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

The Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA) met from June 13-16 and 19, 2023, in the facilities of Southwest PRC (Wyoming, MI). The churches were represented by ten minister delegates and ten elder delegates, who were advised in their work by the five seminary professors and by one foreign delegate from a sister congregation.

While I intend in this editorial to focus on one important issue addressed by the synod, I do not want to leave the impression that this was the only important issue adjudicated by the assembly. Synod made significant decisions regarding the training of men for the gospel ministry. Certainly a highlight of the meeting was the examination of our senior seminarian, Mr. Matthew Koerner, and his being declared eligible for a call to serve as a pastor in our churches. An added reason for thanksgiving is the fact that this is the first candidate we have had for the ministry in our denomination since 2019. Synod also took important decisions regarding our calling to proclaim the gospel through domestic and foreign missions, including decisions to withdraw our missionaries from the Philippines and to close the field. Synod deliberated carefully over an individual’s protest of a decision of last year’s synod to approve the work of its synodical deputies in concurring with a Classis’s deposing of a minister for sins of sexual abuse. Synod upheld the protest and stated that it erred in approving the work of the synodical deputies without reviewing all the necessary grounds and documents. Synod also took this opportunity to pen an open letter to the victims of this minister, expressing grief over their hurt, and sorrow for the neglect of synod in the past of expressing this grief in a public and official way. In response to an overture from a consistory, synod appointed a study committee to produce a brief manual laying out biblical, confessional, and theological principles that inform our understanding of and response to various forms of abuse (sexual, spousal, spiritual, etc.)

While those decisions are all weighty, what I want to focus on here are the decisions taken by synod in response to overtures that requested hiring a third-party organization to investigate cases of sexual abuse. Synod’s response to these overtures seems to have garnered the most interest and questions. While I would encourage all to read carefully through the full decisions (which can be accessed on the denominational website, prca.org), I want in this article to summarize what synod decided and thus provide increased familiarity with the concept of a third-party investigation.

What did synod decide with respect to the two overtures?

There were two overtures before synod, both of which were asking that synod hire a third-party organization to conduct an investigation into cases of sexual abuse. Synod voted not to approve one of the overtures, on the ground that the “overture considered on its own has insufficient information for synod to make an informed judgment whether or not to approve the request. For an assembly to adjudicate a matter, the assembly must have the facts of the matter before it. While the overture speaks to how a third party would be researched and engaged, the overture says almost nothing about what a third party is or what a third party would do.”

Synod did approve the substance of the second overture. In this case, synod had more material to work with regarding what a third party is and what a third party would do, since the overture came with a great deal of additional information from the special committee of Classis East tasked with looking into these matters in more depth.

What is the third-party organization being hired to do?

The third-party organization is being hired to look into cases of sexual abuse. Synod acknowledged that there are many other forms of abuse, all of which are harmful and heinous, but decided to narrow the focus of the investigation to sexual abuse.

Synod determined that the scope of the investigation would include “all sexual abuse committed by current or former members, including officebearers, of the PRCA.” Rather than limiting the investigation to one particular individual or only to officebearers who have committed sexual abuse, synod decided upon a broad investigation into all cases of sexual abuse.

The investigation is intended not only to help uncover where abuse has been perpetrated, but it is also intended to “uncover general patterns of how consistorieshave responded to reports of sexual abuse (for example, whether or not they reported to the civil authorities, whether or not they investigated seriously initial charges of sexual abuse, whether or not they understood the deceptive nature of an abuser).” To alleviate any concerns that this might infringe upon the rule of elders, synod explained this point further: “The third-party investigators, not being experts in church polity, will not delve into the specifics of how the church order was applied in matters of church discipline, but as experts in sexual abuse will assess the level of understanding of sexual abuse in those who conduct church discipline.”

How will the investigation be conducted?

Synod appointed an ad hoc committee of ministers and elders to begin the work by hiring a third-party organization. The ad hoc committee will continue to serve as the contact party between the denomination and the third-party organization throughout the course of the investigation should any questions, concerns, or requests arise during the process.

Once the third-party organization is hired, they will begin their work by gathering information through a survey. The survey will be made available to all members of the denomination, and former members of the PRCA will also be able to fill it out. Participation in the survey is not mandatory but voluntary. Regarding charges of sin made against individuals through the survey, synod decided the following: “Survey participants may choose to remain anonymous, but the survey shall be designed in such a way that no one can make a specific allegation of sin against another specific individual anonymously. For the third party to channel to a consistory an allegation of sin against a specific individual that comes through the survey alone (without a follow up interview), the survey participant must agree to have his/her name disclosed as well.”

The third-party organization will proceed to interviewing those who indicated through the survey a willingness to be interviewed. Again, participation in the interviews will be voluntary; no one who does not wish to speak to the third-party will be forced to do so. While synod decided that the third-party could not channel to consistories anonymous allegations of sin that came through the survey alone, it did decide that the third-party could channel anonymous allegations of sin that came after interviewing a victim: “After conducting an interview, the third-party may channel to a consistory a specific allegation of sin against a specific individual anonymously, and every consistory will then have to judge whether it will receive such an anonymous allegation of sin brought by the third party as a credible victim advocate.”

During the course of investigating, the third-party organization may request information from relevant parties. Since a third-party organization does not possess subpoena power, it cannot compel a consistory to supply minutes or documents. Recognizing the autonomy of the local congregation, synod did acknowledge that it “cannot compel such compliance in this investigation either.” At the same time, recognizing that this investigation was judged by synod to be for the good of the churches in common and that it has the approval of the broadest assembly of the denomination, synod did urge consistories to comply with the investigation, unless they had “weighty reasons” not to do so.

What will be the nature of the third-party’s report?

Throughout the course of the investigation, the thirdparty will channel credible allegations of abuse directly to the consistories concerned, provided the victim consents. The third party will also bring to the attention of consistories any credible allegations of failures in responding to sexual abuse.

At the conclusion of its investigation, the third-party organization will issue a final report of its findings to synod (through synod’s ad hoc committee). The final report will consist of a general summary of the surveys and interviews. Where specific cases are used to illustrate patterns and trends, this will not take place without the consent of the abused, and the third-party will use non-identifying language to describe these cases so that it is not possible for any cases to be identified even in our small, interconnected denomination. This report will not contain the names of people or consistories or congregations, with the possible exception of the names of individuals who, because of their “sins and gross offenses” have been rendered “infamous before the world” (Church Order, Art. 80), which names are already public. Under no circumstances will victims be named in the public report. The third-party organization will comply with all legal requirements to prevent libelous accusations against persons or consistories.

When the final report is ready, synod’s ad hoc committee will also bring to synod for approval a recommended response to the findings of the third-party’s report, which would be an opportunity for self-reflection on our part as a denomination. In the interests of transparency, this final report along with synod’s response will be made public to the whole denomination.

How will the churches exercise mutual accountability?

Some might wonder, “If the final report is not going to include identifying language, and all allegations are going to be channeled to the respective consistories, then how can we be sure that consistories are going tofollow up on those allegations?” Recognizing the need for mutual accountability, synod believed this could be accomplished in our Reformed system of church polity through the church visitors of the Classes. According to Article 44 of the Church Order, the task of the church visitors includes, “fraternally admonish[ing] those who have in anything been negligent” and “by their advice and assistance help[ing] direct all things unto the peace, upbuilding, and greatest profit of the churches.” Synod encouraged both Classes to instruct their church visitors that, prior to meeting with each consistory for the annual church visitation, they request a report of all correspondence received from the third party with the names redacted. The church visitors would then discuss this correspondence with the consistory at the annual meeting, document the correspondence, and report their findings in summary form to the classis.

Who will be hired to conduct this investigation?

Synod instructed its ad hoc committee to contract with Guidepost Solutions to do the work of investigation. Guidepost Solutions is a secular organization, but they have experience working with Christian organizations. Guidepost has greater resources and more experience than similar third-party organizations in working with larger entities and in investigations of this magnitude.

If the ad hoc committee is unable to contract with Guidepost Solutions under the stipulations of the investigation as outlined by synod, the committee may then seek to contract with another competent third-party organization under the same stipulations.

The estimated cost of having a third party conduct such an investigation is $100,000-$200,000.

Why did synod judge it wise to conduct a denomination- wide investigation into cases of sexual abuse?

Synod’s first ground for approving the overture addresses this question. This ground reads: “It is wise to conduct a denomination-wide investigation into the matter of sexual abuse on account of the nature of the sin and its prevalence in our churches.” Synod established this ground on the following six sub-points, provided here in summary form: 1) the uniquely destructive nature of sexual abuse; 2) the case of a former minister who was deposed for sins of sexual abuse; 3) many other cases of sexual abuse brought to light in recent years; 4) the failures of consistories in their responses to cases of sexual abuse; 5) as a means to help consistories in their calling to “…relieve the oppressed…” (Is. 1:17); and 6) as a help to consistories in carrying out their calling to protect the children and future generations of the church.

Why did synod judge it wise to hire a third-party organization to conduct this denomination-wide investigation?

Synod’s second ground for approving the overture reads: “It is wise to engage a third-party organization to conduct such a denomination-wide investigation.” But why? According to synod, this is wise for the following six reasons: 1) a third-party investigation would remove barriers that exist for some victims to report their abuse; 2) a third-party investigation would provide increased objectivity; 3) the amount of manpower and expertise required to do an investigation like this is more than a committee of our own can handle; 4) many cases cross lines between churches, classes, and even denominations, a fact which requires extensive investigation on multiple fronts, something virtually impossible for our denomination to conduct on its own; 5) a third-party investigation followed by a public report would shed light on a sin which hides in the darkness and must be dragged into the light; and 6) important biblical principles (such as humility, uncovering the hidden works of darkness, and avoiding “respect of persons”) bear on the hiring of a third-party organization.

How does this decision of synod fit within our Reformed church polity?

Synod’s third ground for approving the overture addresses this question. The third ground reads: “Hiring a third-party organization to conduct a denomination-wide investigation in the manner outlined above is consistent with our Reformed system of church government.”

Synod showed that the work of a third-party organization in investigating, bringing credible allegations of sexual abuse to consistories, assessing the response of officebearers to reports of sexual abuse, and providing a final report of its work, all done according to the guidelines spelled out by synod, would not infringe upon the rule of Christ through elders.

Synod also demonstrated that it has the jurisdiction to mandate a denomination-wide investigation. While synod cannot compel local congregations to comply with a third-party investigation, it is in the nature of a federation that synod makes decisions that affect the churches in common. Synod, as a broader assembly, deals with matters that “pertain to the churches of the major assembly in common” (Church Order, Art. 30).

How ought members of the denomination to respond to this decision of synod?

There are two things I believe we ought to keep in mind in our response to this decision.

First, we ought to have realistic expectations of what this investigation can accomplish. Undergoing this investigation will likely not bring to light every case of sexual abuse ever perpetrated in the denomination, nor will the investigation ensure that sexual abuse will never again take place in our midst. Hopefully what this investigation does accomplish is providing us with a greater awareness of sexual abuse and its presence among us and better equip us as churches to address it.

Second, we all ought to labor for peace in the churches over this issue. My sense is that this issue has become very contentious over the last few months, some in favor of the overture hurling accusations at those opposed to it, and those opposed hurling accusations at those in favor. If the overture had failed, those in favor of it would have to be told quietly to acquiesce to the settled and binding decision of synod. Now that the overture has been approved, those opposed to it must be told quietly to acquiesce to the settled and binding decision of synod. In a matter that the Bible does not directly address (that is, the Bible does not directly address whether it is right or wrong to hire a third-party), we must learn to deal with our differences in a brotherly way, being slow to speak and quick to listen, not judging one another uncharitably, and not allowing the issue to divide us. Remember, and put into practice with respect to this specific issue, the word of God in Philippians 2:3-4: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”