LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Showing a PowerPoint slide of the constitutional expectations of the office of ruling elder, Diana Barber asked those attending her workshop, “What does it mean to ‘discern and measure’ a congregation’s fidelity to the Word of God and to also strengthen and nurture it?”
Barber’s workshop “Discern and Measure” was part of the National Elders Conference Workshops held at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s third annual Big Tent event, Aug. 1-3.
“It’s an awesome responsibility,” she said.
The associate synod executive for leadership for the PCUSA’s Synod of Lakes and Prairies, Barber focused on four words found in the constitutional expectations (G-2.0301) of elders: “to discern and measure [the congregation’s] fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life.”
“There is in our history of being ruling elders that call to be concerned of the spiritual health of the congregation down to the individual level,” she said.
Starting with discern, Barber then discussed each of the focus words.
Barber discussed several definitions for discern, while asking those in the workshop to see which one resonated with them.
- To separate or distinguish, to make a determination. “Like the goats from the sheep,” she said.
- To test in crisis or to distinguish good and evil. “Getting into the depths of it and wrestling with the issues that are hard,” she said.
- To find what is authentic and valuable, “as opposed to what is counterfeit,” said Barber.
- To see to the heart of the matter with spiritual eyes with God’s vantage point. “We’re called as ruling elders,” said Barber, “to try to see things from God’s perspective. We come together to discern the mind of Christ.”
- To be able to see the trees in the forest. It’s important, she said, to “know what the issues are.”
- To possess immediate and direct insight. “This is to be aspired to,” she said.
Barber said that “in the heart of discernment is humility … not looking at an issue from our own shoes, but from someone else’s shoes, and hopefully, from whatever shoes God is wearing.”
She read a quote from John Climacus (sixth century), which said, “From humility comes discernment, from discernment comes insight and from insight comes foresight.”
“What marks on the ruler will we use?” she asked those attending the workshop. “As you look at your own congregation, what would you have as some criteria and how would you know if your congregation is being faithful? How will we know fidelity to the Word of God when we see it?” The answers were varied:
- Giving money and time.
- “Are we looking at Scripture together? I don’t know how we can be people of the Book without opening the book,” someone said.
- How comfortable are the leaders in leading corporate prayer.
- “Do we reach outside of our church, or do we stop at the door?”
- The ability to show love and compassion.
- “Can we really welcome anyone who comes to the door?”
- The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity: a part of the PCUSA’s Book of Order that lays out the principles that are foundational to government, worship and discipline for the PCUSA.
- Notes of the Reformed Church, from the Scots Confession, Ch. XVIII, 3.18
- The Great Ends of the Church
- Principles of Presbyterian Government from the Book of Order
- The Ministry of Members, found in the Book of Order, G1.0304. “These are things that members are requested to do,” said Barber. “How many sessions are ensuring that their members are doing these things?”
She told of a community-building exercise that she has used in several other meetings and workshops, where she writes the Six Great Ends of the Church on paper, and tapes them on the wall. She then has those attending the meeting to go to the Great End that resonates the most with them; then to the one their home church is best at; and finally to the one their church needs the most help in.
“It’s a very revealing exercise,” she said.
“The hard work we have to do together is the discerning work,” she said, “and that is what we are least equipped to do.”
Strengthen and nurture
Barber said that ruling elders cannot strengthen and nurture the congregation without first doing the hard work of discernment and measurement.
She spoke of four necessary gifts that church nominating committees should look for – not only in ruling elders – but in all people considered for ministry:
- Strong faith
- Dedicated discipleship
- A love of Christ
- A life that is a demonstration of the Christian gospel
“We could spend hours unpacking those words,” she said, and then spoke of some additional expectations of ruling elders:
- Wisdom. “I think you can be 18 and have wisdom … you don’t have to be at the end of wisdom,” said Barber.
- Maturity of faith. “I hope you all felt you had that when you were asked to serve,” she said to the ruling elders in the workshop.
- Skills in leadership.
- A compassionate spirit, which is “something we all need to work at” she said.
The important work
“The most important work for everyone in the church, said Barber, “but most importantly for the ruling elders is for us to be engaged in Bible study.”
As ruling elders, she said, “we, ourselves should become scholars of the Bible.” Ruling elders should know the Bible well, and “understand the Scripture and how it share who we are, and immerse ourselves in Bible study individually and corporately.”
She also noted that ruling elders should make sure that Bible study happens in the congregations and not only when the pastor is preaching.
Other work ruling elders should be engaged in includes:
- “We need to be deeply in prayer,” said Barber. “We need to find ways that we can remember the people in our charge –whether active or inactive.”
- “We need to be in worship. We need to model this,” she said. “We can’t say, ‘Do as I say and not as I do.’”
- Listening. She said sometimes it was good to sit in the pew and not talk, but listen. “Be aware … check things out,” said Barber. “Sometimes you will overhear things that people don’t have the nerve to tell you.”
- Review the health of the congregation,” she said, “so we are aware of how things are before they go to hell in a hand basket … so we can step in and do triage when we need to, before things get out of control.”
- Stay connected in the life of the congregation. “We all need our Sabbath time,” she said, referring to the time when a ruling elder is not on session. “But even in the Sabbath time, that doesn’t mean not coming to church on Sunday and not being involved.”