Round or rectangle? That was the question on the table. Literally. Two ruling elders and I were pondering the shape of the tables we were ordering for a newly spruced-up fellowship space. One elder served on the property committee, and the other had a gift for interior design. Rectangles were what we were used to. They stored well, and we already knew how to set them up to maximize space. Even though someone was always having to shift in their seat to talk to someone farther down the table or twist to listen to a speaker behind them, rectangles were familiar. But we kept flipping back to the dog-eared catalog page of round tables. They were a bit more expensive, but something about them felt right.
As in the best discussions between church leaders, the conversation drifted from how much things might cost to the why behind our decision. Why did the shape of table matter to our church gatherings in that space? Was it just a question of the budget? Storage? What we knew already? What would look best? Or might there be something else at work? Something about our ecclesiology — what we believed about the church?
In her book "The Church in the Round," Letty Russell describes the church as “a place where all people gather around as partners in ministry connecting to the world and each other in faith and for a life of reflection and action.” The ruling elders and I talked about how when we’re sitting around a round table, no one is at the head or at the margins. Everyone is visible. Conversation is easier. Perhaps round tables would help us learn to value each voice equally, with seats for all. Thinking about the events that would happen at the tables — fellowship meals, session and committee meetings, intergenerational gatherings, Bible study classes — we wanted that kind of physical welcome for each person who would gather. We ordered the round tables.
Ruling elders and leaders in the church of Jesus Christ weigh choices like this all the time. Piled on the table along with our meeting agendas are often copies of the budget, the Book of Order, Robert’s Rules of Order, and the Bible. Supporting materials include our church directories full of different people, our mission and vision statements, our neighborhood studies, our welcome statements, and all the years of church history that came before us. In meetings where we make decisions, we have each brought our individual gifts, talents, experience, opinions, and questions. You probably know as well as I do that all this piled-up stuff can lead to some long meetings.
The good news is that we also bring our shared baptism and membership in the church, and a common vocation and calling to serve. Our call to leadership began at our baptism, when we were each claimed by God and commissioned for a life of service as we joined Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice. We’ve each been given gifts to use for the common good of the body of Christ, in and for the world. As we embrace and exercise these varied gifts, we do so in relationship with one another — a community of the called. When we are able to see and hear one another around our tables, and lift up our common commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ, our differences enable our decisions rather than prevent them.
- Who made sure you had a seat at the table in your community of faith?
- What gifts do you bring to your service as a ruling elder?
- What does it mean to you to be commissioned for a life of service in Christ’s ministry of love, peace, and justice?
The Rev. Julie Coffman Hester is a pastor and writer in the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. She is inspired by faithful ruling elders, like her parents, and the remarkable disciples with whom she has served in local congregations.
This article is the first in a 12-part series focusing on the constitutional questions that church leaders answer upon their ordination and installation, using some of the materials from Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons Based on the Constitutional Questions, which is available at equip.pcusa.org.