Equal Privilege, Equal Responsibility
Members of the Presbytery Cabinet, and those in leadership at our Assemblies, continue to observe that discussion and debate at Presbytery Assemblies tend to be dominated by Teaching Elders. We also observe that over the last few years of Moderatorships, the policy of alternating between Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders has been set aside for lack of Ruling Elders who will be nominated to this position. Finally, we observe that on the constitutionally required committees of the Presbytery (like the Committee On Ministry), the number of Teaching Elders persistently outweighs the number of Ruling Elders.
Our polity stands on the foundation that the ordinations to Ruling Elder and Teaching Elder, at the level of the Presbytery, are equal. We confess and believe that Teaching Elders are not “first-class elders” and Ruling Elders are “second-class elders.” And the vitality of the Church depends on the confidence that when we are called by God to assemble and discern God’s will, we receive equal respect and make equal contribution.
There are factors that work to undermine this foundation of equality. In our expert-driven society, we often give more authority to those with more specialized education. (Though we often grump about it later—witness most people’s stories of visits with their physicians!). And we Teaching Elders do not stand innocent of assuming that greater authority. Those who have a salary attached to their work (like most Teaching Elders) are often given more credibility than volunteers (like Ruling Elders). And by virtue of the gifts and training required by pastors in the PC(USA), those with fewer talents for eloquence and less familiarity with the Book of Order are often intimidated by Teaching Elders who present both in abundance.
These factors can add up to a Presbytery in which Teaching Elders speak and Ruling Elders obey (or at least stay silent).
And such a scenario will kill the Church.
We ordain Ruling Elders—and take up the call as Ruling Elders—affirming that the Holy Spirit has landed fully on them, equipping them with gifts necessary for leadership. If we then reveal, by word or practice, that Ruling Elders do not really lead at the Presbytery level, then we have deceived ourselves (and the Truth is not in us). We have set ourselves up for bitterness: Ruling Elders will be taught that God has called them to lead the Church, only to learn that they must submit as a body to the Teaching Elders. And half of us may rightfully decide: What’s the point?
So what is the point? Precisely that we take up our mantle of leadership with courage and humility, whichever title we received upon ordination. I can attest first-hand to the fact that the presence and words of Ruling Elders who feel empowered by the Spirit bless the Church. God uses to good effect Ruling Elders who speak from their enduring, loving, and beloved experience in the same congregation. Some of us have received excellent training in theology, scriptural exegesis, and preaching. Many more of us have received surpassing training in sheep-herding, patient endurance, persistent faith, and joyful service. These gifts are not to be ranked; they are mutually necessary and complementary.
Ruling Elders of the Susquehanna Valley Presbytery: be of good courage, take up your mantle of leadership, and speak the wisdom that God has given you! When you are called to serve, respond with hope and joy.
Teaching Elders: equip your Ruling Elders for the leadership to which they are called. Beware the places where our personalities may be overbearing, and be hospitable to the Spirit which speaks through even the humblest colleague. Such conduct will invite angels into our midst.
We are on the cusp of discerning constitutional amendments which, as ever, bear on the life of the whole Church. More than that, our Presbytery only functions to the degree that we willingly speak and serve together. I am grieved by the possibility that our work would lack the full participation of all those called to our mutual ministry. Yet I am confident that when all those called to speak offer what the Spirit has given them, we will be more blessed for it. I pray that we may equally share our common ministry as Presbyters, and discover thereby the fullness of what Christ has for us.
In Christ with You,
Moderator of SVP
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