The Leader Formation webinar series recently featured the Rev. Gradye Parsons, who served as Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) from 2008 to 2016.
More importantly for the webinar, Parsons has moderated seven church sessions during his calls. In his look at ways ruling elders nurture, support and provide for the spiritual life of a congregation, he drew on that wealth of experience, showed his abiding passion for Presbyterian worship communities around the nation and shared what Leader Formation host and Ruling Elder Martha Miller called his “notable sense of humor.”
Live interpretation in Korean and Spanish was provided during the Nov. 16 webinar, with slides available in Korean as well as English. All slides, including ones in Spanish, are available at the Leader Formation webinar page. A Zoom-generated transcript is available through the recording.
With nearly 300 attendees registered for the live event, Miller, who is Manager of Ministry Education and Support in the Office of the General Assembly, opened the webinar with a welcome to guests, land acknowledgments, and information about accessing interpretation. The webinar, the third in the series in 2023, is part of the renewed focus on leader formation for ruling elders and deacons by Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly.
“Listening is at the very heart of what it means to be a ruling elder,” Parsons said at the outset of his presentation. “Our church structure is designed from the get-go to create conversations, from the simplest committee meeting to the General Assembly itself … All aspects of our church structures are pushing us toward each other to have that conversation.”
Parsons, who is currently parish associate at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, listed typical conversations that occur at Presbyterian churches, including those with nominating committees and full congregations about ordination and leadership roles, and of course with God through prayer. He pinpointed the session as a locus for decision making inside each congregation, as well as a place of meeting among equals, with teaching elders and ruling elders — as well as deacons— all being ordained to ministry, even though they are set apart for different church functions.
Parsons described discernment, a necessary step before decisions are made, as “intentional listening for the overlaps” between people, scripture, the Holy Spirit and resource guides including the Book of Order and Book of Confessions. He urged quiet attentiveness as a way to notice those overlaps.
Governance is another duty Parsons identified as a session process, with ruling elders serving as commissioners in the votes they take, as opposed to representatives. Individual conscience is the ultimate guide of each leader. “And the Lord is the Lord of your conscience,” Parsons added. Commissioners in the church have great power, “Or as Spider-Man says, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’”
Discernment and decision making can be especially difficult in the stewardship or budget season. Parsons encouraged ruling elders to remember that they cannot please everyone, and to try and “frame” decisions based on how each “serves God and equips God’s people to serve the world.”
He reviewed three main jobs of the session — to make provisions “that the Word may truly be preached and heard,” “that the sacraments may be rightly administered and served” and that “covenant community of Christ” be nurtured — and acknowledged that ruling elders sometimes do those jobs by “stepping into the breach” when plans suddenly change. Whatever the week-by-week context, the session doesn’t work in service of routine or even ritual for the sake of ritual, but to create the conditions for God’s people to listen to each other and to God, to ask questions of each other and the world and to find ways to live together in kin-dom. Parsons connected all three main jobs of the session to Reformed theology and history.
As he wrapped up the presentation, Parsons urged all church leaders to pay attention to how their congregations “communicate love” to worshipers and members of the wider community, including bringing all one’s senses to that awareness. A love of God and an attention to being welcoming, including how your church looks to newcomers, should imbue that wider communication.
He shared his four L-words for elected leaders, saying they need to “love, listen, learn and lead.”
“That starts with loving your church the way it is, even if you dream of making changes,” he said.
Miller related questions from the live audience, including advice on engaging the full session (get everyone to talk and listen, Parsons said), if ruling elders should be prepared to preach the word of God (yes — if that’s your gift), how to listen better to members of a congregation (surveys can be helpful, but so can simply talking to more people at gatherings), where final budget decisions should be made (usually by the session), how to incorporate more language from the Book of Order and Book of Confessions into the decision-making process (begin by adding small sections of those texts to your work); should there be age requirements for leadership roles (No!), the benefits of Robert’s Rules vs. open consensus modes (each has virtues, with Robert’s moving discussions toward binary “take-this-action or don’t-take-this-action” mode), attracting younger members without losing older members (it’s a balancing act) and prioritizing organizational leaders vs. spiritual leaders (“We’re in the faith business … the touchstone is faith, not any organization.”)
One of the last questions Miller fielded herself, about what else ruling elders and deacons can do to grow as leaders. She said the Leader Formation initiative is a recognition that leaders are not born but formed, and that resources such as the ones available at pcusa.org/leader-formation (including regular Regarding Ruling Elders newsletters and Along The Road podcasts) can help refine leadership approaches as well as inspire new ones.