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.