In Geneva he appointed non-clergy “ruling elders” representing various parts of the city. These elders met weekly with pastors to oversee the moral, ethical, and spiritual welfare of the city. Elders remain the backbone of the Presbyterian Church. “Together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament … [elders] exercise leadership, government, and discipline … ” in Presbyterian congregations (G-6.0302).
Additionally, when the congregation’s governing body meets elders always outnumber pastors. Few churches will rise far above the level of their elders. I say this not to devalue the role and work of the pastor in a congregation, but because even the most dynamic and gifted pastor will be hamstrung if the congregation’s member-leaders are lethargic or spiritually anemic. Expecting a church to “catch fire” only through the efforts of the minister is like expecting a match to set fire to a pile of sodden logs.
Today our congregations face major challenges and opportunities. In such a time, the spiritual leadership of the congregation’s elders can make or break its life and mission. And yet, the care and training of officers is a low priority in too many congregations. This is bad for the congregation, officers, and for the pastor, too.
Churches come alive in new ways when the minister(s) and member-leaders work together as a spiritual leadership team for the church. So how can we begin to create a more positive climate for the spiritual leadership of officers, empowering them for ministry?
One place to start is with pastors, whose actions and attitudes can do much to empower the ministry of elders. Those of us serving as pastors can regularly remind our officers that together we are serving as the spiritual leadership team for the church. We can train and challenge elders to function in that role. And we can encourage and mentor them in their ministry.
If we do this consistently, over time a climate for strong congregation-wide spiritual leadership will emerge.
If a pastor acts and speaks as if she is “the” spiritual leader in the church, the officers will generally begin to abdicate that role. After a while they will forget the true nature of their calling, and become passive program directors.
Pastors empower elders when we prepare them to do a good job as spiritual leaders. Officer training, as outlined in this edition of the Outlook, is also one of the best investments a pastor can make in the health of his or her congregation. Officers being ordained need a minimum of twelve to fifteen hours of training. Along with providing an opportunity to explore their own relationship with God, this training should include prayer and spiritual growth, Reformed theology and Confessions, Presbyterian polity, the church’s mission and history, sacraments and worship, along with such vital matters as how to get a check cut and when session meetings are held.
Veteran officers should be urged to attend and share their wisdom with the new officers.
As important as the content is, the hours a pastor spends in training officers also help build strong personal and working relationships. When conflict arises, both officers and pastors will find that time spent in building trust and mutual understanding was time well spent.
Pastors who want to empower their elders will also intentionally make room for them to grow in the practice of ministry. For instance, the Book of Order reminds us that it is the duty of elders to “visit and comfort and care for the people, with special attention to the poor, the sick, the lonely, and those who are oppressed.” Many elders don’t know how to go about this or may be under the impression that it is the pastor’s responsibility to do all the pastoral caring.
I remember a visit to a woman in the hospital; a veteran elder in his 70s accompanied me. He confessed a little anxiously that he had never done this kind of visit before. We chatted with the woman a while, he read a passage of Scripture and we both held her hands while we prayed. As we were leaving the hospital, my companion said to me, “Now I know what it really feels like to be an elder.”
How pastors work through the issues that arise in the church’s life can also serve to empower elders as leaders. Practicing inclusive decision-making proves that the pastor is serious about working with the officers as a team. When significant problems or opportunities arise, a pastor who values member-leadership will generally not make decisions alone and report them at the next session meeting. Instead, if time and circumstances permit, she will gather the elders together to work through the matter as a group.
In more urgent situations, even taking time to make a phone call seeking advice from the clerk of session or other elders says that their contributions really matter. Rather than driving toward quick resolution on every issue in session meetings, it is good to slow things down sometimes and allow space for creativity and new ideas to bubble up from the group. This practice not only affirms the spiritual leadership of the session but also might give the Holy Spirit room to do some amazing things.
Pastors cannot and should not bear the burden of spiritual leadership alone. As we challenge our officers to claim their role as spiritual leaders while also training and supporting them in it, God will empower them to lead with us. So will we all find that the joy of serving Christ is increased and the burdens are made light.
Questions for discussion:
When you hear the term “spiritual leadership,” what comes to mind?
The Apostle Paul directed his ministerial protégé to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” What spiritual gifts might you hope to fan into flames as you serve?
Joan Gray is parish associate at First Church, Atlanta, and is author of the recently-released book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers. She served as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006).