Disclaimer: This is a specifically PCUSA post. Also, it’s long. A more adept blogger might split it into parts. I really want it as a whole. Also, it’s really, really, really just my opinion!
In the PCUSA, there is technically no hierarchy of ministry. Teaching Elders, Ruling Elders, and Deacons.
There is no hierarchy of ministry in theory, but I am not sure that’s true in practice, and I wonder why and why it matters and how or if that should change or if I am making too big a deal of it.
Jan Edmiston writes a lot about this, actually (here is one specific post), and about how there are very few “lay people” in the PCUSA, and how congregations won’t survive if we expect the “Professional” Christian to do all the work. How do we change a culture to help this happen? How do we empower Ruling Elders? How do we help Teaching Elders see this and help us do this? How do we work together?
I was at an ordination service last week. The commission who were part of the service was made up of Teaching Elders (designated in the Order of Worship as Rev.), Commissioned Ruling Elders serving in Pastoral Capacity (designated in the Order as Pastor) and a Christian Camp Director (undesignated in the Order). So the only non-Pastor was a full time camp director. That commission was made up entirely of what Jan would call “Professional Christians.” (Also, only one woman, but that’s a different post.)
Now this particular person is kind of extreme on this. To his final day as Youth Director in our congregation he did not understand that he was brought to the church and hired by the Session and not by The Pastor. Part way through his time, there were some parents who wanted him let go. He never got that it was the Nurture Committee led by Session Members (Ruling Elders) and not The Pastor who chose to ask him to continue (and work with him and with the parents). A year ago, at his final service, he decided that rather than having a congregation member stand with him on the chancel as lector he wanted his visiting Reverend Father-in-Law to have that place. (And there was a long conversation about whether he should be asked to choose a congregation member or whether we should respect his wishes for his farewell service, but the discussion was not with him. And there is no rule that says a congregation member should be on the chancel every week; it’s just a strong statement.)
Here’s the thing: who is teaching him? Who did not sit down with him and say, “My friend, your commission should be made up of an “teaching and ruling elders” and your commission members should participate in your ordination service. On our Presbytery’s documents, “an equal number of teaching and ruling elders” is stated clearly. I assume this is a representative document. So someone dropped the ball. Was there not a single ruling elder in any of the three congregation in which he has served whom he wanted to stand with him? I know there were good people in our congregation who stood with him and served with him. I’m certain there were in his other congregations. Why can’t he see them? Why do we give in to that blindspot? Do we really believe there is no hierarchy of ministry and that should be visible? He is extreme, but he is also young and learning, and there were Teaching Elders helping him plan this. Did none of them say, hmmm, wait a minute?
There are other places this shows up. Currently, our General Assembly Moderator is a Ruling Elder. The Vice Moderator is a Teaching Elder. When the elections happened during the GA, though, the Teaching Elders who stood for election had chosen Teaching Elder Vice Moderator candidates to stand with them. They differed in age, gender, and ethnicity, but not in ordination. I wonder what that means?
On the other hand…
When I was ordained as a ruling elder, a young adult who was in my “class” said, “well, yeah, I said yes because my mom said I would have to do it some time and I might as well.”
I sat in my Circle Bible Study talking about leadership and several women who either have served or are serving as Ruling Elders on Session and Session Committee Chairs said things like “I don’t really think of myself as a leader. I don’t really do that.” WHAT??? One of these women has been on Session 8 of the last 9 years. Seriously. (I think these people ARE leaders, but why don’t they think of themselves that way? And what does it mean to them to be a Ruling Elder on Session if they don’t think of themselves as leaders. Also, is this a gender thing? How do we help?)
A nominating committee member says things like, “Well they’ve never been asked so they don’t get to serve communion so we should ask them so they can be ordained and serve communion.” That’s why we’re nominating them?
The Nominating Committee Chair says, “We can’t cut down on the number of elders because there’s too much work to do. Who would do the work?” and then struggles to find enough people who will say yes.
Twice this year there has not been a quorum at a Session Meeting. Why isn’t this important enough to its members to be made a priority?
A communion sign-up sheet was passed around Session, and of a 15 member Session only 4 people signed up and one of those backed out.
People do take being a Ruling Elder very seriously, are honored to lead, and believe themselves to be leaders. Even some of these people work in a world where other things come up.
Some of my thoughts
We say Ruling Elders are called by God through the nominating committee and the congregation, and we give them a sheet that talks about being called and what that means, but unlike the Pastor/Teaching Elders, we don’t have people saying, “I think God is calling me to be ruling elder. What do I need to do?” We go to them and ask, Is God calling you to this? I’m not sure that’s something we can change, but there it is.
We do a lot of things right. We give people descriptions and explanations and ask them to discern. We have study and prayer and contemplative time in Session meetings. We eat together so we can become a community who discern together. (I’m not on Session and have been ruled out as long as I am in a paid position created by Session, but I served a 3-year-term from January 2011-December 2013, and I still serve on 2 Session committees, and I am still a Ruling Elder not currently serving on Session.)
I wonder what would happen if we had fewer Ruling Elders, and they were truly the few people who were called (by God through the nominating committee and congregation) to discern and lead for a time (keep the rotating classes and term limits.)
I wonder what would happen if our officer ordinations were the kind of Big. Deal. that our Teaching Elder Ordinations are. Each year we ordain and install officers in 15 minutes as part of a regular church service. The service is usually themed around service and serving. It’s not a small thing, but it can kind of get lost in the regularity and the sheer number of people being ordained/installed. In the Teaching Elder Ordination, the candidate chooses their Commission and plans their service. They send out invitations and are given gifts that are symbols of ministry.
We give elders gifts as they go off Session, but not as they come on. What would be an appropriate gift for an elder coming on to Session? A stole? We have started wearing stoles to serve communion. A special name tag? A leather notebook? Am I lame?
What if each incoming elder and deacon (or incoming first time elder or deacon, those being Ordained as well as Installed) chose a sponsor to stand with them and lay hands on them and give them a gift and mentor them for a year (as we do with confirmation students, I suppose)?
What if a Ruling Elder and/or a Deacon did a Charge to those being Ordained and Installed and a Charge to the Congregation that was written for the occasion rather than read from a book, as they are in a Teaching Elder Ordination?
What if we had a Reception afterward during Coffee Hour and sent invitations and encouraged people to invite friends and relatives for this special occasion?
I don’t know if any of this would make a difference, I don’t know if I am overthinking it. I’m just wondering out loud.