How disheartening to hear a ruling elder say, “I am just a ruling elder.” As leaders we can’t afford, nor can the church, to downplay the importance of our ministry.

Ruling Elder Frances Lin, stated clerk for the Presbytery of San Diego, and I often lament the use of the qualifier “just” in this way. Is it because ruling elders may not feel capable of fulfilling their responsibilities? Are they trying to avoid the perception of privilege? We cannot imagine a scenario where someone would say of a teaching elder, “Oh, they are just a minister of Word and Sacrament.”

Shani McIlwain is a ruling elder at Faith Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and is well-respected for her contributions to the church. She serves as moderator of National Capital Presbytery and is a member of the General Assembly Committee on Representation. She is a successful entrepreneur, a best-selling and award-winning author, and a social media personality. Shani is also an experienced facilitator and speaker, and more!

Shani’s story is a testament to the power of mentoring and seizing opportunities. Despite serving as a deacon for many years, Shani did not realize how becoming a ruling elder would strengthen her leadership and professional work. When a pastor friend questioned why Shani wasn’t an elder, Shani began to consider it. This led to a desire to speak at conferences, lead retreats, and preach the Word, even asking to be added to the presbytery’s pulpit supply list despite not having seminary training.

When first ordained as a ruling elder, Shani confessed that for a long time she referred to herself as “just an elder” because she was often around ministers. However, with the encouragement and validation from several participants at an Association of Partners in Christian Education (APCE) conference, she stopped using the word "just," fully embracing the importance of this office.

Shani’s faith journey as a ruling elder is an inspiring witness of discovering, owning, and nurturing one’s unique spiritual gifts. As she served on various committees and boards, she was invited to speak at events and embraced the opportunities that came her way. When asked if she was afraid, she responded, “I was afraid, but I did it anyway; the fear is always there, it has never gone away.” Even so, she said yes to God, because “I love God more than I fear anything.”

Her advice for ruling elders is to avoid comparing themselves to others and to embrace their unique spiritual gifts, given to each of us by God, and to bring those gifts to the table. Identify what you do well and lean into your strengths. Shani’s passion for teaching and equipping people is evident, and she encourages others to do the same for those around them. She emphasizes the importance of having a strong support system and finding ways to balance work and ministry. Remember to pursue what motivates you and brings you joy.

And pray!

Thank you, Shani McIlwain, and all ruling elders, for your witness and ministry, as you serve with energy, intelligence, imagination and love.

For Reflection:

  • Shani’s talent for storytelling emboldened her to ask to be added to the pulpit supply list. Thinking about your own unique spiritual gifts, how they might be used in the church and community?
  • When did someone else recognize your gifts or abilities before you did? Take some time to reflect and pray on these experiences to discern how the Holy Spirit may be moving in your life.
  • Consider how you might cultivate a strong support system to ensure that you are effectively equipped for this ministry. What are some qualities that would make such a support system useful for you?

valerie izumi is a ruling elder serving the Office of the General Assembly as an assistant stated clerk, coordinating the General Assembly nominations process.

Throughout 2023 and 2024, monthly Regarding Ruling Elders articles will alternate between a deep dive into the ways ruling elders discern and measure the life of a congregation through the ministry of members and stories about how ruling elders are using their call and gifts as they move within and beyond the walls of the congregation.

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*Note to readers:  This story will be availalbe in Spanish and Korean shortly. Thank you for your patience.