Calvin professors can disagree with the CRC’s stance on sexuality and continue working at Calvin –– but they must follow particular expectations for teaching, scholarship and personal life.
I do feel like my academic freedom has been protected, but I recognize I’m saying this from a fairly comfortable perch.
Although faculty members with approved gravamina do not have to pretend to agree with the CRCNA on matters of sexuality and can present a range of views “accurately, respectfully and charitably,” according to Toly’s presentation, they cannot advocate against the official position in the classroom. In the realm of personal conduct, “care for students should reflect radical hospitality and radical obedience to God,” while actions that might “appear to contradict Synodical decision” require consultation with administrators.
For many professors, these expectations have not presented any trouble. Watson, who holds a “traditional” view of sexuality, told Chimes he has not experienced any personal conflicts in this area. “I do feel like my academic freedom has been protected, but I recognize I’m saying this from a fairly comfortable perch,” Watson said.
But for other faculty members, like Helder, the expectations have been a source of “dissonance.” In the classroom, Helder is comfortable presenting a range of perspectives, but she feels that the guidelines for scholarship and personal life are less clear.
“Personally, there’s this dissonance between what I’m being asked to do in terms of not advocating – even though I don’t always know what that means – and what is important to me given relationships in my life with LGBTQ folks,” she said.
Helder is not alone. Amy Wilstermann, co-chair of Calvin’s Workplace Quality Task Force (WQTF), told Chimes that new data from this year’s Best Christian Workplaces survey show that “Nearly 10% of open-ended responses to the question ‘What improvements would you like to see at Calvin?’ include the terms CRC, synod or HSR [Synod’s Human Sexuality Report], with many expressing concern about the impact of Synod 2022’s decisions and the relationship between Calvin and the CRC.” Quantitative results of the survey will be made available to the public by the WQTF next week.
During the discussion period at the Abide event, Toly said he thought it would be accurate to say that the university is now leaning more on the “abide” side of “abide but disagree” than it has in the past.
Combined with grief about the university’s treatment of former colleagues, this issue led Helder to seek employment elsewhere. She has now found a position at Hope College.
When I hear administration talk about [faculty and staff losses], they seem [like] acceptable collateral sometimes … I’m saddened by that.
Helder told Chimes that the decision to leave Calvin was a difficult one. “I love my colleagues here. I love my students. I believe in the mission,” she said. But to protect her mental health and heal, she told Chimes she needed to remove herself from the situation.
Administrators have emphasized that they do not want faculty members to leave, but if professors cannot abide by the guidelines, then exiting the university is an option. For those who decide to leave, Toly told Chimes that human resources walks them through the offboarding process and offers networking support.
“When I hear administration talk about [faculty and staff losses], they seem [like] acceptable collateral sometimes,” Helder said. “I’m saddened by that.”