What I Continue to Learn from Cindy Bolbach: Elders Rule

Cindy Seriously AwesomeNote:  It’s Cindy Bolbach Week in my head, so I’m thinking of her wisdom as we approach the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  

We in the Presbyterian Church (USA) call clergy and elders Teaching Elders (clergy) and Ruling Elders (non-clergy).  This ticks some people off because they say (and, to be fair,  it’s true) that ordinary, non-churchy people have no clue what a “Teaching Elder” is.  They know the terms Pastor, Priest, Clergy, Minister (the most misused term), and even Teaching Pastor, but most people don’t know the Greek word for elder, etc.

Nevertheless, we Presbyterians believe that both kinds of elders are equal in calling and this designation (Teaching Elders & Ruling Elders) notes this.  This is who we are as Reformed Christians who lift up the priesthood of all believers as one of our Essential Tenets.

My favorite Ruling Elder served as Moderator of the 219th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA.  She is brilliant, witty, generous, and without question a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ.  She reminds us all that Ruling Elders rule.  Which brings me to the ecclesiastical whirlwind known as Advent.

Every parish pastor I know is Very Busy right now.  In addition to the usual unrelenting duties of Ordinary Time, Advent piles on the extra worship services,  hanging-of-the-greens, pageants, concerts, staff parties, and – like clockwork – more pastoral care needs.  From the person who wonders if he should ask his beloved to get married in 2013 to the person who is retiring to the family whose losses are more profound in this season, there is always more pastoral care in these last weeks of the calendar year.  All Teaching Elders I know are overwhelmed with holiday ministry.

So, here’s my question:

How many Ruling Elders – who are obviously also leaders in these busy days in the life of a church – are also finding their ministerial responsibilities increased?  I have the sense that many of our elders are not particularly busy leading their congregations.  Sure, they have responsibilities like decorating and preparing for family events.  But I wonder why Teaching Elders are the only ones who feel like this season gives them more ministerial duties.  What would happen if Ruling Elders took some of these tasks because . . . they are Ruling Elders and it’s their job?

What if our ruling elders were equipped to:

  • Visit the sick without feeling less official than a Teaching Elder who visits the sick?
  • Teach Advent classes because they were confident in their own theological chops?
  • Coordinate one of the extra worship services because the Teaching Elder relinquished that responsibility knowing that the Ruling Elders can do this well?

Advent doesn’t have to be a vortex of craziness for clergy – and aren’t we missing the point if we insist on it being a crazy season?  In Reformed Churches, at least, Elders Rule.  Let’s lead our congregations in preparing for the Coming of the Lord together.

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4 responses to “What I Continue to Learn from Cindy Bolbach: Elders Rule

  1. I’m going to argue that Presbyterians are supposed to believe th “the priesthood of all believers”, but in most churches we’re not there yet. And I’m pretty sure that all “teaching elders” don’t believe it. As a Certified Christian Educator and a ruling elder, I don’t think our Church is ready to believe it either. It is true, though. As a choir director and chair of the worship committee in my little church, this season has many added duties. And in our little church, we all visit the sick. Pastoral care is everybody’s job….I think there are a lot of ruling elders out there who work hard all year long, loving their congregation. They show it in many different ways. Thanks, Jan for evoking you “favorite ruling elder”.

  2. As someone who is a new Ruling Elder, this post resonates with me. I agree with Bev that “we’re not there yet” generally, in terms of letting someone other than the Teaching Elder visit the sick, plan worship services, etc. To be totally honest, I sometimes succumb to this way of thinking because that is what I was taught; however, when I am asked to do take on something, I find that I have a burst of energy to serve that I didn’t even know was there. I am excited to be personally asked because it makes me feel like my opinion, and role as an elder, are valued. I wonder if this would be true for other Ruling Elders whose willingness to serve often lies dormant.

    • I love the unexpected “burst of energy to serve”! What a great concept–and truth. It should be in the calling vocabulary of every nominating committee and volunteer coordinator, as well as everyone else who’s in a position to call people out for service.

  3. Pingback: What I Continue to Learn from Cindy Bolbach: Elders Rule - Outlook DEV

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