Eldership Nuts and Bolts

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Eldership nuts and bolts

Eldership is expressed generally through encouraging and enabling all those connected with Orchardhill to grow in Christian faith and service. It is expressed at present particularly through membership of the Kirk Session and Congregational Board, visiting in the elder’s district, and sharing in celebrations of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Kirk Session

Elders who are admitted to the Kirk Session are called ruling elders and are responsible, with the Minister, for the Christian welfare of congregation and parish. Ordination as an elder is for life but not all elders serve as ruling elders: some retire whilst others take leave of absence. As office-bearers they share trustee responsiblities for the assets of the congregation which is exercised largely through the Congregational Board (and so all members of the Kirk Session are members of the Board).

The Kirk Session, though, is concerned for spiritual matters within the congregation and parish, exercising leadership particularly in developing and overseeing the implementation of the congregation’s vision for the coming period.

The Session is also responsible for overseeing the work of organisations associated with the congregation and receives regular reports on these. It sets the service times and appoints the organist. The minister would generally seek the views of the Kirk Session on matters which are sensitive or have significant implications.

Kirk Session meetings are generally held on a Tuesday every second month, and on Sundays when required for particular purposes.

Elders are the main way in which the leadership of a particular congregation is shared between minister and people. It is often said that the eldership is a call to service not to status. This does not mean that elders are not expected to exercise leadership or never raise ideas that are challenging for the church. Nevertheless, there is a sense of loyalty to the team. Egos are parked at the door.

Elders are central to the spiritual and practical life of a congregation and church as it seeks to know God’s will for its time and place and build up the body of Christ. Releasing the gifts of the people of God is demanding, especially given all the other pressures of life, but it is also a high calling which may require that some other valid callings and engagements be set aside.

The way in which the leadership, worship, governance, pastoral care and spiritual nurture functions of elders are spelt out is often in terms of the responsibilities of the body of elders and minister (or ministers) of a congregation as a whole. We are in this together.

A great deal depends on delegation, mentoring, focus on areas of gifting and strategic need, and a mission-shaped agenda. A sense of purpose and movement in the life of the congregation depends on the facilitation and moderation of the minister, and the culture of the particular session in how differences are processed and minority viewpoints respected. As in any gathering where all can participate all have a responsibility for the tone, focus, and direction of the discussion, and whether there is a sense of direction and achievement meeting by meeting.

This has a strong sense of mutual support, and of commitment to the vision of the congregation as a whole and the ministry leadership. As in other churches, formally elders are expected attend worship, go to meetings, accept responsibility for the pastoral care of a small group or district, and be involved in some ministry.

There is a tension in understanding what a session meeting is principally for. Is it the executive committee of the congregation, the place where tasks are coordinated, the vision implemented and things get done? Or is it the place where policy is formulated, values maintained, direction set, and only major rather than operational decisions made as the will of God for the congregation is collectively sought? These roles are often separated in organizations, but in a congregation, can elders do both effectively? The answer is probably yes – but not at the same time.

This distinction between governance and management is common in organizational and political theory and the language of governance is easily attached to the elders of a congregation. How we are used to doing things in schools, business and politics might suggest the life of the congregation is likely to be enhanced by elders avoiding the detail of management. But is this right?

Elders cannot and should not avoid being involved in tasks which need to be done for the church to church. Governance must take place, even if that is only every month or so. For Presbyterians, some “governance” responsibilities also lie outside the congregation, with elders and ministers together meeting as Presbytery and General Assembly.

There is something more to being an elder than accepting what can be quite time consuming activities for busy people. Sharing in both management and governance increases the potential for formation for elders and growth in the ministry capacity of the congregation.

One of the most important things a congregation can offer its eldership, not just its membership in general, is the sense of a coherent common purpose which goes beyond vision and mission statements. A session may help achieve this by focusing intentionally on bigger-picture issues rather than the detail. For instance on the question of pastoral care they might spend one meeting a year on the theology of pastoral care, reading again what Jesus did and taught, determining how they can ensure that pastoral care takes place, and planning training for visitors.

Elders’ Districts

Most elders visit the members in a district, a collection of up to a dozen homes. Visits made approximately four times a year enable elders to build up a supportive friendship with those in their district, offering a token of concern from the church and enabling information on needs or particular situations to be passed to the minister or other appropriate group.

Visits often coincide with a celebration of Communion and an invitation is issued to members at this time. However, visits can take place at any time and may be more frequent than four times per year, depending on need.

While elders districts are presently arranged largely on a territorial basis, there may be some merit in considering districts based on life situations (e.g. a ‘district’ for young families) or by communicating in other ways (e.g. electronically as well as face to face).

Although visiting parishioners was the core function around which eldership developed, some feel that both eldership and pastoral care benefit when pastoral care is the responsibility of a separate group in the congregation. It is only possible to consider this when pastoral care ceases to be associated with discipline before communion when the historic role of the elder was to ensure that people were not living in a state of sin and more positively that they knew the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed, the Ten Commandments, and that children were learning their catechism.

Whether the move away from discipline is a good thing or not, it can clear space in meetings to delegate pastoral care to a group which includes some elders, but not all, or to place it in the hands of small group / home group ministries rather than personal visiting by an elder. In Orchardhill, pastoral care is primarily undertaken by elders in districts. A small pastoral care group visits a restricted number of members who are judged to benefit from this supportive engagement which is in addition to the elder’s pastoral role within a district.

Holy Communion

As a matter of practice rather than law, elders distribute the elements at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. One elder is responsible for arranging the elements are prepared and organising the rota of those who serve on any occasion. Not all elders serve each time, and the Kirk Session does not meet prior to the celebration of Communion.

Beyond Orchardhill

It is sometimes a surprise to elders in Presbyterian churches that there is a life beyond their own congregation where their own participation and leadership will from time to time be required. An elder from each congregation is chosen to be presbytery elder, to participate in the life of the presbytery and its committees, and to report back to their fellow elders on what is happening in the church regionally. Infrequently, elders are sought to attend the General Assembly which is composed of an equal number of elders and ministers.


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