PORTLAND, Ore. – The adoption of the new Form of Government in 2012 brought with it several changes in the terminology that had been long familiar to Presbyterians. Elders became “ruling elders” and ministers of Word and Sacrament became “teaching elders.” The change in titles reflected the unique parity between church officers found in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), emphasizing the priesthood of all believers and the reality that “ministry” is the work and call of the entire body.
However, according to some commissioners at the 2016 General Assembly, the new terminology also brought confusion.
An overture from the Presbytery of Great Rivers sought to amend the PC(USA) Book of Order in order to clarify titles of ordered ministry (06-08). It advocated returning to the use of “minister” or “minister of Word and Sacrament – contending that the nomenclature of “teaching elder” and “ruling elder” can be confusing in ecumenical circles, “as many denominations ordain their clergy to a ministerial office, such as minister, pastor, priest, whereas the title ‘teaching elder’ often needs qualifiers or explanations.”
Yzette Swavy-Lipton, moderator of the assembly’s Church Polity and Ordered Ministry committee, noted that in committee there was “great deal of discussion” among the young adult advisory delegates regarding the confusion of many of their contemporaries around the terms “ruling elder” and “teaching elder.”
Vice moderator Joy Myers added that when some teaching elders had applied for permission to work in another county (presumably from a civil entity to perform marriages), applications had been rejected because the civil authorities didn’t know what a teaching elder was.
The debate was lengthy. Lisa Miller, a ruling elder from National Capital Presbytery, argued in favor of retaining the use of teaching and ruling elder, saying: “Words matter.” Miller added that “if others don’t understand, it gives us a teaching moment to talk about our belief in the priesthood of all believers.”
The assembly considered and then defeated an amendment to allow the use of both titles – teaching elder and minister of Word and Sacrament. It then acted on the original proposal (with some amendments), approving it by a vote of 320-218.
That proposed change to the Book of Order, to return to using the title “minister” or “minister of Word and Sacrament” and to change “commissioned ruling elder” to “commissioned pastor,” will now be sent to presbyteries for a vote. To take effect, the proposal needs approval from a majority of the denomination’s 171 presbyteries.
Much of the remainder of the debate from the polity committee’s report centered around a series of overtures (06-01, 06-07, 06-10) addressing the relationship between the church and someone who had been a teaching elder, but then renounced the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction after disciplinary charges were brought against that person. The basic question being considered: Can that person restore a formal relationship with the church, and within what limits?
The assembly wrestled with achieving a balance between showing mercy and grace, and trying to protect the greater church community – particularly children – from a former teaching elder who may have been accused of sexual abuse, and then renounced jurisdiction as a means of avoiding accountability for harmful actions.
Ultimately, after much discussion, the assembly voted 474-78 to answered several of these overtures with an amended version of Item 06-10. That measure states in part that “whenever a former teaching elder has renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding as the accused, that former teaching elder shall not be permitted to perform any work, paid or volunteer, in any congregation or entity under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) unless and until the person rejoins the church, comes forward and resubmits to the disciplinary process.”
That proposed change to the Book of Order will also be sent to presbyteries for their approval or disapproval.
The 2016 General Assembly also approved the committee recommendation on overture 06-14 to appoint a task force to revise the rules of discipline.