In our congregation, partly because our members are so busy, we conduct the entire program in one day. The purpose is to introduce new elders and deacons to the fundamentals of the biblical background of current church offices, the essentials of God’s call to ministry
(G-14.0000-.0744), ordination vows (W-4.4000), an outline of the Book of Confessions, the responsibilities of the session and board of deacons found in the Book of Order (G-10.0000), and the specific duties of each board in our church.
We do not stop here, however. New officers are each given a book on officer training to study* and major principles of responsible and faithful leadership are raised at each session and deacon meeting during the next twelve months.
Other churches develop a more extensive training session. In one case I know about, each of the topics listed above is offered at a weekly meeting for six weeks prior to ordination. In another congregation, a very comprehensive year-long program incorporates monthly dinners and study sessions that include worship and prayer, Bible study, careful examination of the Book of Order and (The) Book of Confessions, the discussion of all administrative, financial and spiritual aspects of ecclesiastical leadership, culminating with a weekend retreat and ordination the next Sunday. In some presbyteries, moreover, the presbytery itself presents church officer training sessions that offer prospective officers from many churches a time to learn together in a central location and find out how other congregations deal with similar opportunities and problems of ministry.
Although all of these programs are very useful and can work in certain settings, depending on the needs and demands of the individual congregation, they all are deficient and too short if they are considered in the light of developing new officers who are in their twenties and thirties. In our congregation we have been working on a long- range development program that is in the second of two five-year planning cycles. At the end of ten years we are just beginning to experience the joy and benefit of having a number of younger members taking on roles of leadership as elders and deacons.
Ten years may seem like a long time to develop leadership but a number of critical factors are involved.
In many churches younger people are not very excited by liturgies that seem outdated. Acceptable forms of communication for them do not involve what appears merely to be talking heads (sermon and lecture style) and they do not keep in touch with each other through bulletins or church letters or even on the telephone. As the recent presidential campaign by Barack Obama has shown, much more information flows through e-mails, text messages, and personal exchange Internet sites like Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. It often takes a long time to convince younger members that the church really speaks their language.
What is more, younger members are time-deprived. Often they have more money than time and they are so busy raising children, keeping bills paid (usually both parents have to work), rushing from one school or sport activity to another, and polishing credentials to earn promotions in the work environment that they are unlikely to commit to church activities or the prospect of becoming church officers unless these commitments are seen as essentially worthwhile and productive. A revealing recent study by J. Clif Christopher shows how various age groups respond very differently to the message and the mission of the church (Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, A New Vision for Financial Stewardship, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008).
Building trust with younger members also takes considerable time and cannot be rushed. In our congregation we started a Young Adult Think Tank that has been meeting for several months. All of the members have been attending church regularly for many years and some of them have served on various boards or committees. The purpose of this group was kept purposely vague: to discuss anything they wanted to in reference to the church and discover together if there were some activities they would like to create entirely for themselves. Eventually, after they realized that they could trust the pastor and the younger elder who chaired the committee, they began to speak openly about their hopes and dreams for this church and offer their critiques of our worship and program. Out of it has grown a young adult fellowship group with an emphasis on new forms of worship and new types of mission that appeal to members their age. After a long period of gestation and trust-building some of them are now willing to be ordained as elders and deacons.
In a culture in which many things must have a drive-through or on-line mentality it is hard to imagine anything that cannot be served up fast-food style or be delivered to your hard drive in milli-seconds. Does your church family have the spiritual foresight and patience to encourage and nurture the careful transfer of leadership to your younger members?
*We have used some of my own books, i.e. Selected to Serve, A Guide for Church Officers (Westminster John Knox, 2000); The Presbyterian Deacon, An Essential Guide (Westminster John Knox, 2003); The Presbyterian Trustee: An Essential Guide ((Westminster John Knox, 2004). For recent discussions of the nature of church office see the issue “Dangerous Elders, Dynamic Deacons,” in The Presbyterian Outlook, September 1, 2008; and an article by Lee Hinson-Hasty, “Leadership — and All That Jazz,” in Presbyterians Today, September 2008.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is pastor of First Church, Johnstown, N.Y., and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.