LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Ruling elders brought their Saturday morning coffee to a breakout session at the Big Tent Aug. 3 to talk with Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The clerk hammered away at one of his favorite themes: the essential leadership role of ruling elders. He also gave a glimpse at topics coming up at the next General Assembly.
Parsons said, “I’m convicted that the hope for our traditional churches being vibrant is all going to be about the ruling elders.” Unfortunately, he said, “in a lot of places, the only thing a ruling elder does is to go to meetings and serve communion. We need to get away from a directors mentality and let them be spiritual leaders in the congregation.”
One place to begin, he said, is Sundays. “I don’t care if you have a gazillion members in the church and have a huge staff; I still think you ought to have a ruling elder helping lead worship in every service.”
An elder asked: What’s the biggest impediment keeping that from happening?
“The teaching elders,” Parsons said. “They have to be willing to share leadership. Being committed to it. Session meetings have to change, so that, yes, you do business, but most of the meeting is about them becoming spiritual leaders. It’s going to be a journey. We can get there if people want to rise to the real model of what a ruling elder is. Wherever I go I find ruling elders really want to do that … they want to be part of something meaningful.”
He referred to a conversation he held at the recent Youth Triennium (held at Purdue University in July). In a discussion with young elders at the event, he said, he was told that none of them feel patronized, treated as a mere “junior elder.” On the other hand, he said, of the 25 or so in the room, only two had received any training on how to be an elder. Further, he added, “It doesn’t help the power dynamic if it’s only the teaching elder yammering at the ruling elders what they’re supposed to be. We need ruling elders to teach each other how to be ruling elders.”
He emphasized ruling elders’ role as mentoring and being mentored, “walking together with each other on the sanctification road.” He said most of what he, a teaching elder, knows about being a church leader he learned from ruling elders.
When asked what’s coming at next year’s General Assembly – which will meet in Detroit in June – he blurted: “marriage and divestment.” What else? “Marriage and divestment.”
Then, with a laugh, he mentioned another issue – a new proposal to add the Belhar Confession to the Book of Confessions. Also, the final vote on adopting a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism. “Hopefully not too many tweaks of the Book of Order,” he said. “We’re trying to discourage that.”
A review of the denomination’s progress – and lack thereof – to become a more truly multiracial church should generate some important conversations, he said.
“The United Church of Christ has been talking about the possibility of divesting from carbon-based companies,” he added. “We might have some conversation around that.”