Question i (1) - Faithful Ruling Elder

Site: Equip PC(USA) Training
Course: Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons based on the Constitutional Questions
Book: Question i (1) - Faithful Ruling Elder
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Date: Sunday, June 23, 2024, 7:25 PM


W-4.0404 i. (1)—Will you be a faithful ruling elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in councils of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

Will you be a ruling elder?

W-4.0404 i. (1)—Will you be a faithful ruling elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture, and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in councils of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

Learning what it means to be a ruling elder is like learning to walk or to bake: one really learns by doing. Full understanding of the role of ruling elders often happens while serving. A person might have an idea of the responsibilities of a ruling elder by having been a member of a congregation, watching other people serve in this capacity, or by reading a description of the role in the Book of Order, but it is really along the way, living into the ordination vows and serving on the session and other councils, that a ruling elder is formed.

Since ruling elders are called to particular functions, it is important to understand fully what those functions are. A ruling elder is defined in the following way:

As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people. Accordingly, congregations should elect persons of wisdom and maturity of faith, having demonstrated skills in leadership and being compassionate in spirit. Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with ministers of the Word and Sacrament, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office. (BOO, G-2.0301)

Remember…… You were elected to this position because you have demonstrated wisdom, maturity of faith, leadership, and compassion in spirit. The call to serve as a ruling elder is a call to shared ministry. Ruling elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament participate equally.It is important to remember three points: (1) a ruling elder has been elected because the person has demonstrated wisdom, maturity of faith, leadership, and compassion in spirit. These are the core of the invitation to serve and are present in all kinds of people, regardless of origin, age, race, profession, disabilities, geography, gender, orientation, education, or background. What a powerful message of God’s call to all! Whomever God calls, God empowers. (2) The call is to serve in a shared ministry. Ruling elders are not meant to live into this calling alone, nor are ministers of Word and Sacrament. Discernment, leadership of the congregation, discipline, and other responsibilities are meant to be done prayerfully, intentionally, and collectively. And (3) ruling elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament vote and participate equally in the governance of the councils. This is one of the beauties of our Presbyterian structure: parity (or equality) in governance.

The first eight constitutional questions in W-4.0404 are the same for all those who are ordained, installed, and commissioned. Though these are personal vows, they are expressed and lived in the collective. We all respond affirmatively to these vows, and, in doing so, we all share in the responsibility to fulfill them for the benefit of the world, beginning with our own faith community, and to the glory of God.

For Reflection and Discussion:

In order to serve the people of God, session members need to be able to work and serve effectively together, knowing and trusting each other, and learning to appreciate the particular calling each one has, with their own gifts and skills, to serve in this council.

What are some ways the session can encourage community and trust-building among its members?

How can the session foster healthy relationships and safe, productive working environments?

Faithfulness and Care: Nurturing a Congregation

While all of those who are ordained respond affirmatively to the first eight ordination questions, each ordered ministry has its own question, and question “i” is particular to ruling elders.

The question begins with a vow to be faithful. Faithfulness, a quality that implies loyalty and steadfastness, is connected with worship, nurture, and service. It is important to understand, as per the definition in the Book of Order, that to “watch over” is not to “lord over.” The definition refers to the scriptural passage in Matthew 20:25–26: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. …’” The ministry of the ruling elder is one of service and care. This ministry must go beyond balancing budgets and creating church programs. While serving the people, each person will bring their own gifts, whether they be financial, programmatic, musical, organizational, or otherwise. Ruling elders are invited to serve in these ways because of their demonstrated wisdom, maturity of faith, leadership, and compassion in spirit.

The beginning of the question also refers to areas that can be described as pastoral. It is interesting to note that in a shared governance model like ours, these are also part of the responsibilities of a ruling elder. The question highlights the multifaceted nature of this ordered ministry. Those elected to be ruling elders and the pastor(s) of the congregation are to serve alongside each other to become a pastoral care team. As stated in “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” in the Book of Order, This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders (also called Ministers of Word and Sacrament) (BOO, F-3.0202). All members are called to care for one another, but ruling elders, deacons, and ministers of Word and Sacrament “have particular responsibility for the exercise of pastoral care within the community of faith” (BOO, W-5.0204).

As a part of those pastoral responsibilities, “providing for their worship” is highlighted. In concrete, more practical terms, the “Directory for Worship” in the Book of Order delineates the areas pertaining to worship where the session has purview. Section W-2.0303 states, “Ruling elders are called to nurture the common life of the people of God through their gifts of discernment and governance.” With the exception of those responsibilities that pertain to the minister of Word and Sacrament (see W-2.0304 and W-2.0305), the session has a responsibility for worship services and other gatherings (W-5.0206 and W-5.0302), guiding new members in their journey of faith (W-4.0204), authorization of the sacraments (W-3.0403 and W-3.0410), caring and “providing ongoing opportunities for Christian formation and instruction” to the baptized (W-4.0201), authorizing or denying the use of the church property (W-4.0602), and the development and supervision of church’s educational programs for officers and all members (W-5.0203), among others.

A careful reading of the “Directory for Worship” within the Book of Order is highly recommended for a greater understanding of these responsibilities. The task may seem daunting if one forgets that most of our sessions already have practices and policies in place. This fact does not excuse those in ordered ministry from knowing their responsibilities, however. Upon reflection and discernment, practices could be revised and/or changed. This is also a responsibility of the session.

A lesser known responsibility is found within W-2.0303: to “cultivate [the] ability to teach the Word when called upon to do so.” Sadly, this point is not emphasized as much as the other “more obvious” ruling elder responsibilities. To ignore this part of the ministry of the elder is to do a disservice to the church. Given guidance and space, ruling elders may have the opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, to share the Word, and to witness to God’s love and grace stemming from their own point of view as a ruling elder. There is a special blessing in sharing the Word and witnessing to God’s action in one’s life. The church is encouraged and even challenged by life testimony, longer versions of professions of faith, heard from the lips of their own elected leaders.

Government, Discipline, and Service: A Shared but Personal Ministry

The last part of the ordination question for ruling elders focuses on the shared responsibilities of governance, discipline, and participation in the wider church. Carlos E. Wilton states in his book, Principles of Presbyterian Polity, “While the Book of Order describes certain personal characteristics ruling elders ought to display as spiritual leaders and exemplars, it also lays out all their ruling responsibilities in collective terms, as belonging to the session ... Collectively—along with the teaching elders who also serve with them in the session—they ‘exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have the responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships.’”[1]

It is vital to remember that this shared ministry is also deeply personal. The ordination questions are asked in the second person singular (“Will you …”) meant to be answered in the first person singular (“I do … I will … I will, with God’s help”). God’s help and guidance is truly needed. Prayer, personal reflection, and cultivating spiritual disciplines are of the utmost importance, for the work is heavy at times. There will be difficult questions to ask and decisions to make that are equally difficult. Ruling elders may have to become very familiar with the “Rules of Discipline” section of the Book of Order or will have to review section G-4.0302 in “The Form of Government,” which includes mandatory reporting in situations of abuse or neglect. Such is the nature of the ministry of discernment and governance.

For all presbyters, the session is just one of the councils where they may feel called to serve. Being a ruling elder makes it possible to participate and serve in other councils as well. Though ministers of Word and Sacrament are members of the presbytery, sessions elect commissioners to represent their congregation in presbytery meetings and elders may be elected to serve in presbytery committees or commissions. Since there is parity in the votes of ruling elders and ministers of Word and Sacrament in councils, both participate equally and can be elected as officers. The Book of Order says it this way, “When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, and they are eligible for any office” (BOO, G-2.0301).

Service and calling as a ruling elder does not end when the term on session concludes. As long as a ruling elder is an active member of a PC(USA) congregation, they will “continue to bear the responsibilities of the ministry to which they have been ordained …(BOO, G-2.0404). Unless there are particular circumstances that require a person to be released from ministry or renounce the jurisdiction of the PC(USA), ordination is a lifelong vocation. The possibilities of service within the church structure are many. Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly greatly benefit from the experience, skills, and commitment ruling elders bring to service to the larger, connected church. The Holy Spirit might be calling a ruling elder to serve on the committee that oversees ministry, in an administrative commission to help out a church going through financial difficulty, on the synod permanent judicial commission, on one of many standing committees of the General Assembly, to be a commissioner to the General Assembly, or even to stand as a candidate for Moderator/Co-Moderator of the General Assembly. The Holy Spirit is at work right now. “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). The harvest is indeed plentiful.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Faithful leaders lead by example. They are called to model for the people of God a holistic approach to living the faith in which body, mind, and spirit are nurtured and replenished. Living a life of prayer and personal spiritual discipline is therefore of great importance in the ministry of discernment and governance.

How do you model self-care and spiritual care for yourself and others?

[1] Wilton, C.E. (2016). Principles of Presbyterian Polity, 68.

For Further Study

Scripture passages

a)    Acts 15:1–29; 16:4

b)    Ephesians 4:1–13

c)    Colossians 3:1–17

d)    1 John 4:18–21

e)    2 Timothy 3:14–4:5


The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

a)    “A Brief Statement of Faith,” Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Section 11.4.

b)    “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity,” particularly Section F-3.0202.

c)    “The Form of Government,” particularly sections G-2.0301 (“Ruling Elder Defined”) and G-3.0201 (“Composition and Responsibilities”).

d)    “Directory for Worship,” particularly Sections W-2.0303 (“Ruling Elders”) and W-4.0301 (“Acts of Christian Service”).

Additional Content

A Story about Call and Discernment from the Writer

At 20 years old, I was ordained to serve on the session of the Iglesia Presbiteriana en Caparra Terrace in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In decades past, there had been other elders that were young, even younger than I was at that time, yet I was the youngest person to be ordained in a while in our congregation. 

It almost didn’t happen. No one, other than my fiancée, knew about this part of the story: I struggled with saying “yes” to the invitation of the nominating committee. I struggled not necessarily because of my young age, but because of the weight of ordination.

My grandfather (abuelo), Edgar Olivieri, had been a ruling elder since before I was born. His example of leadership, commitment, and mentorship embodied the word “ruling elder” in my mind. My abuelo was a person of great conviction and unwavering faith, trusting that the God who called him would see him through even in the most difficult of times. 

Would I be able to fulfill the responsibilities as my abuelo did? Would I have the time to serve given my school and volunteer commitments? I was born to this congregation. I’d been a member of the church for some years now, active in the youth group and camp. I sang in the choir, participated in the drama group, and had led worship and prayer circles. Was that enough? Was I knowledgeable enough? Did I have what it took to be a more involved church leader? Was I ready to face another side of the church that I was not really familiar with: the governance? The nominating committee seemed to think so. I wrestled with these and other questions while discerning how to respond to the invitation to serve.

As Reformed Christians, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. We are all called in baptism to ministry in Christ’s name. Ephesians 4:4–7 reminds us that there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. …” In the midst of living into that call, some persons feel called to fulfill particular functions, so that the ministry of the whole people of God may flourish” (BOO, W-4.0401). I understood my life as part of a big, universal faith family, as a Christian who happened to be Presbyterian, in the context of this church community in San Juan.

After a conscious discernment process, what ultimately moved me to respond affirmatively was that I felt called by God to serve as a ruling elder in my congregation. At 20 years old, though, I couldn’t put this into words. The very process of discerning the call to serve on the session would be the first step of a lifetime commitment precisely to discernment and governance. Along the road I discovered that being ordained to this ministry would encompass more than serving the local faith community. Responding to the call is just the first step to a lifetime of ministry.

I served on session for one term. During that time, I finished college, got married, moved from my hometown in San Juan, and became a teacher. My husband, José Manuel, was ordained at that time, too. We moved to the city of Caguas, Puerto Rico, as José Manuel was called to be the re-development pastor of a fourteen-member church that had gone through a schism. I was member number fifteen. Alongside a presbytery administrative commission, José Manuel began his ministry as a parish pastor.

My ministry as a ruling elder flourished there as well, in a faith community that needed nurture and care after going through so much. I hadn’t served on a session since I served in my home church in San Juan, yet the call to serve the people of God, in manifold ways, had remained strong throughout the years.

At various points in my life I have served as a Sunday school teacher, a choir member, a presbytery committee member and chair, as synod vice-moderator, as a commissioner to presbytery and General Assembly, in a permanent committee of the General Assembly, as a presbytery moderator, and as Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018). In this ordered ministry, the greatest joy is to serve and to make disciples.

Like my abuelo before me, I get to mentor new leaders and walk alongside them as they discern the ways in which God is calling them. It warms my heart to see church leaders I knew as children, youth, new church members, and as first-time churchgoers now serving the people of God as ruling elders, youth group and camp leaders, musicians, ministers of Word and Sacrament, Sunday school teachers, deacons, stated clerks, committee members, community leaders, and so much more.

The ministry continues as the Holy Spirit calls “women and men to all ministries of the Church” (“A Brief Statement of Faith,” Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 11.4, Line 64). When God calls, God empowers. The plan belongs to God. Responding to it is just the first step to a lifetime of ministry and service to God and neighbor. Así nos ayude Dios. So help us, God.


About the writer

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri is a ruling elder in the PC(USA) and an educator. She has served at many levels of the denomination, including session, presbytery, synod, and as Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018). Vilmarie has dedicated most of her adult life to education and training, primarily teaching English to high schoolers and adults from all over the world. She currently serves as a conference administrator in a CREDO team, a program of the Board of Pensions. Vilmarie lives in Florida with her husband, the Reverend José Manuel Capella-Pratts, and loves arts & crafts, decorating, and Christmas.

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