In Elders We Trust!

So If the pastor is the theological voice of the church, the nerve center in charge of thinking about God and energizing the congregation, then the elders are certainly the backbone of the church.

Some pastors I know had better start remembering this key anatomical lesson of the Body of Christ.

Without a backbone to support the nerve center, no matter how effective the head may be, it can’t stay attached to the body for very long.

In other words, without effective and committed elders in the Presbyterian Church, many heads are going to continue to roll…  

People often ask me why I am Presbyterian.  It’s really a fair question. 

In fact, I have been on a kind of ecumenical journey of sorts most of my life.  My parents, both life-long church goers, had a theory of church membership that governed my early religious life.
The theory is that denominational loyalty aside, a person attends the church in which they are most comfortable.  When we would move to a new town, which happened often when I was a child, (my dad was in real estate and banking) we would visit several local churches.  Once we identified the church and the pastor with which we were most comfortable, we would join.

It wasn’t that my parents weren’t interested in denominations and church polity. In fact they were very involved at every church we ever attended.  They just believed in the relationship aspect of the church more than what was on the sign out front.  It was more important to them to find a church where they felt they belonged than to remain denominationally pure.

Thus my experience…  I was baptized in a small Lutheran church in Delaware when I was three years old; my sister next to me in my mother’s arms.  The little congregation was the perfect place to be raised in the Christian faith.  My earliest memories of the church was the arrival of a new priest, one in which my father had helped call to the church.  Even now, I can remember every detail of the silver cross around his neck against the deep black background of his clergy shirt the first time I met him.  That pastor and I remain in contact even today, so many years later, and in many ways the reason I am a pastor is because of these earliest experiences with him and this little church.

When I was twelve-years old, my family moved to a new town.  We joined a fairly large Methodist church in town and became active.  I served as an acolyte, and when the time came, was confirmed by this church.  The church was much larger than our early Lutheran one, and my class of Confirmands was big and diverse.  Again, I remember the pastor who led the class and the things he taught us about being disciples of Jesus Christ.  In much the same way as my earlier church experience, I now carry with me what I learned on the second floor of the education wing of this church so many years ago.

While in college, my parents moved again and became Episcopalians.  There were Christmas candlelight services and high liturgy that I found beautiful and meaningful even during the years when most of my college-aged peers had walked away from church.  No matter what happened at school, I always knew home meant church and family.  I still do.

Finally, I grew up and left my home and family.  As an adult living on my own with my new wife, it became time for us to join a congregation of our own since we lived hours away from any family church connections.  Having learned my lesson well from my parents, my wife and I began visiting churches in search of the one in which we felt most comfortable. 

One particular Sunday, of great meaning to us now, we happened upon a beautiful and very historic Presbyterian congregation.  The pastors were friendly and so were the people and we felt almost immediately that we had come home to our church family.  My wife and I joined the church and began to serve it with enthusiasm and energy.

Not long after joining this church, I began to wonder about professional ministry.  My call story is one of discernment and the passing of time and is too involved for this discussion.  However, in time I stepped forward to be Ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Just in case you lost your place on the score card: Baptized Lutheran, Confirmed Methodist, Communed with Liturgy as Episcopalian, and Ordained Presbyterian.  I had a seminary professor who used to describe me as an “Ecu-Maniac,” and perhaps he is right.

But more than anything else, these combined experiences have given me a broad range of knowledge within the mainline church.  I am able to speak the language of many different churches, using the jargon and following the key issues each church chooses to emphasize.  I am not a life-long Presbyterian who was born into the faith, but often tell people with great pride, I have chosen to be Presbyterian.  (A statement that certainly would have annoyed the predestination John Calvin who would have claimed God chose me to be Presbyterian.  And so it goes…)

So why am I a Presbyterian?  Why did I choose to be a professional minister in this denomination over all the others?  I certainly could have retraced the roots of my journey of faith and re-established my ties to other church systems before becoming ordained.  I could have been Lutheran, (in fact I attended a Lutheran seminary for one of my degrees), or Methodist, or even Episcopalian.  Why Presbyterian?

I choose to be Presbyterian for one reason, for one word in fact, ELDER.  More than any other rationale, the reason for my being Presbyterian is due to the fact that we have elders in our system of polity.  I believe it is the best way to be the church.

Many Presbyterians fail to see the importance of our system of elders.  In fact, many who might have been raised, as I was, without denominational purity and loyalty might even think our elders are virtually the same as the leaders in other churches.  They might think the elders in our Session are like the members of church council for the Methodists, or the vestry in the Episcopal system.  And yet, it simply is not the same thing.

Presbyterians are one of the few denominations of the Reformed Tradition that recognizes elders as an ordained office of the church.  Elders are ordained in exactly the same way clergy are in our system, in fact using the same questions.  In the Presbyterian system, we say that the only difference between clergy ordination and elder ordination is purpose and focus of ministry.

The word elder in Greek is Presbuteros.  As Presbyterians, this is how we derive the very name of our denomination.  Ours is a presbuteros system, one that relies fully on the elders to govern our church.  That means a great deal in comparison to the ways other churches are set up, and as we search for voice in our denomination, our system of elders is one very important witness to the church catholic.

For one, our system is a bottom up and not a top down system.  We govern by will of the people and not by the authority given to one or two individuals.  Presbyterians, who like history, will remind us that the United States system of government is based on the Presbyterian system, since so many of the early founding fathers were in fact Presbyterian.  More than anything else, Presbyterians want to maintain the call to ministry of each and every disciple in a faith community, and never want the power and the discernment of a church to be in the hands of one or two at the top.

In practice, this means that there is no presiding bishop or leader at the top of our church that controls what happens.  I often wonder about churches in our polity system who complain about what is being done by the “national church,”  as if the national church is some authoritarian ruler who can mandate anything.  The reality is that the national church, like the national government, is made up of brothers and sisters in Christ just like them.  If you are upset with what is happening in our churches, I urge you to look around and start with the men and women in the pew next to you who serve as your elders, since they are governing the church just as other elders all over the country do the same.

That brings us to the second thing to remember about our unique system, the responsibility that each and every member has in our congregation to step up and to serve when it is their time.  Many who are reading this will have already answered the call to be an elder, and many others will answer that call at one point in their life as a disciple.  Answering this call is a great responsibility and one that requires as complete an understanding as possible of what is being asked of a person. What is an elder?

Simply stated, an elder is a spiritual leader of the congregation.  They are men and women, sometimes even youth, who answer the call to step forward and be ordained for service to the church.  They are mature disciples, sometimes maturing disciples, who have agreed to offer the skills and gifts they have for the building up of the church.  It is the goal of every church to identify those that are ready to step forward and to lead their brothers and sisters in Christ in their spiritual journey. 

In our system of polity, elders are the ordained ministers of the church in every sense of the word, and that point alone makes us a different system than any other. Other systems do not ordain their lay leadership in part because they serve a different function.  They are not the ministers of the church in the same way our elders are ministers.  The vestry and the council support the work of the church and the work of the pastor.  They are given the responsibility of supervising the ministry of the pastor and the congregation.  In the Presbyterian system, however, it is the total responsibility of the elders to ensure the ministry of the church is getting done.

Perhaps it is a subtle point.  Supervising and being responsible for ministry are just a cup of coffee and a clipboard away from one another.  Yet, there is much that we have to offer in this subtly.  However, this subtly has become lost on most of our elders and pastors. Even if you read our Book of Order under the section describing the duties of elders (G-014), the point that Elders are responsible for the ministry of the church gets blurred.

It seems the writers of our Book of Order wanted to ensure pastors understood; that elders are paired in equality with them, so that pastors would not abuse the power given them by their ordination.  In typical Calvinist form, we have maintained a checks and balance system in describing the two offices ensuring that our clergy do not get too far ahead of our laity.

The problem is that our elders are not empowered by the wording.  I wonder if our elders see the Book of Order bringing the pastors down to their level, instead of bringing them up to the pastors’ level as it should be.  Our system is unique. It is absolutely necessary that our ordained laity understand that their ordination puts them on a level with clergy unlike any other church polity system.

Many churches have rightly identified that each and every disciple of Christ is a minister.  We have all seen church signs and bulletins that identify the pastor, and then under the heading of ministers, the whole congregation is listed.  This is a fairly recent attempt to capture the reformation idea of Luther and Calvin that each person has a relationship with Jesus Christ on their own.  It is a good thing.

But no other church system takes this idea to the next level as the Presbyterians do.  No other system ordains lay people and establishes them as the spiritual leaders of the congregation, completely responsible for the ministry and the workings of their faith community.

Many people often complain about the pastor when things aren’t going well in a church.  They mistakenly see the pastor or pastors, the ones who wear the big silver cross, as the scapegoat for the failings of a church.  Sometimes it is the pastor’s failings that can contribute to an unhealthy church; especially if the pastor is failing to uphold his voice of preaching and teaching to the congregation.  But never is it the total responsibility of any pastor for the ministry of any church in our system.  That voice falls to the ministers of the church, the elders.  

Maybe it is also important, in light of what an elder is, to identify what an elder is not.  Elders are NOT the Board of Directors for the church, similar to the non-profit world or the corporate one.  They are NOT permission givers for ministry.  They are NOT the pastorscheerleaders or financial backers.  The elders are NOT to be all men or all women, and certainly NOT all people with a “good strong business background” to ensure the church runs along swimmingly.

Presbyterian elders are the backbone of our church.  They come from all walks of life, all races, and all experiences.  They are business people, but they are also doctors and lawyers, homemakers and homebuilders, teachers and sanitation workers.  Presbyterian elders are the salt-of-the-earth people of God who have agreed to have their discipleship set apart and made holy if only for a time in the service of the Body of Christ.  They are, in every sense of the word, the ministers of our churches and have all the rights and responsibilities therein.

Why am I Presbyterian?  I am Presbyterian because I believe in the power of Jesus Christ to govern His church through the individual lives of His disciples called elders.  I believe in a “bottom-up” system of government that shares the power equally as it shares the responsibility.  I believe the presbuteros system of government was a gift given to the early church, one that was originated in the Old Testament, and is one that is equally relevant today.  Simply stated, I trust in the eldersvoice as a uniquely Presbyterian witness to faith in Jesus Christ.

We have a great gift to give to the modern day church.  We have the gift of our polity and our elders.  In a world of the “Purpose Driven Church[1],” what could give the church more purpose than the setting apart of lay people for ministry?  In a world in which clergy abuse their privilege and the members of their congregation, sometimes the most vulnerable ones, what would be more empowering that to balance and support our clergy with committed ministers of the church who understand their voice as one of privilege as well as power?  In a world of failing commitment, and lackadaisical service to Jesus Christ, what could be more committed than a polity system that places His disciples in charge of His church?

If we are to rediscover our voice as Presbyterians, we must first reinvigorate our elders and celebrate their important voice among us.  There is a crucial voice in our system of polity that empowers elders, and therefore I believe there is great voice in our Presbyterian church.

[1] Warren, Rick.  The Purpose-Driven Church.  Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI c. 1995  


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