Regarding ruling elders: ministry in changing neighborhoods

June 15, 2015


A suburban Presbyterian church knew that its neighborhood had been changing, with an increasing number of immigrant Latino families now living in the area. A ruling elder from the church wanted to meet with me to ask how they should reach out to the growing Latino community. As a church, she thought, they should offer worship opportunities to their new neighbors, so she was wondering how to start a Spanish-language service. In her mind, she could already see a banner hanging outside the church announcing their new worship in Spanish. Knowing that the church had very few racial ethnic minorities on their rolls, and that they had not done any outreach to the Latino community before, I asked her to take a step back before we went any further. I asked “What are you good at as a church? I would focus on that first as the way to connect with this new community.” For example, I said, if you were to tell me that your church has a very successful daycare, then I would wonder about the impact on your ministry if you hired a bilingual person to work part-time at the daycare. I could tell that my suggestion had gotten the wheels turning. The ruling elder said that in fact they had several active and retired teachers in the congregation, as well as a couple of bilingual people. With that she began to consider how those strengths could be used as key components of a new outreach.

The ruling elder got her session thinking about this idea, and in subsequent meetings a process began to take shape to create a bilingual tutoring ministry. One of the interesting aspects of their plan was that instead of having the children come to the church for tutoring, these Presbyterian volunteers would tutor in the community room at an apartment complex where many Latino families lived. It was the church going to the people, rather than expecting the people to come to the church. The program created a buzz in the community and was successful for many years: helping children improve in the school, nurturing a connection of the church and the community, and re-energizing a passion for mission within the church.

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Ruling elders play a key role in any outreach to a church’s changing community:

  1. Ruling elders who are curious and engaged are particularly well-suited for having their ear to the ground to notice trends, strengths, and needs in their community.
  2. Ruling elders know how to build relationship bridges between the church and its neighborhood.
  3. Ruling elders with a heart for mission understand the importance of fostering buy-in from the community they are supporting, inviting the community to partner in the development and launch of an outreach effort.
  4. The more ruling elders are involved in the planning and implementation of outreach ideas, the better the congregation’s ownership of the project will be.

Many of our congregations are blessed with opportunities to reach out to their increasingly diverse neighborhoods. The stories of cross-cultural ministry with the deepest impact in the church and community have at least one thing in common: the energy and passion of the ruling elders in leadership.

Felipe N. Martinez is the transitional general presbyter and stated clerk at the Presbytery of Great Rivers. The first ten years after graduating from McCormick Theological Seminary, Felipe served as pastor of a small rural congregation. He then supported Hispanic ministry and an international partnership with Mexico as associate executive presbyter in Whitewater Valley Presbytery for eleven years.

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  1. My church has worship services in three languages and all are members of the church and session. While this may seem like a multicultural ministry, in actuality, one of the language groups is run as separately as possible while still remaining under one session. The other is better integrated into the original English language ministry, but there is a paternalistic quality in our relationship. This has not resulted in reaching the community that most needs it in our vicinity, even though those folks would mostly fit well with that language ministry. The building is situated in a historic district of the city, which is growing by leaps and bounds in high-end apartments and condos with businesses ranging from mid- to high-priced, but just a few blocks away is the poorest neighborhood in the city, and there are both black and Latino gangs in the area (something realtors conveniently neglect to tell people). In addition, a good many of the members of the congregation sent their kids to private schools, and in this particular city, there is a huge divide between public and private school parents. While my kids and I got to know and be comfortable with people of dozens of ethnic and economic groups, many members of our session have no clue how to relate to those folks. I am very discouraged, because I do not see our session leading on any issues at all, and though I am going to be installed next month after three years off session, I don't know if I can make a difference.

    by Laura Monteros

    June 17, 2015

  2. This seems like a good "business" opportunity. Just be sure the Gospel isn't left out of your mission. The services you described can & are being provided by "good" people who might or might not know Christ as Savior.

    by James A. Dewees

    June 15, 2015

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