Written by Gradye Parsons
Each month the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Moderator or Vice Moderator of the 220th General Assembly write a column of general interest for the church-at-large.
Cindy Bolbach accomplished many things in her life. Not only was she an accomplished attorney and business executive, let’s not forget that she was also elected Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) in Minneapolis. The appointment of a woman raised a Lutheran—in the land of Lutherans—to the highest elected position in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is no doubt one of God’s little jests. Yet among all of Cindy’s many achievements and accolades, what she was most fiercely proud of was her role as a ruling elder.
The role of ruling elder is not unique to the Presbyterian church. It occupies a role in the life of the church that predates the CE (Common Era), and, in fact, extends well into the years Before the Common Era (BCE). It is a foundational building block of how we understand governance in the life of the church at every type of Presbyterian council, namely the session, the presbytery, the synod, and the General Assembly.
But the role of ruling elder does not end at governance. It does not begin and end in those many rooms—of all shapes and sizes—occupied by people seated around tables deliberating on some matter or other. Because Cindy understood passionately that a ruling elder has a critical role beyond those walls, she made her platform as Moderator to encourage ruling elders to be leaders in the church.
In the old Book of Order—pre-2011—the language stated that ruling elders had a collective and an individual ministry. That individual ministry included modeling life in the faith, providing pastoral care, action for social justice, and the ability to teach and preach when called upon. In my years of leading ruling elder training across the PC(USA), I made two important observations:
Ruling elders want to offer much more than they are currently being asked to give. They want to be leaders on a journey of spiritual discovery in their congregations and the larger church. They want to be the catalytic spark that engages God’s mission beyond the church doors. They want to share the chancel with their own words and testimony.
From August 1 to 3, the fourth National Elders Conference will be offered as part of the Big Tent. This national gathering of Presbyterians—to be held in Louisville, Kentucky—will have a wonderful variety of other conferences and special events. Ruling elder training will be offered in Korean, Spanish, and English. I promise you that you will leave inspired and equipped to be the kind of ruling elder that Cindy envisioned.
So please come. In doing so, you will be taking a risk that you will leave changed. You will be taking a risk that your vision of the role of ruling elder will extend beyond what you have ever imagined or what you have been asked to do thus far in your ministry. You will be taking the risk that you might just start on the road to being the kind of ruling elder of a certain Moderator’s dreams, meriting—I’m certain—one of her famous grins.