We Presbyterians are obsessed with the critical issues facing our denomination: declining membership, too many congregations barely surviving, battles over the interpretation of Scripture, an outdated organizational structure, just to name a few.
Don’t get me wrong — we should be obsessed with these issues. We need to face and resolve them if the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is to continue to proclaim the Gospel prophetically into the 21st century.
I wish I had solutions to these issues. I don’t. Instead, I have yet another issue to add to the list: the diminution of the role of the ruling elder and the consequent decline — in fact, I would say, the extinction — of the parity that our polity calls for between ruling elders and teaching elders.
I have no hard data to confirm my assertions. Instead, my view reflects encounters and experiences with ruling and teaching elders across the denomination. Many ruling elders have no concept of the real responsibility to which they have been ordained — and, speaking of being ordained, all too many ruling AND teaching elders forget that ruling elders ARE ordained. I’ve heard ruling elders described as laypersons way too many times, almost as often as I’ve heard ruling elders characterize themselves as “just an elder.”
The role of the session has, in far too many congregations, been reduced to that of a nonprofit board of directors: an entity that decides who to hire for child care, what color the walls of the social hall should be, and what rent should be charged the organists’ guild for holding a concert in the sanctuary. Ruling elders take little part in worship leadership. If asked to lead in prayer, they say, “but I’m not the pastor.” The interest of most ruling elders in the wider church beyond the congregation is minimal at best. The presbytery is viewed as “them,” and electing a commissioner to attend a presbytery meeting often comes down to twisting extremely reluctant arms — “I did it last time, I’m not doing it again” — or possibly stooping to elect a ruling elder who was unlucky enough to miss that particular session meeting.
I know that there are many exceptions to what I describe. But in all too many places we are not living up to what the Form of Government calls the “Ministry of Discernment and Governance” of ruling elders:
Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline, and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships (G.2-0301).
I can hear your question now: all of this might be true, but how can the status of ruling elders possibly rise to the level of the other issues confronting us?
It’s simple: the only way we’ll have a chance to solve those issues is if we regain the full participation of committed, insightful, faithful ruling elders who are spiritual leaders in their congregations, in their presbyteries, and in the General Assembly.
No one is a bigger fan of teaching elders than I am — teaching elders have made me the Christian, and Presbyterian, that I am today. But teaching elders alone are not going to figure out how the PC(USA) is to survive in a world that has been labeled as post-Christian. Teaching elders alone are not going to sustain congregations seeking to proclaim the Word in the multicultural society that surrounds them. Teaching elders alone will not be able to come up with new structures for the new world in which we do ministry. Teaching elders alone can’t help us sort through our arguments over Scripture. We need the perspectives, the insights, the non-church experience of ruling elders — ruling elders who accept, and live into, their awesome, and awe-filled, calling.
How do we reclaim that awesome calling? How do we re-establish parity?
First, start at the beginning, with the congregational nominating committee. All too often nominating committees are focused on simply filling slates, so they minimize what it means to be a ruling elder. “It’s one meeting a month,” they’ll tell prospective candidates. Both the nominating committee and the candidates must recognize that not everyone is called to be a ruling elder. Both the nominating committee and the candidate must honestly, and maybe even painfully, consider whether the candidate is a person of “wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit” (G-2.0301). The candidate must confront some essential questions: Am I suited to this task? Can I do it? Do I really feel called to do it? The committee must confront those same questions with regard to each candidate.
If the nominating committee can’t identify enough persons who meet the standards and who believe they are called to be ruling elders, then the committee must be self-confident enough, and self-aware enough of its mission, to present a less-than-complete slate to the congregation. That is not failure on the part of the nominating committee; it is being faithful to its job.
Second, teaching elders in congregations must be diligent in training and nurturing new ruling elders. The congregation may have elected persons of “wisdom and maturity of faith,” but they still need instruction and mentoring on what the ordered ministry of ruling elder means.
And just as nominating committees need to be self-confident, teaching elders need the self-confidence to give ruling elders the space and opportunity to truly become worship and spiritual leaders of the congregation. This is difficult in part because it’s often hard for teaching elders to cede worship responsibilities to others. It’s difficult because ruling elders may at first be reluctant to step up to leadership roles. And it’s difficult because training and teaching others can often be more time-consuming than simply doing it yourself. But it has to be done.
Third, the life of the presbytery has to shift to reflect the needs of ruling elders. Right now most presbyteries are run based only on the needs of teaching elders. Having presbytery meetings at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays essentially precludes participation by any ruling elder who works. My perception — again, subjective — is that the ruling elders who are involved in presbytery are overwhelmingly of retirement age. Being of retirement age myself, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be there. But, let’s face it, those of us of retirement age are often inclined to do things the way we’ve always done them. And that’s exactly what we shouldn’t be doing. We need ruling elders — and teaching elders — who aren’t wedded to the traditional way of doing things, who appreciate new ways of thinking about the church.
I know of efforts by some presbyteries to rethink the way they “do” presbytery, focusing less on Robert’s Rules of Order and more on discussion and interaction among presbyters seeking to discern the role of the presbytery in today’s church. That trend needs to be encouraged, especially as it invites ruling elders into a discussion about what a presbytery is, and does, and why it’s important to the life of the church.
Reclaiming the calling of ruling elders, and rebuilding the parity between ruling and teaching elders, will not happen overnight. But it can happen — and when it does, we will see new life springing up across our congregations and presbyteries, we will feel new energy and vitality, and we will begin to believe that solutions to our critical issues are possible and achievable. And once we begin to believe we can solve a problem, can the solution be far behind?
CYNTHIA BOLBACH, a recently retired lawyer, is a ruling elder, the moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010), and former chair of the General Assembly’s New Form of Government Task Force (2006-10).