nFOG brings back “Ruling” and “Teaching” Elders. In an age when mainline denominations are losing members and witness, do these traditional terms connect with people? Now I am aware of our history as nFOG clearly states, “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.”
Before my arrival to my current church, our elders wore permanent nametags identifying themselves as a “Ruling Elder.” What does that say to newcomers or the unchurched? “Hi, I see you are new here. My name is ____________, I am a ruling elder, what’s your name?” Do people really want to join a place where elders rule? “Hey Bill, Look at that person’s name tag — he’s a ruling elder! Wow, that sounds like an inviting church. I’ve been looking for someone to ‘rule’ me.” When you have to immediately apologize for the title or redefine the word, you know you probably have a problem. Have you ever had someone close an email or letter to you with their name stating that they are a “Ruling” Elder? I have. And it wasn’t because this person thought she was living according to the rule of God’s Word. Couldn’t we have selected a better word? Why not “Serving” Elder or “Missional” Elder? A vote for nFOG is a vote for “Ruling Elders.”
Likewise “Ministers” are out and “Teaching Elders” are in with nFOG. Again, a newcomer visits your church… You introduce yourself. “Hi, I’m Paul, I’m the Teaching Elder.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” comes the reply, “I was looking for the minister!” If nFOG passes, those of us ministers should change our business cards to “Teaching Elder” just to be consistent so as not to cause confusion. Even after defining these terms, nFOG then discusses bringing “Ministers” from other denominations? Why? Because we know that is what they are – Ministers.” I enjoy teaching a mid-week Bible Study and wish at times I was solely a “Teaching Elder,” but being a minister requires much more. Minister is a much better description than “Teaching Elder.”
My second major concern is nFOG’s requirement that “each council shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that body” (G-3.0106). We Presbyterians love to spend our time and energy, revising and updating our manuals. How many times have our presbyteries and sessions restructured or reorganized the same basic ministries and resulted with no net gain of ministry or mission? Our church recently revised our session policy manual, and guess how long it took — over a year and a half! We formed a special team that researched other manuals from a number of different churches. Then each of our standing ministry teams (committees) created, developed, and revised their own section. Next we edited the document realizing that every word is important and made sure the formatting was consistent. We ran off numerous versions, spent hundreds of hours of valuable time, and killed a few trees while overloading our copier and toner expense budget line items. The process took way too long and kept us from doing more significant work of the kingdom. In my opinion the last thing our churches, sessions, presbyteries, and synods need to spend their time on right now is developing, revising, and updating manuals. Add also the interpretation battles and possible court cases over some of the unanswered questions that the nFOG creates, and we will waste even more time and energy that should be used for direct ministry and mission.
I love our denomination and am very concerned about its present condition and fragile future. Since 1965, our denomination has lost over half our membership (more than 2,000,000 members)! We have lost 20% of our membership in the last ten years. The median number of our congregations is less than 100 members with many churches unable to afford a minister. Last year, our Northwoods church had eighteen members enter the church triumphant. Our congregations are growing older and smaller. At our last Presbytery gathering we heard that 85% of our ministers are over the age of 58. If we don’t do something radically different and very soon, our church will only be made up of elders! We need to focus outwardly on people and mission, not inwardly on ourselves and manuals. Hopefully, a vote against the amendment will lift away the nFOG, avert a pileup of more chaos, which will then allow us to see clearly to embrace God’s vital mission in the world.
Paul Nazarian is pastor of Northwoods Church, Houston, Texas