As I welcomed the attendees, I answered the question this way: The hope of those who planned this event — a collaborative effort of the Office of the General Assembly and the General Assembly Council — was to create a bunch of “dangerous elders” who would be alive in their faith and fully empowered to be spiritual leaders in their church.
That phrase – dangerous elders – became the slogan for the conference.
For me, the phrase reflects a deeply-held conviction that we need to commit ourselves as Presbyterians to a renewal of the office of elder. In many congregations at present, the elders are functioning as more of a board of directors than living out the vision for elders in the Book of Order (G-6.300).
I have helped train elders in several presbyteries over the years. During the training, I will usually ask them, “What did the nominating committee tell you about being an elder?” My favorite bad answer was that the job of elder was taking the collection each Sunday and making sure the doors were locked after worship.
That is not the ministry we envision for elders!
G-6.304 describes the specific responsibilities of elders. It does not include the words “administration,” “budgets,” or “repair of the roof.” Instead, what one will find is a description of spiritual leaders in a community of faith.
The first duty of elders, individually and together, is to strengthen and nurture the faith and life of the congregation. This is no small charge. Each elder is to individually and personally encourage people in their faith. We Presbyterians shun attention in our quiet piety. But the truth is everyone needs some praise and recognition. One of the main gifts of being in a community of faith is the support from others as we bump our way down the sanctification road. Elders have the particular call to nourish the faith of their sisters and brothers in Christ. That nourishment can take many forms and should be seen as one of the main ways the Spirit intercedes in a congregation.
Another duty is to encourage the people in worship and service. Elders can do this most obviously by attending worship! But more than that, they can model attentiveness and joy in worship. Elders could change the “frozen chosen” image of Presbyterians by being warm to visitors, passionate in their singing, and fervent in their engagement with the proclaimed Word. It is contagious to be in worship with someone who is glad to be there. Likewise, elders can show that same sense of response to God when they encourage joyful service in the name of Christ. Serving God in ministry is not some long homework project. It is an exciting opportunity to witness to the grace and goodness we have received from God in Jesus Christ.
It naturally follows that the next call for elders is to equip and renew those in the congregation in God’s mission to the world, focusing on the very ground-level problems of the poor, the sick, the lonely, and the oppressed.
In this pursuit, elders can be at their most dangerous! Presbyterians have a long history of serving and meddling. That service has created hospitals and schools all over the world. That meddling has helped improve working conditions, advance civil rights, and give hope to many in impossible circumstances. These great, dangerous, Godly acts often start because one person had a vision. An elder has been that person in many circumstances or the encourager of another person with the vision, or both. Presbyterians want to serve! The call of elders is to help turn on that energy for the world.
Elders should also cultivate their ability to teach the Bible and lead in worship. My first call as a pastor was in Newport, Tenn., near the place where Christy Huddleston, grandmother of Catherine Marshall, had her mountain teaching ministry. She and her Presbyterian-minister husband were still a vivid memory to some of my older elders in that “town church.” The mountain ministry grew to three small chapels up the road toward Asheville. Later, the chapels became the responsibility of the town church. I remember naively asking one of the elders how the minister managed to preach at all of those chapels and the town church. The elder looked at me incredulously and said, “He didn’t do it. We did.”
The very important call of elders is to proclaim the Word, lead people in prayer, and talk about their faith. This may be the most critical part of the call to be an elder. It is not just about what is preached or prayed. It is about modeling and mentoring the voice of Presbyterians. We seek to have a winsome faith that draws others to Christ, but we are a shy folk. We need to have the words and the courage to say them, to articulate our faith in Jesus Christ. Most of the time, what most worshippers see and hear is the minister. That is part of how we understand worship. There is nothing as encouraging or challenging as seeing someone who was sitting next to you in the pew stand up and begin to talk about his or her faith. It pushes us to wrestle with describing our own faith, out loud, to someone else.
The real ministry of elders is not done in a session room alone. Elders serve as the spiritual leaders of their congregations as they model encouragement, mission, Bible study, prayer, and witness to the good news. This is what makes them dangerous, for they become change agents of the Spirit in their own community of faith.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs these dangerous elders to lead in the faithful, exciting call of Christ to be God’s people in this world.
Gradye Parsons is stated clerk of the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, Ky.