Tucked away amongst all the reports is one from the Needy Student Fund. It might look innocuous at first glance, but this one has some major problems. First, let me provide some background.
Back in the day, prior to Synod 2010 that is, the support of CanRC seminary students was a matter of the churches in each classical region. Every classical region had its own Needy Student Fund or Committee. As with many other things Canadian Reformed, this was a more decentralized approach. Unfortunately, there were many inequities in the way students were helped. Some classical regions were more generous than others. As an example from my own seminary studies, I was told that the support I could receive would only be for me and my living expenses, and not for my wife and two (at the time) children. These funds were often managed in such a way that it would take months before any requested support would arrive. There was widespread frustration and dissatisfaction about this approach, both from present students and alumni.
In Classis Pacific West, the Needy Student Fund was overhauled after a proposal from Langley, sponsored by Cloverdale. We reorganized it into a Committee for Theological Students. The committee was set up not only to be more responsive to the needs of our seminary students in Hamilton, but also to promote study for the ministry in the classical region, and mentor those who had indicated an interest. This was an improvement. But our improvements left a disparity with the way students from other parts of the country were being helped.
On the other side of the country, the Eben-Ezer CanRC of Chatham developed a proposal in 2009 to establish one fund for the entire federation, thus (hopefully) doing away with the inequities. This proposal went to a Classis Ontario West. The overture was adopted and sent along to a Regional Synod East. There it was reviewed and then pushed along to General Synod Burlington 2010. The Chatham overture was adopted. Needy Student Funds in each classis would be disbanded and the whole she-bang would be centralized. The idea was that the fund would be taken under the care of a church in the vicinity of the seminary, since a church in those circumstances would be more familiar with the living expenses in Hamilton. However, when the appointments came around, the Synod appointed the Covenant CanRC of Grassie. Grassie is not in Hamilton. It is near Hamilton (like Langley-Abbotsford near), but it is a rural area, not urban. I’m not sure why Grassie was selected to be the church responsible for this fund when a church in Hamilton would have made more sense. But anyway, here we are.
Now to the report itself. I will mention two serious concerns that I have about the report.
1) The report seems to reflect a view of the ministry as a “job” and seminary training as post-secondary education to obtain that “job.” The report speaks of students obtaining “employment” after their education (1.9.2 of the Support Guidelines). It has to be realized that our seminary students no longer have access to the government financial assistance (i.e. OSAP) alluded to in 1.9. Most, if not all, of the students would utilize that avenue if it was open to them. To compare our seminary students to other post-secondary students in our communities is unjustifiable.
2) Related to my first point, it seems that the Fund is now operating a student loan program instead of a fund for assisting needy seminary students. This is especially evident in 1.9.1 of the Support Guidelines where some students are required to pay back a portion of the amount given in support. This is unprecedented in the history of the Canadian Reformed Churches and is objectionable. When students were supported by their home classis, the only situation where funds might have to be repaid was in cases where a student might drop out, be expelled, or not enter in the ministry after his seminary studies. But now to expect some graduated students to pay back part of the support received based on the amount given? That’s unheard of. The churches need to keep in mind that this cost will be downloaded to them eventually anyway — either that or their new pastors will be lining up at the local food bank.
So what might Synod do with this report? There are a number of letters from the churches on it and I know that they’re not all happy, happy, happy. It should be readily evident that there are problems with the Fund. Can the Synod remedy them? Yes, it can, it should, and I think it will. The Synod will likely mandate the committee running the fund to amend their Support Guidelines. The present arrangement was established to address inequities in the way seminary students are supported. I can’t believe that these new problems would be allowed to fester and grow. We need ministers and missionaries. Studying for 8 long years at university and seminary is a big enough sacrifice as it is — do we really want to put more obstacles in the way?