How can we care for ruling elders?

In the PC(USA), there’s a lot of focus on pastor burnout — and rightly so. But lay leaders are also facing exhaustion, and we need to care for them, writes Phillip Blackburn.

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It’s not easy being a pastor these days. Any of us plying our trade in the modern Presbyterian Church know this. When I graduated seminary more than 20 years ago, pastor burnout was such a problem that the denomination received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to create a pilot program called “Excellence from the Start” to stem the tide. When I think about ministry in 2001 compared to today, it seems almost comical that burnout was an issue in those relative halcyon days. Nonetheless, here we are.

Today, groups addressing clergy burnout and caring for clergy mentally and physically are relatively abundant. But recently I’ve been wondering about the strain being felt by lay leaders in the congregation.

The Thriving in Rural Ministry program had a retreat for rural ruling elders at the University of the Ozarks a few weeks ago. As the director of this program, I sent out a survey to follow up. This response has stuck with me since: “There is a lot of talk about pastor burnout post-COVID and rightly so, but no one talks about all the members left in our declining churches who are also tired and are left to pick up the pieces without pastoral leadership. That’s hard.”

For many of our rural and small membership congregations, it has been left to ruling elders to hold things together. Elders find preachers to fill the pulpit. They organize Vacation Bible School. They find someone to stream the services. Elders pay the bills, form a pastor nominating committee (if the congregation has funds to hire a pastor), and make sure the janitorial and maintenance work is done in the facility. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. In all our small membership churches, there is a small group of lay leaders who are keeping things going, and they do so with little support and no end in sight.

I find the current lack of support for ruling elders, especially in small membership churches, to be a little ironic considering our denomination’s name comes from the Greek word for “elders.” Throughout history, our denomination has focused on the role of community leaders as essential to our polity and structure. We should stay true to this legacy and seek to care for elders now.

So, what to do? I do not like posing problems without solutions. Before getting into this I will say that if any of us had a magic solution for any of our beloved denomination’s ailments, I know we would have used it long ago. Nonetheless, it is important to continue always to do everything can to be the church to the world and one another.

I suggest presbyteries consider several thoughts the ruling elder quoted above shared with me. How might a presbytery, first, assess the needs of its rural and small church ruling elders — A survey? Congregational visits? A dedicated staff person? Designated time at a presbytery meeting? Any of these would be a start. Then, once the ruling elders have had a chance to speak their mind, we can ask how we might serve them.

If you need a jump start, here is what the same commenter suggested in my survey, “I would also love a self-care retreat that involved learning and decompressing with other elders who love the church and want a weekend they don’t have to plan and execute and to just enjoy learning, possibly do some sort of mission, and hang out.”

Honestly, I think our anonymous friend is on to something. An entire program could be built around their thoughts: A weekend retreat where they can share their challenges with other elders, where they don’t have to plan, and where they can learn and serve and fellowship.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the health and well-being of our congregations and the health and well-being of our ruling elders. In this moment of grief, fear and anxiety we should keep them in sight, in mind, and in prayer. How might we serve them? How might we listen to them? How might we consider them? There is a lot to be done in the PC(USA) these days, and there are fewer of us than ever to do it. To thrive in this time and place we must support one another, pastors and elders, so that we might in turn serve our world in the name of Jesus Christ.