elder or not?

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?

Teaching Elders

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?

Ruling Elders

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.

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4 Responses to elder or not?

  1. deanna Long says:

    I read it…definitely PCUSA stuff!

  2. Kristin Berkey-Abbott says:

    I don’t think you’re overthinking it at all–I’ve wrestled with similar issues. We’re a small church: 75-125 members each Sunday, and not the same members each Sunday, and many of them just do not have time/energy/resources to do much more than come to church on Sunday. That leaves very few of us doing a lot of the jobs of the church: a recipe for burn out to be sure. I, too, wonder about ways to make Church Council (as we call it) more effective.

  3. Silent says:

    A polity question–
    Are Ruling Elders local? If you move and join a different PCUSA congregation, are you a Ruling Elder there too? (Or Deacon–for that matter?) If I understand, Teaching Elders aren’t members of congregations, but of the presbytery. How does this work for Ruling Elders and Deacons?

    (From an ELCA person–ordained to Word and Sacrament ministry–member of the congregation where I serve as pastor, not the chair/leader of council/congregation, would have to check constitution to know for sure if I have a vote on council–think so but don’t usually use it/know I have voice on council and both voice and vote in congregational meetings)

    • bookgirl says:

      Good questions for clarity. Ruling elders and deacons are both local and members of the local congregation, but once ordained are ordained for life. They serve terms on Session (Elder Board)/Deacon Board. If they transfer membership to another PCUSA congregation they are a ruling elder and/or deacon, but they would have to be nominated and installed (but not re-ordained) to serve on one of the boards.

      The Teaching Elder is a member of the Presbytery and not the congregation. As someone who grew up in Baptist churches, I get this and don’t. It does put them one remove, and it is part of what sets them apart in theory, and perhaps above in practice. (This was what my polity professor in my online Certificate in Ministry classes emphasized: set apart but not above. Technically all ordered officers are “set apart” for that office. We just don’t always remember that about Ruling Elders and Deacons.

      The Deacon Board is made up only of deacons and only deacons get a vote. bye choose a moderator from among themselves. But they don’t set policy. The Session is made up of Teaching Elders and a set number of Ruling Elders with a Teaching Elder as Moderator, but one vote per person. Ideally, the Teaching Elder is going to lead in vision, and the TEs and REs will set policy together. Ruling Elders on Session also chair congregational committees made of Session Members and other congregation members and possibly a teaching elder as a de facto member.

      A Ruling Elder Commissioned to Pastoral Service (CRE, lay pastor) would be very local, invited by a particular Session and approved by presbytery, but with no jurisdiction outside their particular position.

      In a Presbyterian Church, Teaching Elders are the only ones who can officiate at the sacraments (communion and baptism) and moderate a Session meeting. They also have the privilege of choosing the scripture and hymns in worship services. Everything else can be decided by Session (in theory; in practice the Pastor usually makes most worship decisions, at least in my admittedly limited experience.) Session must approve all Baptisms and membership requests, weddings in the church (I believe), and communion services, and they make other policy decisions.

      We did get used to have large pastoral staffs (staves?) in the past and the elders did not have to be as active as I think they will be (if we even continue with this type of polity) in the coming years.


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