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Calling all elders

The moderator’s June column

May 31, 2011

Louisville

“I’m just an elder.”

Have you heard someone say that? Have you said it yourself? Maybe in response to being asked to lead worship, or preach, or visit someone in the hospital?

“No,” you reply, “I couldn’t do that. I’m just an elder. Those are things the pastor does.”

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.  

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).

There’s no “just” anywhere in that sentence.

Being a ruling elder is not easy. But we are not in this alone. Others are there to guide us as we seek to carry out our high calling.

From June 30–July 2, Presbyterians will gather in Indianapolis for the “Big Tent.” A significant component of the Big Tent will be the Elders Conference – a chance for all of us who are ruling elders to come together, share common thoughts and concerns, learn how to be better ruling elders, and, not least, to discover the “top ten things elders need to know.” Really, how can you stay away?

Go to: www.pcusa.org/bigtent to register. I look forward to seeing with you there!

  1. Thank you for your insight.I am a "seated" or active Elder and have understood from the beginning that this is for life. What more precious job could you have than serving Jesus. I will print off these pages and give them to the nominating committee for a guide line in their pursuit of Elders for the class of 2015.In God's service, Elder Beverly Hargin

    by Beverly Hargin

    June 29, 2011

  2. It interests me that we and many who have commented using the terms "active" or inactive" elder" or used to be an elder". These terms are not part of our Book of Order and are a result of local descriptions of what we are or have been. Let's get over it and use the term "Ruling Elder" as we should and realize that when ordained you are a "ruling elder" for life in the church.

    by Ted Coppock

    June 22, 2011

  3. It was my privilege to serve as moderator of our Presbytery and one Presbytery meeting a gentleman stood up and introduced himself and then labeled himself "just an elder". I politely interrupted him and told him he was not "just an elder". After the meeting recessed for lunch, he sought me out and thanked me for sharing that. He said he didn't understand before the significance of being ordained and what that truly meant. Thank you Cindy for your leadership.

    by Peri

    June 5, 2011

  4. I really appreciate this reminder about the office of ruling elder. When I was on Session, and we were examining persons elected to the office of ruling elder, I always asked, "Would you be willing to fill the pulpit in the absence of the pastor?" I didn't necessarily expect the answer to be in the affirmative, but I wanted the new elder-to-be to think about the responsibility to teach, among the others discussed. Also, whenever I hear someone introduce themselves as "formerly an elder" I always jump in and say "you are STILL and elder!"

    by Bob Porter

    June 3, 2011

  5. Ruling Elders need to commit to their call. It is different than being on the board of a not-for-profit. It is even different than being on the board of a seminary. Ruling Elders are called and we need to continue to answer our call. Cindy thank you for your leadership.

    by Sharon M. Davison

    June 1, 2011

  6. Maybe we should do away with the term "inactive." The calling to be an elder is life long. Even though I am not on session at present I am still a ruling elder in my church. There are many ways to discharge the office faithfully -- teach a Christian Ed. class, pray regularly for your church, engage in the pastoral care of the membership, engage in pastoral care of your pastor (!), lead a small group, etc. Jake Horner ruling elder (not on session)

    by Jake

    June 1, 2011

  7. @Cathy - an Elder presently serving on Session is traditionally known as an "active Elder"; all Elders are "ruling Elders". Though referring to an Elder not presently on the Session as an "inactive Elder" seems as inappropriate as "just an Elder"...

    by Dave

    June 1, 2011

  8. A "ruling elder" is a term our church uses for an elder on session. Otherwise we're "just an elder". Is a ruling elder, any elder whether on or off session? Cathy

    by Cathy Shoop

    June 1, 2011

  9. Thank you for this valuable information and reminder of our duties. Our group of elders needs this stimulation and reminders of what our work entails. It is a call, not a chore, nor should our session meetings be an inconvenience.

    by glenis leitch

    June 1, 2011

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