Those Christian educators just won’t take “No!” for an answer. Recent General Assemblies have rejected again and again proposals to ordain educators, yet presbyteries persist in submitting more overtures for the same. When will they give up? Or, maybe, should this year’s GA return a different response?
Our attachment to the threefold offices of minister of Word and Sacrament, of elder, and of deacon is held almost as intensely as our affirmation of a Trinitarian God and our preference for three-point sermons. We have protected that structure against those promoting the office of bishop or of priest or of anybody else. Indeed, many of us urge our seminaries to appoint as faculty members only those who have been ordained to one of those offices.
We have not always been so jealously protective of the threefold structure of church office.
John Calvin promoted a four-fold set of ministries, adding to our list the office of ordained teacher. That office, as conceived by Calvin, was one comparable to today’s seminary professors, as interpreters of the faith to the broader church.
In the era when the ordained teacher faded from use, the office of deacon was finding acceptance only through years of intense debate.
More recently, the commissioning of lay ministers–promoted in some regions and dismissed in others–has thrown another curve at the simple threefold structure.
Which takes us back to the role of church educator. Should the church consider ordaining those who teach and train the baptized of all ages?
Many insist that we must not elevate to a status equivalent to the minister those who have not mastered the biblical languages and all the other academic tools a Master of Divinity program teaches. Then again, our parity system says that the elders already enjoy equivalent status with the ministers, at least to the point of having equal voice and vote in setting direction, budget and policies for the local church as well as at other levels of church governance.
Some suggest that for educators to hold such office, they should be elected to the Session like any other congregation-elected elder where they serve. But most nominating committees hesitate to “stack the Session” with the paid staff who serve under the Session’s oversight. Plus, such a requirement would also limit their term of service.
Others warn that elevating the status of educators would establish minimum compensation requirements. That will price them out of the budget!
Dare I add: many of us “clergy” want to protect the admissions standards of our “club.” “Let them learn Greek and Hebrew like the rest of us.”
In the meantime, church educators continue to teach, to train, and to serve their congregations with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. The educators with whom I have served have poured themselves into those churches, making our shared service so much more fruitful than it ever could have been without them.
At least two presbytery overtures regarding the office of church educator will come before the upcoming General Assembly. Will either of those overtures make perfect sense to all the commissioners? Probably not. Will they mess with the threefold structure of leadership? Probably will. But those overtures will reflect that part of our tradition that promotes the study of God’s Word, empowers the gift ministries of all our members, and honors those who serve the Lord in our midst. They will give voice and vote to those who lead.
Can our GA commissioners find a way to unleash the gifts of those who serve in the office of church educators? The church herself will be well served if they do.