Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
I began my ministry in the Presbyterian church as a ruling elder on session responsible for worship and music. Things were going along fine until the musician resigned. In my former church, which was Pentecostal, the pastor would step in and find another musician. In fact, the musician could not be hired without the pastor’s approval! But I was in a new church world now! The session expected me to lead the search for a musician. This meant creating a job description, understanding the pay rates, advertising, interviewing, and making the hire. I kept waiting for the pastor to step in and take over or tell me what to do. Instead he just encouraged and supported me and showed great confidence in my ability. The hire went well, and I learned the value and responsibility of being a ruling elder.
Then, for some reason the pastor decided not to do the prayers of the people anymore. He had that section removed from the bulletin. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he was going through his own night of the soul and found it hard to pray. This became a crisis and the church asked the session to determine if the pastor had the authority to make that decision without the session (the answer is no. The pastor and session are responsible for worship, which includes prayer W-2.0302, W-5.0202). I had to approach the pastor and have the difficult conversation. Afterward, prayer was reinstated in the bulletin.
I lift up these two stories because they taught me that a church is only as strong as its session and the ruling elders who serve on it. Paul Hooker, a leading polity expert argues that ruling elders are called to the ministry of discernment and governance, with an emphasis on discernment. This means ruling elders seek the will of Christ, “Not the shrewdest business decision. Not the action that comports with my pre-established preferences. Not the decision that places me on the right side of political favor (or the pastor). We are called to discern — to separate out all that stuff — until all that is left is the one that reflects the will of Christ. . . The role of a ruling elder is a spiritual function.”
This is why we are offering Ruling Elder Training at the February presbytery gathering. I believe our churches are only as strong as our sessions. We need ruling elders who are gifted and empowered to serve along with the pastor in the work and ministry of the congregation. I’m encouraging and inviting all ruling elders who serve on sessions to be a part of this learning and training. Let’s share stories, insights, and learn how to discern the will of Christ together.
Rev. Craig M. Howard