There have been myriad important committees at Calvin College over the years, many formed for special tasks, such as the group brought together in the middle part of the 1990s to revise the college’s core curriculum.
The recently formed task force on Reformed identity and mission will, most likely, become part of that litany of key college committees because it has been called to answer two critical questions—queries that both reach into Calvin’s past and anticipate its future.
The first: What ought to be the confessional, philosophical, and practical characteristics and features that constitute the Reformed identity and mission of Calvin College? The second has no less weight: What should Calvin do to strengthen and maintain its Reformed identity and mission?
The group that has been united to consider these questions for the next 15 months brings many perspectives to the table, featuring members of the Calvin faculty, administration and board of trustees, as well as representatives from the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Calvin Theological Seminary and the CRC pastorate.
For the next year or so the group will have monthly conference calls and quarterly meetings on campus. In between, members will digest a plethora of reading materials—everything from the college’s own expanded mission statement to Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. (Mouw is the Fuller Theological Seminary president and a former Calvin professor.)
The task force will update the Calvin board of trustees in October 2008 on its progress and then have a written report for the board for either the February or May 2009 board meetings.
Calvin President Gaylen Byker is a member of the task force and says its formation grew out of a series of intentional board discussions a couple years ago on what it means for Calvin to be a Reformed college in this day and age.
“This has always been a vital conversation for me during my tenure as president,” he said. “I wanted the board to be part of this process, especially as we developed a board whose members were more diverse and could bring different perspectives on what it means to be Reformed.”
The idea of a task force to discuss the Reformed identity questions began to percolate as a result of those board discussions. But after the board’s October 2007 decision to uphold the professional status committee’s denial of a faculty church membership exception request, the decision was made to accelerate the formation of the task force, something Byker said made sense.
“There have been a lot of conversations on campus this year about faculty membership requirements, questions about why they exist, what their purpose is and how they fit into who Calvin is as a Reformed institution,” he said. “In light of the discussions the board had been having, it made sense to form the task force a little sooner than we had expected.”
The mandate for the task force is not to address the recent specific request for an exception, but it will include in its discussions such faculty and staff issues as hiring, recruiting, development, reappointment and membership requirements, as well as such issues as curriculum and programs, communication of the college’s identity and the college’s relationship to the Christian Reformed Church.
Susan Felch, a professor in the English department who also served on the core curriculum revision committee, said serving on the task force is daunting, but important.
“I’m excited,” she said. “It’s a fine group of people on the committee. And this is the sort of thing Calvin does well. We do well at thinking about big issues. I’m looking forward to lively and energetic conversations.”
Both Felch and Jim Bratt, a professor of history, believe that Calvin’s expanding global influence will play into the upcoming task force conversations.
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“Our faculty is more global than it was even a couple of decades ago,” Bratt said. “We have expanded our reach with off-campus programs, and we have more students here from other countries. But I’m not sure our thinking about what it means for Calvin to be Reformed has caught up with those increased global connections. There’s a whole world out there of Reformed folks in Africa and Central and South America and Asia. How we define our Reformed-ness in connection with the bigger world will be an interesting question to consider.”
Bratt said, too, that the North American context around Calvin and the CRC has also changed over the past 30 years.
“Both the denomination and the college were formed and moved for quite some time in an adversarial atmosphere,” he said. “The CRC and Calvin fit much more easily into North American life now. That brings greater opportunities but also has made it more difficult to define exactly what ‘Reformed’ means and implications for our work together.”
Members of the task force more steeped in the CRC are also excited about the chance to examine Calvin’s past, present and future, especially as those have related to the denomination in the past, and might relate to the CRC in the future.
“The opportunity to engage in this conversation is extremely valuable for both Calvin and the Christian Reformed Church,” said the Rev. Jerry Dykstra, executive director of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. “As we talk and reflect on God’s purpose and direction for His church, we will not only discover a greater sense of where we fit in the global Christian community, but we will also find ways in which we can contribute our unique flavor to that community.”
At its first gathering in March, the task force spent some four hours together, a time that Bastian Knoppers, Calvin College board of trustees chair, said was well-spent.
“We spent a good part of the meeting just getting to know one another and a good amount of time listening to people’s vision for Calvin,” he said. “I think we set a good foundation for the work we need to do moving forward.”
Felch hopes the task force can concentrate on where things can be improved, but also on what things are good and lasting.
“Our transformational theology can lead us to view the world primarily as a set of problems that needs to be fixed. That isn’t the whole picture,” she said. “Sometimes we need to sit quietly and listen, and sometimes rather than focusing simply on what may need to be changed, we should also celebrate and strengthen what we’re doing well.”
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