One of the features of Presbyterianism that may seem strange to Christians of other traditions is that the highest official in our denomination is not necessarily a Minister of the Word and Sacrament. Sometimes that person is an Elder.
That's who we have right now, as our General Assembly Moderator. Cynthia Bolbach, an Elder from National Capital Presbytery, was elected by last summer's General Assembly to serve until the next meeting of the Assembly, in the summer of 2012.
And a great job she's doing, too!
One of the things Cindy's been doing, during her time of moderatorial service, is writing an occasional column on the denominational website. In a recent posting, she spoke of a certain sense of inferioriy some elders feel, compared to ministers.
"I’m just an elder,” some may say. Often, this is in response to a request to do something, something ministers very often do themselves - like preaching or hospital visitation.
Listen to what Cindy says:
"Our Presbyterian polity doesn’t recognize the statement, 'I’m just an elder.' In our polity, ruling elders and teaching elders (also known as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament) share equally in the governance and spiritual leadership of the church. Our calls to ministry encompass different functions and tasks, but we are called equally to ministry and to leadership in the church.
For too long the ministry of ruling elder has been diminished, equated with serving on a non-profit board of directors. Yes, the session does perform tasks like hiring nursery attendants and deciding whether the amount of insurance coverage is adequate. But that is not the primary task of the session or of the ruling elders who serve on it."
She's right about that, I'm convinced. Here, we've got a wonderful office of spiritual leadership to which church members can aspire, an office that even requires ordination, and we've managed to let it degenerate into something little more demanding than, say, P.T.A. membership. (I've got nothing against the P.T.A.; they do good work. It's just that eldership is meant to be so much more).
Our Moderator goes on to say:
"Ruling elders have the awesome task of measuring our community of faith’s fidelity to the Word of God. As the proposed new Form of Government puts it, 'Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships' (G-2.0301)."
That phrase, "measuring out," is significant. It gets at the true meaning of the word "ruling," as in "ruling elder."
Most people, when they hear the adjective "ruling," think governance. They think power. They think decision-making. They think something like what former President George W. Bush meant when he adopted for himself the label, "The Decider." Ruling elders are the church's deciders, right?
Wrong. True, sessions (comprised mostly of elders) do, in fact, make a lot of decisions in their meetings. But that's not the point the good old Presbyterian word "ruling" is trying to get across.
It's a bit of an archaic meaning, but - as Cindy accurately points out, but doesn't really explain - it's the sort of ruling a ruler (the measuring-stick, not the monarch) does. The job of elders is to lay their spiritual judgment up against some aspect of the church or other, and try to measure out what God may be doing there.
Ruling elders really do what they're meant to do when, individually or together, they...
- discern that a particular church member may need some special, caring attention from the church leadership;
- identify an area of need in the community that the church ought to be addressing;
- assess the budding faith of a Confirmation Class member they're examining;
- explore the question of whether offering worship in a new musical style, or in a new setting, may be just the thing for involving more young people;
- pray with a newly widowed person, serving as a sounding-board as he or she tries to figure out what's next;
- and, the list could go on and on.
The point is, all of these involve that measuring function, which could perhaps better be described as spiritual discernment.
Maybe elders aren't so much "the deciders" as "the discerners." I say Amen to that!