After criss-crossing the nation and travelling the globe while serving the past two years as Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri learned through the many fellow ruling elders she met more about the genius of the shared ministry practiced in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — namely, there’s plenty of work for clergy and lay leaders working together to accomplish.
“We celebrate the gifts that God has bestowed upon us all for service,” she told more than 200 people tuned in Wednesday to a webinar called “Celebrating the Call to Serve as a Ruling Elder,” which was put on by the Office of the General Assembly’s Mid Council Ministries and hosted by Martha Miller, manager of Ruling Elder Resources and Educator Certification. “Ours is a ministry of care and nurture that goes beyond creating church programs and balancing budgets.”
Cintrón-Olivieri quoted another ruling elder, Cynthia Bolbach, moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010): “Ruling elders rule — and amen to that!”
“There is beauty in the parity of our Presbyterian governance — that shared responsibility, companionship and mutual care,” she said. “There is beauty and even poetry to this call to shared ministry.”
Cintrón-Olivieri was first elected to be a ruling elder while still a teenager. “There’s no such thing as a youth elder,” she said, displaying a 1994 photo of that first session on which she served at her home church, Iglesia Presbiteriana en Caparra Terrace in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “We recognize this ministry is not done in a vacuum,” paying homage to “that great cloud of witnesses who passed down the responsibility to nurture and care for the people of God entrusted to us.”
Cintrón-Olivieri laid out the three-step process for becoming a ruling elder:
- First is discerning a call to serve. She invited those in attendance virtually to “take a moment to remember and be grateful for those ruling elders and leaders of the faith who came before us and paved the way. Thanks be to God for the lives of these, our ruling elders,” she said.
- Step two is responding to the call to serve. Cintrón-Olivieri offered Ephesians 4:1-7 and 11-16 as an explanation for why ruling elders, deacons and others share ministry with ordained clergy in the first place. Paul’s letter reads in part: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” “Those are powerful words,” she said, “considering and celebrating the call to serve.”
- Step three is the moment most ruling elders fondly recall: answering the same ordination questions as their clergy siblings in front of the body they have been selected to serve. Ruling elders have an additional question they must answer, she noted: “… Will you be a faithful ruling elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service?” “Remember the day you said yes?” she said. “I remember.”
After highlighting the work of some of the hundreds of ruling elders she met during her two years of service as co-moderator, Cintrón-Olivieri fielded a few questions. She urged ruling elders to read not only the Book of Order but the Book of Confessions, which she called “difficult but wonderful reading,” because it lays out the church’s response during particularly difficult times.
Asked how ruling elders can learn to feel more comfortable preaching from the pulpit or while providing pastoral care and guidance, Cintrón-Olivieri said in her travels she saw the fruits of many ruling elders being “nurtured and equipped to serve.”
“There are times when (clergy or other church leaders) are busy or too stressed to see something,” she said. “The ruling elder might say, ‘Pastor, let me help. I am willing to preach next week.’ (Shared ministry) is a two-way street.”
Recalling the ruling elders who helped kindle her young faith, Cintrón-Olivieri asked this question of participants: “As we celebrate the ministry of ruling elders across the denomination, how are we becoming mentors to the newer generation of ruling elders? We are ordained for life, and the Holy Spirit calls us into other ministries” once our service to the session is complete, she said. “We all have different skills and gifts to share with the church. My encouragement, my siblings, is to serve as mentors. Reach out to others who might need a little help.”
Additional resources for ruling elders can be found here. Miller thanked Cintrón-Olivieri for leading the online event and noted that it took the place of what is usually a luncheon during General Assembly.
The 200 or so people who took in Wednesday’s webinar “are many more than could have fit into a convention center room,” Miller said.