On Protecting the Flock

The minister's primary duty -- and the session's -- is to feed and protect the flock over which God, through the actions of the church, has placed them. One of the sad aspects of the church's wars in recent years has been the spectacle of the people of God in the pew being drawn willy-nilly into battles that they really don't need to be a part of.

The basic idea of the Presbyterian system of governance — a representative form — is that the decision makers are called, trained, examined, ordained, installed and commissioned to represent the whole church in a governing body.

The session represents the whole church. The session acts on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as do the presbytery, the synod and the General Assembly.

Which means not everyone is involved in the day-to-day governance of the church. The basic political responsibility of the congregation, aside from giving its approval in certain financial matters, is to elect its minister and officers. And the minister(s) and session lead the congregation in their worship and service, providing them with spiritual food and nourishment, care for their troubles, mission opportunities through which their discipleship can be exercised.

The minister (and session) are really the gatekeepers of the congregation. And gatekeeping requires constant vigilance and steady actions. For example, there are many sources of information available to ministers, church officers and members, and with the Internet now firmly established, an almost inexhaustible supply of information — some of it trustworthy, much of it not, most of it irrelevant.

Now people are free to get information wherever they can get it, but it is the responsibility of the pastor and session to help process and evaluate the sources and the information itself.

Most important, when it comes to the great issues that deeply perplex the church, the minister and session must take care that the congregation is not enlisted in an army without their knowledge and for ulterior motives.

To state plainly the idea being developed here: great pains should be taken not to politicize unnecessarily the congregations of the church — politics understood in terms of the internal power struggles of the denomination. Information yes, guidance yes, but political indoctrination no.

Issues come and go. Pastors and sessions come and go. What the congregation needs is not to be propagandized but to be given the quality of fellowship and leadership which allows the Spirit to work amongst the people, building up the body of Christ in that place, empowering it for its mission from its doorstep to the ends of the Earth, helping it to relate responsibly to the higher governing bodies of the church and the programs and mission of the larger church, as well as other mission opportunities.

This approach is most important now as we witness how our common life is unraveling at the edges. There is no need that they unravel any further. Theology once held us Presbyterians together. Then polity. But those ties are rapidly loosening. Only the Holy Spirit can be the One to rebuild a sense of a community larger than ourselves, extending not just to our presbytery, our synod, the General Assembly, but to the whole visible church catholic to which we belong and the world in which we live.

Politicizing a congregation as a means of furthering a minister or session’s desire to enlist troops for the battle holds great dangers. The battle may not need the involvement of the congregation. The battle may drain resources away from the essential tasks and mission of the congregation.

The minister and session are gatekeepers. As the Christ who calls and commissions them for their service, they are to feed and protect the sheep in their charge.


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