The recent report (Feb. 15 issue) of Classis East made mention of two overtures concerning seminary student aid which Classis had before it. The overtures themselves are not included in the report. However, the report does contain a summary of the overtures and of the action of Classis, as follows:
Classis also considered two overtures re seminary student aid. The first was submitted by LaVerne Casemier via Holland’s Consistory. Mr. Casemier’s proposal is to abolish the synodical student aid committee and that these funds be distributed instead by a classical committee. The motivation for his overture was the increasing practice (because of the limited funds available to students from synodical committee) of individual congregations establishing their own student aid funds, a practice which Mr. Casemier believes to be contrary to the Presbyterian form of church government. Mr. Casemier’s overture was sent to synod with the disapproval of classis. The grounds cited were these (summarized): 1) it would be difficult to classify students from Classis West since all students eventually hold membership in the churches of Classis East, 2) the overture does not solve the problem of supporting married students, 3) implementation procedures for the establishment of classical funds does not exist, since all funds are synodical. Holland Consistory, as a result of the overture of Mr. Casemier, and through its responses to him, also submitted an overture to synod re student aid. The concern of the Holland overture is for the increased support of married seminary students. Holland requests the revision of Article 5 of the Constitution of the Student Aid Committee to allow for the increased financial support of married students. Holland’s overture was forwarded to synod without prejudice.
Our Present Situation
In order to discuss either of these overtures or the classical decisions about them, it is necessary to have in mind the situation to which they are addressed.
In the first place, there is Article 19 of our Church Order: “The churches shall exert themselves, as far as necessary, that there may be students supported by them to be trained for the ministry of the Word.” We need not at this time go into the history and the details of the article. We merely point out: 1) That the article is very broad, leaving the details of execution to the churches. 2) That in our churches at present this has been interpreted to mean that the churches in common, formerly through the General Classis and now through Synod and a synodically appointed, committee, take care of the support of the students mentioned in this article.
In the second place, the Student Aid Committee of Synod functions according to a synodically adopted constitution. For the purposes of our present discussion we may call attention to the following aspects of its regulations: 1) It is possible for students for the ministry in our churches to receive support through all the years of their schooling, both pre-seminary and seminary. In the near future, when the new 4-year seminary program goes into effect, this will mean a total of 8 years. 2) One of the duties of the Committee is to determine and to recommend to Synod annually the maximum allowable aid for a student. 3) Theoretically, all students, both preseminary and seminary, could obtain this maximum amount. But there are certain limitations: a) Preseminary students must maintain an average grade of B (3.0) to be eligible for aid. b) Married pre-seminary students are not eligible for aid. c) Married seminary students are eligible for aid, but to an amount not greater than the maximum allowable for single students. Thus, for example, if the Committee and Synod determine in a given year that the maximum allowable aid is $2000.00, any married student could obtain that amount; but the fact that he is married does not entitle him to more. Now if we use this figure of $2000 per year of aid, and add to this the free tuition for both pre-seminary and seminary, this will total some $22,000 to $23,000 per student for the present 7-year program of pre-seminary and seminary training.
In the third place, to complete the picture of the present situation which forms the background of these overtures, we mention the fact that more than one congregation has given supplemental aid to some or all of the students. This is not done through the Student Aid Committee, but it is done independently by the local consistories. In some instances such supplemental aid has been given only to the students belonging to the congregation granting such aid; in other instances there has been no such limitation. I believe it is accurate to say, too, that at least in some instances this aid was given in the belief that especially the married students needed more help. Evidently the Consistory of Holland, according to its overture, feels that married students should receive more aid.
Such is the background of the overtures which were before Classis East.
The Cogency of Classis’ Grounds
It is, of course, impossible on the ground of the classical report to say anything about either the Holland overture or about the classical action — or inaction — on that overture. Holland wants to provide for increased aid for married students. But its reasons are not mentioned in the report. And Classis East simply sent the overture to Synod “without prejudice,” a technical expression which means, I take it, without either approval or disapproval. If this also means that Classis was neither for nor against the overture, then this seems to me to be a rather strange stance. One would think that, in view of the fact that there are evidently those who favor increased aid for married students and in view of the fact that this issue is perennially discussed at synod when the Student Aid Committee’s report is considered, the Classis would have grasped the opportunity to express itself. Then Synod would at least have a way of knowing the desire of the churches in Classis East.
However, on the Casemier overture the Classis expressed its disapproval and adduced three grounds, summarized in the report. To the cogency of these grounds I wish to address myself. For whatever else one may think of the overture, in my opinion the grounds adduced by Classis are very, very weak.
The first is that “it would be difficult to classify students from Classis West since all students eventually hold membership in the churches of Classis East.” Now, in the first place, this ground is not factually correct. I can name more than one student from Classis West who never did hold membership in a church of Classis East while he was a student. I can name others who retained their membership in a church of Classis West until they married and temporarily settled in Grand Rapids. Secondly, even if this ground were factually correct, it would not be a cogent ground. A very simple standard could be applied: what was the classis of your origin at the time you became a student at our school? Thirdly, this is the method in operation in the Christian Reformed denomination. Each classis has its own machinery for student support, and each classis issues, or can issue, its own call for pre-seminary and seminary students who need and desire support. And from time to time one may read various announcements of such calls for students in The Banner. Ground 1, therefore, falls away.
The second ground adduced by Classis is: “the overture does not solve the problem of supporting married students.” What about this?
In the first place, this ground assumes that there is such a problem. Perhaps there is, in the minds of some; perhaps there is not, in the minds of others. In the second place, it seems to me that the real problem lies in another area, namely, that there is difference of opinion as to the extent to which married students should be supported. There are those who are not satisfied with the present synodical regulations. Hence, they go their own way as consistories and supply additional support to some or all students on their own initiative. Now let it be clearly understood: I am not questioning their motive. They love our students and evidently want to help them and feel that they need help. This is good; I am glad about it. I am questioning the method. It is chaotic, leads to duplication of effort, could lead to inequity, and smacks of independentism. For one thing, I believe that if the churches agree (as they have) to take care of student aid together, then we should do it together, i.e., as churches-in-common, not individually. This is in harmony with our presbyterian form of church government. For another, unless consistories are simply going to hand out additional support at random and without regard to the question of actual need, every consistory that engages in this practice has to make its own inquiry, have its own student aid committee, and set its own standards. For another, since one consistory knows not what another is doing, this could lead to inequity as to the amounts of aid which various students receive. Perhaps one student gets additional aid from his home consistory plus another consistory, while another student does not.
And while it may be true that the overture does not as such solve the problem, it is also true that the overture could make it possible to solve the problem more readily.
In the first place, it should be kept in mind that it is always sound church polity not to relegate to the broader level what can be accomplished just as well, and perhaps better, at a less broad level. There are indeed some things which have to be taken care of at the broadest level, synod; they are things which belong to and can be taken care of properly only by all the churches in common. An example is our Theological School. There are other things which can and should properly be taken care of by the least broad assembly, the local consistory. And there are still other things which, while they cannot very well be taken care of by every local consistory individually, can efficiently and properly be taken care of by the broader assembly, the classis. And it is sound practice not to work at any broader level than is necessary.
There is good reason for this, also from a practical point of view. That reason is that the broader the level, the more distant are the labors from the local congregations and the membership. Synod — and perhaps this is true of synod’s committees even more — is in its very nature far distant from the local consistories and congregations. The latter do not participate directly in synodical affairs, but only indirectly and through classis. As it is now, the Student Aid Committee is in the nature of the case from the Grand Rapids area. Once a year they must announce a meeting so that possible applicants for aid may appear at the meeting. The committee adopts its recommendations to Synod, in accordance with its constitution; Synod adopts a budget. And then aid is dispensed by the synodical treasurer in pursuance of synod’s decisions. No one out there in the churches has anything directly to do with it. At present the current revised edition of the committee’s constitution is not even in our Church Order. Few, therefore, even can know and realize that the committee acts strictly in accord with its constitution and is not so stingy as some might think. Everything is so distant.
Perhaps someone may ask: but why do we have this setup, and how did we ever get it? How did this matter become synodical?
The answer lies in history.
When our denomination changed from having one general classis to having two classes and a general synod, all the classical funds became synodical funds, whether they were in their nature synodical or not. The reason for this lay in the fact of the imbalance at that time between Classis East and Classis West, both numerically and as far as financial power was concerned. Classis East was numerically about twice as large as Classis West; due to variations in sizes of congregations, Classis East, generally speaking, also had greater financial power. Hence, it was not feasible, for example, for each classis to have its own, classically operated and supported classical expense fund. Instead, these funds were maintained on a denominational level by synodical assessments, rather than by classical assessments and at a classical level. The same is true of the former E.B.P. Fund, which became the Student Aid Fund. Classis West would have found it difficult to maintain and administer its own Student Fund. Yet it had been the practice in the Christian Reformed denomination, from which we inherited our Church Order and many of our practices, to have Classical Student Funds and committees, not one, large synodical fund and committee.
Today, however, our two classes are much more nearly equal in numbers and financial power. Perhaps we ought to consider more changes than merely in student aid. Would it be possible, perhaps, also for each classis to have its own Classical Home Missions Committee, rather than the present synodical committee? This would also solve the problem of trying to have a synodical committee with representation from both classes in its membership.
However, this may be, I can see no practical reason why each classis could not have its own Student Aid Fund and its own Student Aid Committee, operating under its own Student Aid Constitution. The advantages of this would be several, it seems to me. In the first place, Synod would be rid of the problem and the work permanently. Synod has enough to do without doing work which could just as well be done by others. In the second place, each classis could then do as it seems good in its own eyes. If it wants to give more support or even full support to married students, it can do so. In the third place, this work will be brought much closer to the local consistories and churches. This is very important in my opinion. All consistories will then have a direct part and a direct voice in student aid and its regulations, because all consistories are represented at the classical level. This is not true at present. A consistory can have a voice at synod only by way of protest or overture. In the fourth place, in each classis there can be annually a call for students to be supported by that classis. In that way the churches can more directly and more diligently fulfill the mandate of Article 19: “The churches shall exert themselves, as far as necessary, that there may be students supported by them. . . .” Finally, if consistories have a more direct voice in the matter, there will no longer by any need for the present scatter-shot activity in the area of student aid.
The third ground adduced by Classis East is, of course, very weak: “implementation procedures for the establishment of classical funds does (sic) not exist, since all funds are synodical.” I would say: let such implementation procedures be initiated if synod should approve the overture which classis disapproved. This is very simple. What is needed is a constitution, a committee, a treasurer, and assessments and funds to replace the present machinery. Surely, this is not difficult. It is doubtful whether classes would even have to be incorporated for this purpose. If they do, I understand Classis West is already incorporated. Moreover, at least in Classis East, which has frequently found it difficult to stay occupied until dinner time, this would have the added advantage of giving the classis something constructive and worthwhile to do.
Think about it.