Is This the Best We Can Do?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Paul Hooker

When I was young in ministry, the session of First Presbyterian of Kingsport, TN where I was associate pastor would debate some important matter until it appeared everything had been said that needed saying. Then, just before the moderator called for the vote, from the back of the room, Ernie Blackard would raise his hand, and when recognized, ask, “Mr. Moderator, I’d just like to be sure: Is this the best we can do for Christ and his Church?” There was, as I recall, never any answer to that question but silence. But there was always a silence, during which we all asked ourselves whether the vote we were about to cast served any purpose other than the advancement of our own interest or agenda. Ernie is long dead now, but his question echoes in my head every time I prepare to cast a vote.

The Book of Order names the order of ministry to which ruling elders are called, “the Ministry of Discernment and Governance” (G-2.03). I think the polity gets that just about right. The first and primary function of the ruling elder is that of discernment. The word comes about as straight and un-Anglicized from the Latin discernere as it is possible to do: “to separate, set apart, divide, distinguish, perceive.” The polity is even clear what, precisely, ruling elders are to discern: they are “not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ” (F-3.0204). 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. 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.

It’s only after discernment that one gets to governance, the business of leading and guiding the people and institutions entrusted to the session’s care. Governance is always secondary and subsequent to discernment, because it depends on discernment. Even the title given to the order reflects this: ruling elder. The mission of the ruling elder is as old as Scottish Presbyterian polity. The Second Book of Discipline (1620) is clear that the task of the ruling elder is to measure the faithfulness of the congregation “according to the rule of the Evangel” — that is, according to the will of Christ as revealed in Scripture. This, by the way, is where the term “ruling” in ruling elder comes from.

I refuse to pull punches here. This means that every ruling elder must be a scholar of Scripture. It also means that it is the task of every teaching elder is to facilitate the session’s scholarship. The best sessions and pastors I know are the ones who take that responsibility seriously and spend time at session meetings in study, conversation, and prayer around the relationship between Scripture and the business at hand. Sessions that fail to do so, or that are convinced that they simply don’t have time to do so, are failing in their duty. That indictment, I fear, would convict more than a few of our sessions, including most of the ones I led when I served as pastor and moderator. Shame on me. Shame on us all.

When the members of the Form of Government Task Force (of which I was one) were making presentations to presbyteries in advance of the vote on the then-proposed Foundations and Form, we were fond of saying that the role of the ruling elder was a spiritual function, not to be confused with being a member of the board of directors of a small non-profit corporation. The best preparation for being a ruling elder is not an MBA (although many fine elders have one) but a sense of the mystery of God, not a head for figures so much as a heart for the flock. Ruling elders are shepherds before they are CEOs.

It will be argued that the church, as an institution, has certain needs in common with most businesses, and that some business sense is needful as the church makes its way in the world. Probably. It will be argued that the church’s financial ship will run aground on the rocks of receivership if there aren’t a few people who can read a balance sheet. Conceded. But let it never be said that those voices are the last voices to be heard in debates about the wellbeing of the people of God. Grant rather that the last voice is that of Ernie Blackard, wondering whether this is the best we can do for Christ and his Church. And let there be, in the silence that follows, a moment of discernment.


Paul Hooker is Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  A teaching elder, Paul has served in parish ministry, as a presbytery executive and stated clerk, and has extensive experience in writing and interpreting the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He blogs original poetry at http://www.shapeandsubstance.com.

A Quest of Fearless Failure

by Andrew Kukla

As a pastor, there are certain questions you get very used to being asked. Not the fun questions I don’t tire of answering, like “why does the Apostles’ Creed say ‘descended into hell?’” from which I usually embark on a conversation about radical grace. No, I’m talking about routine questions revisited because people don’t like the answer you give, questions that get you jaded and…worn. One of those for me is “can we get more training?” It’s a question that comes from a new member, a Sunday school teacher, a communion server, a deacon offering homebound communion, a new ruling elder; it’s a question that comes regularly and from all corners of the church. And the question is genuine. I remind myself of that every time.

But I think the question is often the wrong question.

Don’t get me wrong ― I’m not adverse to training. However, I can no longer abide training as downloading data to empty vessels. The problem with training people in very particular trivia that apply to something that they don’t regularly do is that it just doesn’t stick. Why would it? It’s not that it isn’t relevant at all, it’s that its relevant to something so rare that when you finally need it you have long forgotten it. And much of the ins and outs of our polity has absolutely no correlation to the everyday life of our church leaders. So, what is worth taking time to train for?

This gets us to one of the hard realities of life in any job formation/training question: you won’t know what you don’t know, and therefore need to learn, until you get in there and muck it up. You are going to have to make some mistakes. You are going to have to wrestle with applying information to life before you can sort what parts of the information are even helpful. There is an old line I love: failure is a diagnostic tool.

If I could train people in only one thing, it would be learning to fail well.

And this is the real rub. People don’t want to make mistakes. For all our wonderful rich theology of grace, we still imagine ― more often than we admit (like all the time) ― that mistakes at church feel like they have eternal consequences. And so, we are terrified of doing things “wrong” and doing things “unsuccessfully” and we simply don’t trust ourselves to lead.

This is the real question I think people are asking? Its not more training per se, but “how do I trust myself with this task I see as vitally important and consequential?” What absolutes can you tell me that will give me the confidence to believe I’m doing it right? What information can I jot down on a piece of paper so that that this paper will lead me when I don’t trust myself to do the job? The answer to that is that I cannot… and I will not. The starting point to all of this needs to be, “You will be wrong, you will fail (as will everyone else). Get over it, and then we can get started.”

When we engage in training, what I want to do is less about teaching information and rules and more about freeing our imagination… to remind people that our job is to listen and wrestle with our calling as this small part of the Body of Christ at this time and in this place… and imagine that we can see what God is seeing for us and with us. That constantly doing this task allows us to risk the church in daring to make that imagination come alive in what we say and do together here, at home, and everywhere in our community. That’s what I want us to do…and to train for that? We need to unlearn as much as we need to learn; we need to make sure we are asking the right questions, rather than the easy or typical questions; and we need to be playful as much as studious.

Ideally… we might even manage both.

So, for the next month, for all that we are talking about officer training, let us remember that we are not trying to fill up church leaders full of things they need to know. We are hoping that together, through prayer, study, fellowship, and mission, we are falling in love with God more deeply ― day by day. Let us spark our collective imagination as a bunch of church leaders to think about what it means to embark upon a quest of fearless* failure as we endeavor to make God’s calling on us come alive in flesh and bones.

In the next month we will focus on what I’m calling the three tasks of imagination:

Feeding our Imagination: Exegeting our World View
Enabling Fruitful Imagination: Cultivating a Space for Fearless* Failure
Focusing Our Imagination: Remembering Our Goal

I believe this is the role of church leaders: less officers of the rule of law than those who blaze trails the Spirit guides them to, encouraging others to follow. And yes… there are some ancient, old, and contemporary guides in how to travel those trails that will be helpful ― Books of Order and personnel manuals ― but let those be tools, and not masters, of our task. The world needs people alive with God’s imagination far more than it needs a plethora of people steeped in by-laws. And while I do not believe that’s an either/or scenario, I do know where I want to start and what needs to stay front and center.

Without further ado…let’s find the second star to the right and go straight on till morning!

*by fearless I do not mean we won’t have fears. I’m a pretty fearful person. What I mean by fearless is that fear will not be our master. We will overcome our fears, not the other way around.


andrewAndrew Kukla has lived in Illinois, Virginia, the Philippines, Georgia, Florida, and now Idaho – which he calls home along with his wife, Caroline, and four children. He is Pastor / Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho.