I sense the growing lack of positive representation and/or comprehension of the essential responsibilities of role on the part of ruling elders and the more aggressive assertion and expansion of role on the part of teaching elders.
A few years ago, COGA conducted a training session which highlighted the duties of elders and pointed to the need for elders who truly accepted and bought into their intended role and it referred to them as “angry Elders.” That terminology spoke directly to a problem that was manifesting itself and has since proliferated.
Traditionally (definitely historically ) there existed a healthy balance of powers which in recent years has become dominated by the teaching elders simply by the fact that many ruling elders have ceded their role ( not necessarily by intention ) in the balance of thought , word and deed which should exist in a collegial, democratic relationship. Apparently bowing to what one might presume as a “sellout” or acquiescence on the part of the laity, due in the main to a lack of knowledge with respect to polity as well as a strong sense of the give and take of a meaningful, positive collegial relationship and acceptance of the intended governmental equality of their position.
In observing recent actions, many schismatic, within the denomination it is starkly apparent the leadership, conceptual thinking and lopsided rhetoric has been formulated, generated and implemented from a mainly clergy perspective, driven essentially by teaching elders. Certainly that is borne out as one reads the accounts of the actions of these bodies. Having witnessed a similar dynamic as an observer in General Assembly committee meetings, there is little doubt in my mind that this critical imbalance is guiding denominational movement in a dangerous direction.
The problem is in reality a systemic boondoggle due in the main to the very dramatic change which is taking place across the denomination with respect to membership loss and financial loss, all exacerbated by the debilitating effect of aging across the spectrum. The membership well is slowly drying up and available, capable people are in scarce supply. Sadly, the great majority have reached a stage in life where they are ready to slow down and coast, content to be passive participants.
So….A great many congregations are graying and grasping at straws, frankly seeking any warm body to serve in a most critical role and by default unable to effectively fuel a vital collegial balance. Elder training has in far too many instances become folly so those so selected and elected are thus susceptible to play “follow the leader” as the path of least resistance or risk of rancorous controversy.
As this process compounds and goes forward, the balance of power continues to shift and disintegrate and the resulting actions, once the envy of many denominations, move resolutely toward clergy domination and away from the intended Calvinist concept of Presbyterianism, and the long intended role of the ruling elder becomes sublimated and thus structurally ineffective. All of which points us in a precarious direction and away from our long-defended, once effective, Presbyterian roots.
So, what to do? The logical means by which to approach this dilemma is to embark on and develop a program/ methodology that can – not unlike the phenomenon that occurred within all mainline denominations following World War II and sustained the church well into the late 1900s – lead to an infusion of young, energetic leaders and families, a new generation of members who possess the vitality necessary to re-infuse our sagging fortunes, prayerfully, for another 50 years (but keep the focus on new life and not rest on our oars). Train them properly and turn them loose and the result could well herald a restoration of badly needed balance/equality in our processes… In short, the answer is new, younger members who are enthused, willing and buy into and implement our modernized polity.
Retired, longtime marketing executive and consultant, and CEO of two corporations, Jim Babcock of Bozeman, Mont., is a lifelong Presbyterian ruling elder. Ordained for 52 years, he has served as moderator of presbytery, trustee of the PC(USA) Foundation and a member of COGA. Married for 62 years, has has raised six children, and served on many charitable organization boards.