Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of the Crete PRC in Crete, Illinois

The Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA) will be hosted this year by Southwest PRC (Wyoming, MI). A pre-synodical worship service will be held on Monday evening, June 12, 2023, to beseech God for His blessing prior to taking up the work, and the twenty minister and elder delegates along with the five professor-advisors will gather to begin the work on Tuesday, June 13, at 8:00 a.m.

Three overtures and a protest

I believe it is safe to say that the issue presently on the hearts and minds of officebearers and members of the denomination is that of sexual abuse. That concern is reflected in the agenda for synod. The three overtures and one protest in the agenda all address in one way or another the subject of sexual abuse.

The agenda includes three overtures from consistories requesting that synod initiate certain new actions that they judge to be of importance for the churches.

One overture originated with the consistory of Zion PRC (Jenison, MI) and was approved by the meeting of Classis East on September 14, 2022. This overture asks synod “to appoint a study committee to develop the theoretical basis for dealing with abuse in the local congregation.” By theoretical, the overture has in mind the “proper biblical and theological groundwork that could be used in the local congregations for developing their respective policies to deal with the serious practical issues of abuse in all its forms (sexual, spousal, parental, etc.…).” The overture argues that a study committee could be helpful to establish a definition of abuse along with other associated terms, to work to distinguish a biblical and Christian viewpoint on abuse from the secular and cultural viewpoint on abuse, to indicate resources on this topic that are helpful and others that are problematic, and to establish fundamental guidelines that should be a part of every congregation’s policy on abuse.

The other two overtures on the agenda both speak to the same issue: a request for synod to approve hiring an independent, third-party organization to conduct an investigation into how the denomination has handled cases of sexual abuse.

One of the overtures originated with the Consistory of Providence PRC (Hudsonville, MI), and was presented to a meeting of Classis East on January 12, 2023. Classis East put the matter into the hands of a special committee tasked with giving “more definition to the overture in order to submit it as a classis to Synod 2023.” At a special meeting on March 15, 2023, the committee presented a majority and minority report. The majority report advised rejecting the overture, and Classis East adopted this recommendation. The Consistory of Providence, however, has exercised its right to present its overture to synod.

The second overture requesting a third-party investigation originated with the consistory of Covenant of Grace PRC (Spokane, WA), and was presented to a meeting of Classis West on March 1-2, 2023. Classis West did not approve the overture because “the overture has insufficient information for Classis to make an informed judgment to approve the request” and “the overture says almost nothing about what a third party is or what a third party would do.” Like the Consistory of Providence, the Consistory of Covenant of Grace is also exercising its right to present its overture to synod.

The agenda also includes a protest of a decision taken by last year’s synod. The decision in question was synod’s approval of “the work of its synodical deputies with regard to the deposition of Ronald VanOverloop for public, gross sins against the 6th, 7th, and 9th commandments.” To be clear, the protest does not argue that the former minister should not have been deposed. But the protest argues that synod should not have approved the work of the synodical deputies to depose a minister without any supplemental or background material other than a brief report of the deputies. According to the protestant, the lack of such material prevented synod from officially expressing grief to the victims as well as to the churches as a whole, and from considering whether it was necessary to conduct a further investigation into this particular case at a denominational, classical, and/or consistorial level.

I want to conclude this section by expressing what is and ought to be the desire of all: that God would humble us to acknowledge any ways in which we have failed as churches in our handling of abuse, have mercy upon us and forgive us of our sins, and strengthen us to move forward in a proper, healthy way.

Reports of standing committees

In addition to the overtures and protest, the agenda contains the regular reports from the synodical standing committees who labor in the interim between meetings as servants of synod.

The 100th Anniversary Committee has been busy making arrangements for the 100th anniversary of our denomination to be held from June 23-27, 2025, at Calvin University with the theme “Grace: The PRCA at 100.” The main part of their report has to do with the appointing of individuals to various committees to work out the practical details of hosting the celebration.

The Board of Trustees reports on a number of significant items they have worked on in the past year. They have been working with a law firm based in Edmonton to request that the group calling itself “First Protestant Reformed Church of Edmonton” cease and desist in using the denomination’s name, since they no longer belong to the denomination. They report on a statement given to a local television station regarding the deposition of Mr. Ronald VanOverloop. They have been seeking advice from a law firm regarding our legal responsibilities and exposure in the event of misconduct by officers in our member churches. The committee also brings a proposal for a corporate restructuring of the denomination as a nonprofit organization in the state of Michigan. They also propose, if the corporate restructure is approved, that the name of the denomination be changed to the “Protestant Reformed Churches in the Americas.”

The Catechism Book Committee is responsible for overseeing the material used in catechizing the children and young people. The committee presents recommendations that synod make some minor modifications of wording to the questions and answers of the books for Juniors (grades 4-5) and Seniors (grades 6-7) Bible History.

The Contact Committee reports on visits to and interactions with our sister churches and other churches with whom we have varying levels of contact. One item worthy of mention in their report is the interactions of the delegation sent as observes to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC). In its presentation the delegation was able to explain the schism that has troubled our congregations in the last few years. The delegation also observed that many of the other denominations reported on dealing with sexual abuse in their midst.

The Inter-Denominational Psalter Revision Committee— a combined labor of the Protestant Reformed, the Heritage Reformed, and Free Reformed churches—did not have the final version of the Psalter ready for the publication of the agenda, but was still hoping to send out a digital (pdf) version sometime in May.

The Protestant Reformed Psalter Revision Review Committee is a separate committee made up of members of the PRC who are reviewing the proposed revisions to the Psalter. The committee reports on the work it has done over the past year, and indicates that it plans to present a final product for approval to Synod 2024. They also make recommendations as to how to familiarize the denomination with the proposed final product.

The Domestic Mission Committee reports on the joy of having a new home missionary (Rev. J. Laning) and the work he and the calling church (Zion PRC) have been doing since he took up the position at the beginning of the calendar year. The DMC also reports on its expansion of radio broadcasts into Detroit, MI and Greenville, SC, its ongoing work of revamping the denominational website (prca.org), and the writing of a mission manual.

The Foreign Mission Committee reports on the withdrawing of our two missionaries (Revs. D. Kleyn and R. Smit) from the mission field in the Philippines. This is due to our sister churches there being in a position to be self-governing and self-propagating, as well as the desire for their future seminary students to be instructed in our denominational seminary rather than by the missionaries. The Lord willing, Rev. R. Smit and his family will return from the field on June 5, and be available for a call in the denomination after July 15. Rev. D. Kleyn and his wife will remain for a bit longer to ensure a smooth handover of the work; he will be available for a call after September 1. As our work in the Philippines comes to a conclusion, we humbly pray that the Lord would bless the labors carried out there for the last twenty-two years.

The lack of a definite field of labor for our home missionary and the closing of our only ongoing field of labor in foreign lands ought to lead us as churches to pray more earnestly that the Lord would open up many opportunities both at home and abroad to spread the gospel. May we never become so insular and concerned about our own affairs that we lose sight of our calling to “go…and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

The Theological School Committee reports on the faithful labors of our professors, support staff, and students in the past year. Regarding professors, the TSC informs synod that the upcoming school year (2023-24) will be Prof. Cammenga’s final year of teaching, God willing. Regarding students, a matter for thanksgiving is the examination and anticipated graduation of our fourth-year student, Mr. Matt Koerner. Mr. Koerner’s examination will likely stretch over parts of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and his graduation is scheduled for Thursday evening, June 15. The TSC is also recommending the admission of a young man into our seminary for the upcoming school year, which means that we will have one student preparing for the ministry in our churches in each of the four grade levels. While the number of vacancies at present is large, we can be thankful for a consistent stream of young men preparing for the ministry. The TSC also presents the following significant proposal regarding the admission of older men who feel called to the ministry:

In light of our current great need for pastors, we request synod to permit the TSC, in consultation with the faculty, to admit provisionally into the seminary older students, who lack all or some of the pre-seminary requirements, with a special program of study that is designed to make up for this lack but is somewhat less than the normal education for our ministers (a fouryear undergraduate degree plus four-year seminary program). The specifics of such a program would be on a case-by-case basis, and depend on the student’s age, experience, educational background, gifts, etc. Formal admission and approval of the specific program would be sought at the following synod.

That sums up the more notable matters on the agenda. There are, of course, many other items on the agenda, all of which are important, but perhaps not all as noteworthy.

Please continue to pray for the needs of our churches as a whole, including the need for unity and peace in the truth. And please pray for the delegates that God would equip them with wisdom and strength to make good judgments that serve the well-being of the denomination.