Sunday, June 14, 2009

Undermining Elders

One of the problems I addresses in Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment is that the church has created structures to undermine the authority of pastoral leaders. I spent this week with the summer conference of the Synod of the Trinity in Pennsylvania. In our conversations on this subject, I realized that the church had also created structures to undermine the authority of elder leaders.

The session that governs a local congregation is composed of elders, and is moderated by the pastor. Prior to the reforms of "the Sixties," a small group of elders might serve for many years. Now elders normally serve for a three-year term, are off for a year, then serve another three-year term. And that is it. Though elders are ordained for life, just as ministers are, their formal service is normally limited to one stint. The same holds for deacons, who serve on a separate board. In most Presbyterian congregations, more than half of the members have been ordained as deacons or elders.

When they go off the session, the governing experience that they learned mostly goes with them. Moreover, the elders who are sent by a local congregation as official representatives (commissioners) to the presbytery, the regional governing body, are chosen from the session. This means that the governing experience that the Presbyterian Church can bring to its central governing body, the presbytery, is also only short-term.

It would be bad to have only a small group serve on the session and presbytery for years and years. No one advocates that. But by requiring rotation of elders, and rarely recalling elders with past service, the Presbyterian Church (USA) undermines the other half of its possible Establishment.


Unknown said...

One correction: a local session is not restricted to the active elders in electing a presbytery representative. Any ordained elder from the congregation may serve as the rep. Thus, there could be many long-serving elders at the presbytery level, whether or not they serve long terms at the local level.
Of course, these reps should make formal reports to the session they represent.

Andy James said...

A second correction: the Book of Order requires that elders take one year off after serving six consecutive years. (Terms can be arranged in whatever format the congregation might prefer.)

Gruntled said...

Good additions. The congregations I try to avoid having elders serve more than six years if they can help it. And I don't know of a congregation that actually does send non-session commissioners - do you?

Unknown said...

There are several long-term commissioners in my presbytery. While I cannot vouch that they are currently off their sessions, it would seem to me that they serve as commissioners over a long period of time because of their love of the presbytery and their value to its life and work.

Gruntled said...

That is a potential hopeful practice.

Lydia said...

Ditto . . . any Elder of a local congregation can serve as that congregation's representative to presbytery meetings.

Also, just because an Elder is not actively serving on the Session this does not mean that his or her spiritual gifts are not needed in the life and ministry of the congregation -- what GREAT spiritual mentors they could make to members of the congregation.


Charlie McFarlin said...

And yet another correction. Your thesis would be true in a large church where there is a large pool of people to draw from, or in a presbytery made up of mostly large churches - ie. over 250 avg attendance. But smaller churches comprise the greater majority of churches in the PCUSA. In these churches, especially where there is not a lot of turnover, many of our long term members have served multiple terms on session, even with the rotational regs in the BOO.

In my church, the majority of regularly attending members have served multiple terms on session, and many smaller churches requested permission from their presbyteries to suspend the rotation requirements so elders can serve longer terms on session.

Mark Smith said...

A few data points.

Most elders and deacons in my congregation only serve 3 years - it's unusual to appoint anyone for a 2nd term. Mostly because they want to move on to another ministry at the end of 3 years. A number of people have come back for additional service in their ordained office. Those serving partial terms are the ones most likely to be renominated immediately.

I'm pretty sure that ALL of our current presbytery commissioners are not actively on the session, but they do report back (as do the ministers who need to be there anyway). We also have a number of elders serving in presbytery committee and leadership positions.

About 1/3 of our congregation (875 on the roll) has been ordained as a deacon or elder based on anecdotal evidence.

I believe that the use of a large number of people's talents in the church is a sign of strength rather than weakness. With their experience they are able to lead less formally in other areas without taking the amount of their free time that would be required to serve on a board AND do whatever ministry they do.

A telling sign - our confirmation classes choose their own mentors. Over 1/2 of them are ordained deacons or elders. Who better to guide our future?