- The Eldership in Crisis.
Presbyterianism lodges power and authority in a select group of people called elders (presbyter in Greek). Rather than having decisions made by all the members of the church (which is congregationalism), or by a single authority figure (as in much of episcopal polity), the Presbyterian church locates responsibility in gathered groups — councils — of elders.
We might think that Presbyterians would have a highly developed theology of eldership, the presbyterate, and we would have the dynamics of effective conciliar discernment down cold. We don’t. We have failed to educate ourselves very well concerning the role, function, place, selection, and authority of elders in the church.
Hence, like almost everything else in the church, the institution of elders/presbyters is in crisis right now. For Presbyterians, this is a big, even existential, deal. The Presbyterian Church is only as faithful, healthy, and effective as the presbyterate, the eldership.
Sadly, we habitually import our understanding of leadership into the church from secular society, and reduce elders to the equivalent of board members or trustees of non-profit corporations. This mentality often means that elders bring into the church the values, outlooks, skills, and approaches judged to be successful in the world. They act like fiduciaries and custodians of a religious institution which takes its place among the other institutions of the American cultural landscape. The elders thus become cautious asset-managers, charged with maintaining and preserving homogeneous, and change-averse congregations.
While this kind of leadership may work elsewhere, to the church of Jesus Christ it is toxic. For we have only one Head and Leader, who is Jesus Christ; and it is only from him that we have our model of responsibility. And he clearly and explicitly exhibits a very different kind of leadership.
“You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants over them.
But it is not so among you;
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many”
After [Jesus] had washed their feet, had put on his robe,
and had returned to the table, he said to them,
“Do you know what I have done to you?
You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.
So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,
you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I have set you an example,
that you also should do as I have done to you.
Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master,
nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.
If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”
The leadership given to the church by the Lord is not that of a superior to subordinates, but one who leads by intentionally gravitating to the lowest place of service. Thus, after Christ example, leaders in the church are not trustees or fiduciaries; still less are they masters, owners, or executives.
In Christ we see that a real leader implements the will of a higher authority by showing how the “highest” authority is most fully present in the lowest, humblest, poorest, most broken, vulnerable, and empty places. The true leaders in Christ’s Way make themselves open, clear, unobstructed channels for God’s goodness and blessing to flow through them into the world. In a sense, they let their ego-centric, personality-driven existence die. For, as Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
If the Presbyterian church has any future, we are going to have to reimagine the presbyterate in such a way that we start reflecting and expressing more intentionally and directly the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The elders in the church are to guide the church in Jesus’ Way of self-emptying love. And they can only do this by realizing it themselves. Indeed, the realization is the guidance.
When people live this way, Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where Jesus is Lord, and participants in this Kingdom realize his Lordship, and their own, by emptying themselves of all that separates them from God. It is when the broken are made whole and the lowly lifted up, and it is when the privileged and powerful move to take the lowest place. Elders are the leaders in this race to the bottom; they seek to be examples in outdoing each other in generous, compassionate love.
II. Elders Are the Vanguard and Guardians of a Radical Insurgency Called the Kingdom of God.
Christianity is an insurgency. The Lord Jesus talks about his disciples using images like “salt” and “leaven,” things that work subtly from within to flavor and reshape a larger whole.
An insurgency requires a leadership team committed to the principles, practices, and goals of the movement. In the Jesus Way these are the elders. They excel in expressing Jesus’ self-emptying, emancipatory, empowering leadership.
I mention this as a counter-argument to those who complain that presbyterianism is undemocratic in locating power in a select group, rather than in the whole. It is precisely because of the radical and insurrectionary nature of Christian faith, that it cannot be left to popular whim. The early church instituted “apostolic succession” to ensure that the faith did not get coopted, and watered-down, by other elements, like “the people” or the State. There were strict requirements for membership, and high bars for leadership. Without this, the church is liable to dissolve into the culture, becoming indistinguishable from it.
The integrity and authenticity of the church depends on leaders who “get it.” The elders above all have to be thoroughly committed to the faith and the mission. They cannot be doing this in their spare time, after their commitments to family and work have been satisfied. Most of all, they can’t be bringing into the church ways of thinking and acting that make for success in the Empire. They have to follow Jesus and seek first his Kingdom.
Here are some considerations for the church in recovering a higher functioning of elders.
- When followers of Jesus gather to organize God’s mission, discerning and implementing Christ’s will is the first, if not only, order of business. A session or presbytery meeting ought to be nearly indistinguishable from a Bible Study or prayer/meditation group. Meetings are primarily an encounter with God’s Word and Spirit. The “business” is incidental and derivative.
- Elders represent God’s will, epitomized in God’s self-emptying love in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the way elders are chosen, and the insights they realize, will be based on the same self-emptying, seen in the “preferential option for the poor” at the heart of the Scriptural message. Elders are the guardians and executors of this revelation. This first means becoming spiritually poor in disciplines of repentance by which they are increasingly conformed to the mind of Christ. And secondly it means serving the disenfranchised, suffering, and destitute in society, giving special attention to the most victimized and reviled individuals and groups. Elders “speak for the trees” in advocating for God’s creation and all of life. Elders have to recognize in Jesus’ Beatitudes both themselves and those they are sent to serve.
- Beginning with themselves, and serving as examples to others, the elders are to isolate, critique, and dissolve every congealing infection of privilege, inequality, superiority, exclusion, and self-righteousness, every knot of fear, shame, or anger, every ego-centric, hypocritical, acquisitional, extractive urge, and every obstruction in the flow of the grace, goodness, and glory of God in Jesus Christ, pouring into the world. Instead of procuring, protecting, and preserving, the elders need to be about spending, sharing, investing, giving, and losing, especially when it comes to buildings and money.
- Elders need to be known for their personal generosity, forgiveness, simplicity, humility, repentance, wisdom, contemplation, and love. They are people of deep prayer whose lives engage Scripture, and who are regular fixtures in the Sacramental and worship life of a particular congregation. Wealth, worldly power, privilege, and social status are disqualifying. The more successful by the world’s standards, the less eligible someone should be to serve as an elder. Success is mainly an indication of compromise.
- Elders courageously guide the church in Jesus’ self-emptying Way of life, showing the Lord’s justice, non-violence, and acceptance. Elders create space for a community of honesty, acceptance, integrity, authenticity, and forgiveness. Constantly engaged in the Word and prayer; elders demonstrate Jesus’ Way by cherishing life and creation, welcoming all, especially the least, receiving and sharing the Holy Spirit, and living into the Kingdom of God in joy and thanksgiving.
- Congregations recognize elders by their gifts, and call them to serve on the session subject to regular reconfirmation. They should not fix by rule the number of elders, as this creates the perception of slots that need to be filled.
- The elders lead the witness of the church in being sent into the world as agents of God’s peace and justice. The expression of good news in a broken and oppressed world is evangelism. It seeks to extend the truth of God’s Kingdom into the systems, relationships, institutions, and practices that characterize the prevailing economic and political order. They speak and act in society in favor of the inclusion, welcome, equality, healing, generosity, humility, non-violence, forgiveness, and reversal that the church intentionally lives. They engage in acts of service to those in need, especially with communities and people that are at risk.
- The witness of elders is essential in leading the whole people of God, beginning in the gathered community of those who trust in the Lord Jesus. As all the members grow in the Spirit, they also infuse Christ’s life into their own relationships and into society, acting as leaven, salt, and light.
- Ruling elders “rule,” not by themselves governing, least of all according to the domination model of secular power, but by applying a Ruler, in the sense of a measuring instrument, which is Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. The elders evaluate themselves first, and then the mission of the church, according to Christ’s standard and model. Is the church’s mission keeping to the “ruled” lines giving the shape of Christ? Or does it waver and wander from Christ’s pattern of humility, generosity, acceptance, non-violence, and justice? Does the congregation look more and more like Jesus Christ?
- Teaching elders — also called Ministers of Word and Sacrament — teach, impart, relate, interpret, translate, apply, and exemplify the biblical story of God’s love revealed and poured into human hearts and all creation in Jesus Christ. They oversee and counsel regarding the enactment of that story in mission and ministry. They tell the story in the interpretation of Scripture and celebrating the Sacraments. They convene and moderate the gathering of elders in a local congregation. They seek to “pray constantly” themselves, as they also lead the people in prayer. They display in their own lives the self-emptying love of God shown in Jesus by living in simplicity, humility, honesty, piety, and even poverty. They are basically “elders for oversight,” or episcopoi (that is, bishops) in a local missional/worshiping community.
III. Reforming the Eldership.
- Institute specific covenantal requirements, standards, and criteria for ordination and installation as a ruling elder. These have to identify someone in relationship with Jesus Christ as reflected and expressed in life-style, attitudes, values, practices, knowledge, and reputation.
- Provide for an annual review of all elders, with the provision that someone may fall away from being an elder. This is done by other elders.
- Require continuing education, and spiritual development, from all elders. This will include retreats and spiritual direction relationships, as well as courses and workshops.
- Lose term-limits, but only after the eldership has been thoroughly reformed.
- Take seminaries out of the hands of trustees, and give them to elders appointed by councils to run.
- Overhaul the system of accreditation so that it reflects ecclesiastical and missional priorities, not those of academic professionals.
- Develop new templates for gatherings of councils. An ecclesiastical gathering should not be mistaken for a corporate board or stock-holders’ meeting.
- Organize sessions so that divisions of labor are more fluid and missional, rather than the traditional categories which reflect a corporate mentality, as if the elders were “division heads” or something.
- Organize councils differently. Get rid of all titles, job descriptions, and expectations imported from the business world. No “executives.” No “heads of staff.” No “trustees.” No “Personnel Committees.” And so on. Look for biblical titles related to justice and service.
- Organize presbyteries as integrated partnership networks of congregations and elders engaged in mutual support, encouragement, discipleship, and oversight. Reconsider geographicality and boundaries; make them more open, fluid, and responsive to missional needs.
- Organize compensation and benefits so that there is no income inequality in the church.