This article calls the consistory to consider their core responsibilities (proclamation, pastorate, catechism instruction, and diaconate). The author gives guidelines for how the church council can deal with other non-priority issues through delegation.

Source: Diakonia, 2000. 7 pages.

The Forest and the Trees

It is drudgery in the consistory. Evening after evening nothing but work, and more than once you ask yourself: What's the use? Stronger yet: What are we really so busy with? More and more people appear not to be able to cope any longer, and it has become increasingly difficult to find people who dare to take on the work. Does this, however, have to stay that way? There is another way of doing things. A way that brings an overall improvement; that allows one to get a firm grip on things. In short, it allows you, in spite of all those trees, to see the forest again.

Sticking Pointsā¤’šŸ”—

What is going on with all that consistory work? Where, after a careful examination, are the sticking points?

  1. Consistories do too little directing. Their agendas are, for an important part, set by what is put on their plates by outside sources. Letters from congregation members at times deĀ­mand much time and energy. Then there are the matters presented by the federation and various other organizaĀ­tions. As a result consistories have hardly any time to set and work on their own priorities.
  2. There is a whole lot going on in the congregations. They come with new ideas and say: Consistory, this is important to us, can you do something about it? Ideas also blow in from other churches. Again the congregations insist: You must work on it, you must do things this or that way. In addition the composition of the consistory changes so frequently that decisions made only a few years back are no longer operative. Subjects that were thoroughly dealt with once again appear on the agenda.

    All and all the agendas become overĀ­burdened with the most wide ranging topics and consistories are inclined to deal with all matters rather than making a proper selection.
  3. Much time is wasted on matters that really ought to be subordinate, that are of a "facilitating" nature, things that serve to make the work proper possiĀ­ble, such as church construction, splitting of the congregation, financial affairs and actions, the appointment of new committee members and drawing up of instructions. In practice, just like that, they become primary matters.
  4. All these kinds of issues, which deĀ­mand decisions, require so much time and effort that there is hardly any time left for study, reflection and mutual consultation. What is more consistories are inclined not to set time limits in dealing with such matters. They give everything as much time as deemed necessary.

This analysis, based on a thorough review of numerous consistory minutes, is all too recogĀ­nizable. We, as it were, are looking into a distorting mirror at the midway and are prone to grin like the proverbial farmer with a toothache.

The Forestā†ā¤’šŸ”—

In order to untangle the clutter a (Dutch) work group, consisting of Dr. J. S. van den Berg, Drs. B. Bos, J. Lenting and Dr. M. te Velde, offer us a principle that in its simplicity is short of astounding.1Ā The consistory must concentrate much more on its real tasks. It must give spiritual direction to the congregation. It must develop a vision for the things that really go on in the congregation. And communicate this to and with the congregation.

Back to the essence, back to the primary tasks and the ability to distinguish these from subordinate matters.

In ecclesiastical work you can distinguish between content and structure. The content come first and structures, although much easier to deal with, are secondary. They only serve the content, not the other way round as often is the case. "How do we keep our strucĀ­tures functioning?" is neither the first nor the central question, but "Are we doing good things?" Only after that question has been answered comes the question: "Do we do these things well?"

The work group offers a short list of four central matters for which the consistory is primarily responsible:

  1. Proclamation (inclusive mission and evangelism).
  2. Pastorate.
  3. Catechism instruction.
  4. Diaconate.

All other tasks are of a facilitating, supportive, administrative problem solving, etc. nature. They do not belong to the central tasks, but must take second place. They, therefore, can also be delegated to committees and such.


Is the consistory, however, not responsible for the congregation as a whole, for the total course of events? Of course, but the boundary does not lie between what is and what is not the responsibility of the consistory. ResponsiĀ­bility is a layered concept. It means that the consistory does not need to do all things or pull all the strings. Some matters the consistory must directly have at heart: those are its primary tasks. In other areas it can provide indirect leadership, and leave the direct responsibility in other hands.

The work group's concept mentions several examples that, although important to congregational life are secondary in nature. Such as: management and administration, matters that deal with meetings and decisions by the federation, hymns, liturgical changes, matters involving the building, church splitting, the regulation of the minister's work conditions, the appointment of committee members and the writing of instructions for committees, audits, correspondence, conflicts with memĀ­bers of the congregation, etc. In short, all kinds of organizational issues and such like matters.


Such matters ought to be delegated. To be sure, that happens at present as well: for all sorts of activities we have committees. Only with this difference that consistories often spend an in ordinate amount of time and attention to the reports of these committees and meddle with all possible details as regards to content under the guise of final responsibilĀ­ity. This may not happen: the consistory must truly delegate and only indirectly give leaderĀ­ship. That primarily means two things:

  1. The establishment of a policy mandate (mission statement) for the various areas and committees. What must be accomplished and what the result ought to be.
  2. The evaluation that follows the work of the committee should focus on the primary matters. Are these met? If not, the policy mandate must be reaffirmed for the new term of the committee.

This way the consistory can restrict its involveĀ­ment with the various areas to the primary tasks and indirect leadership.

Conflicts with members can be delegated as well. Let the committee in which the contested point lies, or a separate committee, deal with it. For the execution of the work people must be sought who have a gift for it or who have expertise in certain areas. In its search for suitable members the consistory should not so much go out from the task ā€” often much more the case than suspected ā€” but look for the gifts that are available in and for the congregation.

A New Committeeā†ā¤’šŸ”—

The work group offers a strikingly concrete suggestion for the structuring of consistory work: the establishment of a committee for administrative matters (CAM). Normally there is already a separate moderamen which has as task to give guidance to the work of the consistory: to prime the pump, to prepare and present the material. Besides this activity the moderamen is in practice often charged with all kinds of executive and organizational duties; often details that require a great deal of time and attention. Provide the moderamen room to dedicate itself to its primary task and for the remaining activities appoint a separate comĀ­mittee. It can then maintain the contacts with the other committees, establish regulations, in short take care of all occurring organizational tasks. For such a committee the work group envisions a composition of one member of the moderamen, (still) one elder, one deacon, and a member of the congregation.

The Solitary Personā†ā¤’šŸ”—

The concept pays special attention to the position of the minister. In practice he is often incorrectly seen as the quarterback of congreĀ­gational life. He is expected to be or become familiar with all matters, for as the spokesman he is required to present and defend all sorts of policy planning of the consistory to the congreĀ­gation: from church construction to choral singing. I suspect he is associated with the lonely oarsman in the bow of a boat depicted in the cartoon that adorns the covering page of the concept. He strains with all his might while in the stern a whole slew of would-be coaches bombard him with megaphone amplified shouts of encouragement: "Let's go! Yes, yes, that's it!" That is still a favourable interpretaĀ­tion, for in this position the oarsman is also exposed to the brunt of the elements and thus can easily come to harm.

The consistory must change this situation. Just like the consistory as a whole, the minister, in his specific office, should be able to concenĀ­trate on his central, primary tasks. It may be good that he does not chair the consistory, then he will be free to serve the brethren with his expertise when it concerns the Spiritual edification of the consistory.


The work group is aware that no consistory will be able to introduce this new model without any resistance. There will, no doubt, be opposition.

To begin with a consistory must be in agreeĀ­ment with the diagnosis of the current situaĀ­tion. Those who see no problem or take it all that seriously, will also not be very motivated for a renewal intended to solve that problem.

The work group paid little yet some attention to the substrata principle. It has anticipated criticism on principle grounds. Can we do all this within the Church Order? The Church Order, so the group argues, must not be taken as a guide that tells us what we must do, but only as a collection of rules, agreements and limiting conditions within which we must stay. The model presented by them fits within Art. 36 (Dutch) of the Church Order about the task of the consistory, in particular the broader consistory. It does not regulate the practice of delegation but neither does exclude it. Do we not already work with committees? There is room here for further expansion and form giving.


There will, no doubt, be more opposition. As appealing and plausible the concept sounds, difficult as it may be to introduce it in practice. Reality is always stubborn when it comes to change. As such the implementation of someĀ­thing new requires much tact and takes a great effort. Opposition, the concept states, must be turned into positive energy. Something that is not easily done.

The congregation must also CO-operate. The concept especially urges that members of the congregation think twice before assailing the consistory with objections to decisions that they themselves would rather have seen differently but that nevertheless fall within Scripture, confession, and Church Order.

The fundamental thought behind the Nieuw Bestuurs Concept (New Management ConĀ­cept) for the "broad consistory" is at the same time a profound lesson in wisdom that each consistory member should take to heart. Let the consistory focus on its real task, i.e., to give spiritual guidance to the congregation. That is easily said; it seems so obvious. Many a consistory would like to do that, but experiences the practice of it as extremely obstiĀ­nate. To give practical form to this principle is going to take quite a bit (more about this implementation later). In any case, this principle is rock solid. There are no practical objections that are sufficiently valid for bringing it down. There still might be many mighty trees, but the consistory must keep the forest in mind. That means, to take the necessary distance, to develop a vision. Let the consistory busy itself with the question how we must be Christians in today's world. How the congregation receives her preparaĀ­tion, her spiritual armour from Scripture. How, stressed by modern life, you deal with your relationship with God. What the good works are that the Lord expects from us in our situation. How older members set an example in a life of faith, hope and charity, so that it becomes clear to the younger members how important it is for them as well. Let the consistory think about, study, and consider these things together.

The first question is: Do we do good things? Only after that comes the question: Are we doing the things well?


The consistory must delegate and manage much at arm's length. The concept concludes that consistories are rather lacking expertise in this area. In my opinion, however, attitude (mentality) comes before expertise. What are the things that motivate, and must motivate us? When you start there it also becomes clear what must be delegated.

The concept does not discuss this Spiritual leadership any further. It leaves the developĀ­ment of a Spiritual vision up to the consistory.

It offers us the humble but important service of passing down structures that spring from this principle. These structures are designed to give the consistory room to concentrate, in practice, on the main things. That is basically the method of Acts 6:1-6.

Structures are secondary. The content comes first and then the structure. The greatest mistake that you can make with (whatever) structures ā€” except the elimination of all of them ā€” is to expect too much from them.

You must begin with what it is about. ProceedĀ­ing from this, you must construct a good structure. And when there is a structure that impedes matters, it must be overhauled.

Theme and Variationsā†ā¤’šŸ”—

At the same time the concept shows a weakĀ­ness. As matters central to the work of the consistory it lists four areas: proclamation (mission & evangelism included), pastorate, catechism classes/instruction and diaconate.

Perhaps this series is meant as nothing more than an off-the-cuff example. From the existing practice, you can draw up such a series. From it we take those points that are most essential. It is, however, not self-evident that mission and evangelism ought to be included with proclamation. They are separate policy areas. To be sure, mission and evangelism can be best delegated to a committee, as is usually the case.

The other possibility is to set up such a series principally. But then you must verbalize the Spiritual vision on the congregation, for such a series must flow from it. That the work group does not do. As far as that is concerned, it reminds one of a minister who in making his sermon formulates his division-in-points before he even has a theme. Principally, evangelism and mission (in this order: from close by to far away) belong to the proclamation. There is also, however, in an already long existing congregation, principally very little distinction between proclamation and the catechism classes/instruction. The distinction lies more in the work form.


There is another important area that is overĀ­looked. In the midst of congregational life stands the worship service. That is the source of all policy areas. That one of the work group members, Dr. Te Velde, has correctly indicated in his four-part Gemeenteopbouw. If that is indeed the centre, then it also must have the consistory's central attention! You may not leave that up to a committee, as it now is usually done and as this plan advises. In the sensitivity of the congregation for liturgical matters there is ā€” leaving aside all contents for a moment ā€” perhaps yet more wisdom than often is given credit. Also the matter of hymns, a current issue that is here toned down with the necessary humour, then deserve a more prominent place.

This brings me to the major assemblies. The consistory must also delegate matters pertainĀ­ing to the major assemblies, so says the work group. With that these assemblies look rather silly! Is it not so that it makes quite a difference what their agenda points and decisions are about? Is it in our current practice really so unĀ­thinkable that the major assemblies provide leadership in areas where the Spiritual is the point? I think here of the GenĀ­eral Synod with respect to worship and divorce. I also have in mind other points that for some time deserve a central place in the overly policy of the consistory. For example, the discussions taking place to arrive at the unity of the true church locally. Each time your vision of the whole of the Spiritual leadership in the congregation is the deciding factor.

What is the Consistory?ā†ā¤’šŸ”—

The next point of criticism is more directed at the fundament of this account. We have here a plan for the "broad consistory". It must deĀ­velop a spiritual vision. Is this, however, not precisely the task of the "small consistory"? Where is this in the concept?

You could, in a plan like this, tie it directly to the practice: we are aware of the "broad consistory" and its overburdened agenda and we want to offer it help. That is urgent, no doubt about it. You indeed cannot wait with intervention in the practice until first of all the canonistic and exegetic issues (exegesis of Scripture and confession) are resolved. Those have been going for ages and could still continue for just as long.

The work group, however, goes further. It also provides a (very concise) biblical infrastrucĀ­ture. It points out that the New Testament only once mentions the consistory as council of elders (prebyterium). This argument does not hold water. On crucial places the New Testament speaks about elders. I mention Acts 14:23 ā€” the apostles at least appointed elders in each congregation. In Acts 20:7ff, the apostle, during his farewell, transĀ­fers the responsibility for the congregation to the elders. I also mention Titus 1:5ff and 1 Peter 5:1-4. The word "elders" signifies an executive collective. In all these texts we do not hear anything about deacons.

Man and Womanā†ā¤’šŸ”—

The question of the relationship between consistories and deacons is a very delicate one. It often makes me think of the discussions about the relationship between a man and a woman: not "more-less" and yet not completely equal. PreĀ­cisely in the last forty years much has been written about the relationship consistory-deacons. Dr. J. Kamphuis discovered: "The deacon always appear in company." Indeed, where deacons are mentioned, the elders always pass first in review: but when we come across elders there is no mention of deacons. We once again learned, in keeping with the Church Order, to speak of "consistory" and "consistory with deacons." Dr. Van Bruggen's findings2 go even further. Even if you do not adopt all these conclusions, you cannot simply bypass the discussion.

In the concept, the "small consistory" is not much more than a section of the "broad consistory," an executive organ of the pastorĀ­ate, for which the "broad consistory" has set the policy. That is in any case too skimpy!

Could it be that one of the factors, which led to the expansion of the organizational consistory agenda, is the increasing shift of the centre of gravity to the so-called "broad consistory"?

And would the consistory, as council of elders, not receive its first test-case in delegating (including granting and maintaining indeĀ­pendence!) in the way it deals with the deaĀ­cons?


I have called the concept modest in its objecĀ­tive, it is, however, assuming in its presentaĀ­tion. At first sight it looks like a total package that asks for implementation all at once. If that is so, it is a large package. It states that you must look more at gifts than at tasks. That is somewhat one-sided. All sorts of tasks need to be done for which it will be difficult to find the gifts.

As correction of an existing situation, it is, nevertheless, a valuable remark. You must not appoint members to a committee just because they are true-hearted and available. Major assemĀ­blies should also take this remark to heart. One after all has to make do with what one has. Perhaps you simply have to leave out certain things.

A congregation-building insight, which also holds true for organization in general, is that people are best done justice when you truly "delegate" something, as the work group intends it to be. That is to say, when you allow people to function in keeping with their own insights and gifts. You must not prescribe too much and that in detail. How they have to do their work, as often is the case with civil servants in bureaucratic organizations. Also in the evaluation afterwards, you must restrict yourself to the essentials and not get hung up on all kinds of side issues.

If you give people room to tell and show what they can do and the ideas they have, you will discover more gifts in the congregation that otherwise remain hidden. Then people will also give of their best with much more pleasĀ­ure. It is a general insight, which alas in practice is soon forgotten. It is then still a valuable lesson.


Yet, I find the concept unduly optimistic in its assumption about the abundance of gifts, for all possible and specific tasks, that are availĀ­able in the congregation. Much training is required. The consistory may delegate all sorts of tasks, but it will also be faced with all kinds of training tasks as well, also for special functions. And this consistory in turn is itself in need of training. Who will train the trainĀ­ers ā€” and what will the cost be in time, effort and (for courses, etc.) money?

Here and there consistories have tried various solutions for the problems the paper adĀ­dresses, which, according to its authors, failed. What was the problem? What makes the work group so confident that this time, with this plan, they will be successful? Can this plan not also be seen as one of the many ideas that consistories have adopted from elsewhere?

I do not mean this skeptically, but as a quesĀ­tion of reflection. I do not know in how far the work group will view my critical remarks as "resistance". In as far as they do, the brethren appear to be competent enough to change this "resistance into creative energy."


Finally, a remark about working with this document. At first sight it seems that it is intended as a total package; and indeed if you begin "to work with it from that thought," then you will need guidance. That, however, is not the intention. As we have read in the press, the consistory is to work with it independĀ­ently. Only when a consistory is stuck and as quickly as possible wants to make organizaĀ­tional changes then guidance will be necesĀ­sary. If there is a crisis, a doctor is needed. The treatment then proceeds by fits and starts. Hopefully, consistories will, as much as possible, work independently with this conĀ­cept, and, like they do with other publications and ideas, not immediately surrender to the "new light" and overturn everything. Not thinking that after reading something they have become instant "experts" in matters of leadership. As consistory you must read, consider and test any concept for serviceability in one's own congregation.

Everything begins with an analysis of the situation. Do we recognize the picture? The concept is especially designed for larger congregations, that however, does not mean that a smaller congregations cannot (selectively) benefit from it.

"Back to basics" ā€” this motto comes directly from Dr. J. Hendriks, an expert in congregaĀ­tion-building. Permit me to quote another slogan by him: "Work (roof) tile-wise." One step at a time, see if it works, and then conĀ­sider the next step.

Between the Earsā†ā¤’šŸ”—

Spiritual leadership means first of all to get down on your knees yourself, praying for Spiritual insight, listening to the Spirit, and from there go to work. Then you can also explain your plans to the congregation. The concept does not stress this, but that a consistory will have to do right from the outset: to involve the congregation. There will no doubt be resistance and then you will need to speak from a positive conviction. From here on we will no longer do this-and-that but we will focus on this or that!

It appears to me as well that delegation is not in the first place a question of expertise and technique. It asks for a vision that you can hand to the committees and members of the congregation: This is what it is all about! Fill in the rest for yourselves. It asks for a mentality, i.e., the courage to restrict yourself to what is truly important, inner peace to let go of side issues.

The next step of the work group, as the press reports, is an examination of the church federation. In the mean time there is ample room for publications about: What are the main issues that confront the congregation today? Not about trees but about the forest.

"Congregation-building" ā€” yes, but into what? Where to, as regard to content? Surely also when it concerns this, not each congregation needs to invent the wheel again independĀ­ently.


  1. ^ The concept can be obtained from the GVI for f. 5,- (five Dutch guilders).
  2. ^ Particularly in his book Ambten in de apostolische kerk, but I think here too of is earlier article Diakonessen spoorloos.

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