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.