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Hey elders: Try a little humility

Spiritual leadership requires spiritual discipline, East Iowa officers told

December 2, 2011

WASHINGTON, Iowa

Effective elders are humble elders, the Revs. Mark Martin and Gary Burnett told those elders attending Elder 102 training, sponsored by the Presbytery of East Iowa, at United Presbyterian Church in October.

The two teachers, both parish associates at First Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, have that on good authority: it’s in Peter’s epistle.

“All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another,” the apostle wrote. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time.”

Martin assured elders that they all have “innate spiritual aptitude,” but those spiritual disciplines need practice.

“It’s tough to be a spiritual leader,” he said, “when you’re not being fed.”

One of the most important disciplines for elders ― and all Christians ― is Sabbath-taking, which Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls an “anti-chaos exercise.”

Chaos may be “the general state of our lives,” Martin said, “but God needed to be refreshed, and God wants us refreshed, too.”

The two pastors offered these tips to help elders further develop deeper spiritual discipline, which Martin said “isn’t a should, it’s a want-to”:

  • Find an invitation whenever you’re “given” time, including a sick day, a travel delay, or even while waiting in line at the store
  • Celebrate a holiday ― even Christmas ― differently
  • Take a second breath in the midst of frustration
  • Develop a Sabbath tradition with your family
  • Make morning, midday and evening prayer a part of your daily schedule – even if just for five minutes
  • Set aside time with family members to talk about what is causing pressure and stress in each family member’s life
  • Above all, remember that God wants us to have Sabbath time. It’s God’s gift to us all.

Burnett took the group through author Peter Steinke’s analysis of what makes for healthy congregations: they’re mission focused, rather than clergy focused.

For example: clergy-focused churches encourage dependency. There’s little activity without clergy present. Mission-focused churches instead emphasize stewardship and distribute responsibility.

Or this: in clergy-focused churches, disagreement is dangerous, and things are always calm on the surface. In mission-focused churches, conflict is normal, essential – and managed.

Change can take place in churches, Burnett said, but it takes leadership.

“We have to be non-anxious and allow people to express themselves,” he said. Sessions must be and are models for the congregation, “but we have to be aboveboard,” Burnett said.

Remember, Martin said early on during the training: a session is not a business organization.

“It’s a spiritually-driven organization, with particular tasks before it,” he said.

At its best, the work of elders as they take care of their spiritual lives resembles a dance, as told in Marjorie Thompson’s book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life.” She described the spiritual life as “the magnificent choreography of the Holy Spirit in the human spirit, moving us toward communion with both Creator and creation.”

“A little desire,” Martin said, “is a good start.”

Mike Ferguson is a member of United Presbyterian Church in Lone Tree, Iowa, and a reporter for “The Muscatine Journal,” the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start. He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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