ruling elder commissioned to particular pastoral service


In my early twenties, I went to a Southern Baptist break-out session on “Is seminary for me?” They made it very clear that seminary was not for me (though it was for my friend Steve).

In my early thirties, I realized that the Baptists weren’t the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith and began exploring other options. I also began a Ph.D. in English because that seemed to be where I was headed.

In my early forties (with my Ph.D.), I looked at the guys in my Presbyterian church who were going to seminary and looking at ordination, thought, “They’re nice guys, but they don’t have anything I don’t except an unquestioned belief that they can do this.” I began working at the church. I took a seminary course for people like me who weren’t going to do an M.Div., but who longed to learn and lead.

Eventually, someone (the chair of the committee on preparation for ministry, also my pastor’s spouse) said, “you could become a Commissioned Local Pastor.” The denominational term is Commissioned Ruling Elder, but the Presbytery admits that “pastor” is a better term and means more to people and local means that it is only here and only now. One is ordained for life. One is commissioned for 3 years.

So I went through the process. And then we had to decide if my role in my congregation was actually pastoral. Eventually we decided it was. And on Sunday I was commissioned. The Presbyterians have a *thing* about every ruling elder already being ordained. So. My ordination is as an elder–not as a minister of word and sacrament. But. For the next three years (renewable), in this Presbytery, I have all the rights of a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I can consecrate the elements in communion. I can baptize. I can moderate a session meeting (Presbyterians have no hierarchy of ministry, but a distinctive is that it is the Pastors who moderate Session (council). Most other protestant denominations have lay members moderate their councils/vestries. Presbyterians also have few technical “lay” members. If you have been ordained an elder or deacon, you are ordained–not lay.)

This is a position that was created in the 90s because rural areas and ethnic congregations were finding themselves unable to find and/or pay a full Minister of Word and Sacrament (and there are Presbytery Minimums). Finding someone with good training but not a complete seminary course became a possibility. 30 years later, as churches find themselves unable to pay for an associate pastor, they are beginning to look at commissioned folks in that spot. It’s a new idea, and it’s where I find myself. The odd thing is the ambiguity I feel. I believe in education. I believe it means something. If our congregation could afford an associate, that person wouldn’t look like me (I am a decade younger than my colleague, but otherwise, we are the same demographic: middle-aged, middle-class white women. Our parents were all public school teachers. Ideally, she would prefer to have a male colleague who is ethnically more like our neighborhood. I can’t argue. Yet here I am.)

Presbyterians want to be unambiguous. There are lots of rules. So, I was commissioned on Sunday–not ordained (because I was ordained in 2010)–but the service was similar to an ordination. And I was given the gifts that are symbolic of ministry: a robe, a stole, and a communion cup and plate (and my parents, I believe, will gift me with a portable communion set).

My role in my congregation won’t change much. I will be able to preside at the communion table even if my Colleagues are absent. I could do a baptism, but I can’t imagine that happening because people want the *Pastor* to preside. I can moderate a session meeting if it becomes important (which it did in November when my colleague broke her arm, but I hadn’t been commissioned yet). But mostly I will continue to work on the orders of worship, to prepare “creative” worship services, to work to make sure youth and children are part of worship leadership. And, occasionally, I’ll preach.

I could be called to serve at another congregation in the Presbytery. If that happens, we will have to see what that means. I am open to being led by the Spirit, but I am also aware that my family is settled here. (I was looking for photos for the Nurture Committee’s annual report and almost sent my son’s birthday party photo because every person present is from this congregation.)

It feels like a culmination of a lifetime of seeking for me. In college, I wanted to be the one who worked on worship, but I was relegated to the one who did “discipleship” because I was studying to be a teacher and I am not a singer. I used to joke about wanting to preach, except it wasn’t really a joke for me, I just passed it off that way because that’s how it was taken. I was amazed when I joined the Presbyterian church how differently the same Scripture could be interpreted. They not only had a place for me as a woman, but they also had a place for me as an academic and a word smith and I didn’t have to be able to sing. I found my home.

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2 Responses to ruling elder commissioned to particular pastoral service

  1. Deanna says:

    Terrific explanation of where you are!

  2. Kristin Berkey-Abbott says:

    I am so glad you wrote a more detailed explanation–fascinating. I look forward to seeing where this step takes you.

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