I think that Presbyterians can agree that ordaining teaching elders and establishing (and dismissing or closing) congregations are essential work of a presbytery. Presbyteries do a decent job at least once a year providing training (better framed as education) of ruling elders. But presbyteries do a terrible job of holding teaching elders in community and common purpose, and supporting them in their work.
The Company of Pastors is a PCUSA attempt to restore Calvin’s regular meetings of pastors – which Calvin did to discipline them! He knew how wayward we could be. And who says there wasn’t that one authoritarian individual in our tradition? Well, the city council kept him in his place, mostly. There was that problem with Servetus, who ironically taught us about the heart.
How do you build trust?
If the presbytery were to bring together teaching elders, regularly, it might result in some of the shared vision and greater trust that everyone seeks. Trust and vision are by-products of other things occurring between us. Alas, presbyteries require almost nothing of teaching elders after ordination. Therefore, presbyteries get little in return. And what would be the more immediate reward for teaching elders to attend such gatherings? Trinkets won’t work. How about a book? Print or download.
Should Teaching Elders take on more shared responsibility?
I always thought that I as a teaching elder had responsibility to give 2-3 days a month for the presbytery. I think that I believed that my authority as pastor derived from the ordination given to me by a presbytery. I learned this responsibility serving in two presbyteries in the ‘70’s that had no executive staff. We did it all ourselves and had to. It was satisfying. Without that sense of shared responsibility, what payoff is there for a teaching elder to attend or participate in the life of the presbytery?
How do we ensure people will participate and continue to do so?
None of us do anything without getting something in return. Why should a ruling elder attend a presbytery meeting? The feeling of belonging to something important and larger than ourselves seems not to be enough for most. I always thought that everyone leaving any meeting or gathering should leave with these twelve happy thoughts:
- I learned something.
- I was challenged.
- I was inspired.
- I heard a good story.
- I was able to tell a story of my own, or at least
- I was able to express my thoughts, feelings, and opinions.
- I was needed! Others listened to and welcomed my contributions.
- I had good times with old and new friends.
- I was moved to the point of tears.
- I laughed out loud.
- I ate some good food.
- It was a good use of my time. We made good decisions, even though I didn’t agree with all of them.
Many will say that most presbytery meetings already provide these rewards, but I think they are not a substitute for the necessary sense of responsibility to each other. Maybe we don’t ask for it.
This is the 3rd in a series of 3 blogs on “American Presbyterianism.” The additional blog posts in the series are:
Blog 1 – The Chickens and Eggs of American Presbyterianism
Blog 2 – Congregationalism?!
Dennis is retired and lives in Lake Luzerne with his wife, Carol, also a retired PCUSA teaching elder. Dennis was pastor of two congregations in MN and one in NJ. He was Associate Executive for Stewardship, Mission, and Communications for Chicago Presbytery 1986-1993, Associate for Professional Development for the denomination 1994-1997, and Executive and Stated Clerk of Great Rivers Presbytery (west central Illinois) 1998-2001. He worked as Assistant Director of the Jesus Seminar, and was interim pastor in Wisconsin, Long Island, and Albany. He is busy now playing sax and writing his memoir of faith, past and present.