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.

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *