LOUISVILLE – In some Presbyterian congregations, young adult ruling elders are as scarce as bourbon in a Baptist sanctuary. As one who was asked to serve when he was 24 put it: “They just need someone to sit there and look young.”
Other congregations, however – some of them new church plants – draw primarily people in their 20s and 30s. For example, Bruce Reyes-Chow, formerly the pastor of Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco, said the average age of the session when he left two years ago was 26.
Those who’ve worked with young adult ruling elders, or served as one themselves, say churches need to pay attention to how their service is distinct. Eric Lieberman, a young adult from Albuquerque, said during a workshop at Big Tent that serving made him realize that his gifts and opinions were valued, and made him more invested in the life of the congregation. That workshop was part of the National Elders Conference – one of 10 national conferences meeting concurrently Aug. 1-3 in Louisville and which make up the Big Tent of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
For Dylan Rooke, the invitation to serve as a ruling elder – to be part of the official church structure – came somewhat as a surprise. “I kind of froze in my tracks,” said Rooke, who came to the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community, a church in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood, as part of a group of “tattered, young, bitter, tattooed people.” He felt welcomed by the church – and was told “you don’t have to prove yourselves.”
Reyes-Chow’s former church intentionally reframed the idea of serving as a ruling elder as a position of spiritual leadership, one that people filled because they felt called to that ministry, not because it was “their turn.” Typically, the only time people joined the church was when they became ruling elders, he said – and a culture was intentionally created of allowing people to do good work and be challenged.
The Mission Bay session met for no more than an hour and a half, five times a year, always with dinner and with an emphasis on spiritual development (administrative work was handled in different ways). One young adult – a technology worker in his early 30s – walked in one evening for a meeting, picked up a taco and a beer, and said: “I’m so glad I’m at session.”
Making space for young adults to serve requires flexibility. Many move on – leaving for jobs or schooling or adventure, not able to serve for a three-year term. Tim Blodgett, pastor of Connecting Point Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City, has used Skype to allow a young elder deployed in the military to participate in session meetings.
Some congregations have rituals – a laying on of hands or a celebration – to mark transitions such as graduations or job changes, recognizing that promising leaders will serve and then leave.
Instead of thinking of a church as a place where someone will join, serve and stay forever, “maybe our church is more like a school,” Rooke said. “Our job is to nurture them and send them off,” with a blessing.