Eldership & the Church
Rev Dr Phil Wall
“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
Hmmm. An interesting choice, don’t you think? Basing a sermon about participation in the church on a passage that begins with the words ‘as a prisoner for the Lord…’. Then again, some here, might have had experiences of church involvement which have felt a little like being imprisoned. Whether stuck in overlong meetings or impossible to quit rotas, most of us here will have experienced that sinking feeling of inescapability or the anxious searching for an escape route.
Though being an elder is, of course, a super-fun, uber-interesting, soul-stirring, life-affirming, God-given blessing, right? Well, perhaps that’s how Don Draper and the advertising bigwigs of Madison Avenue might promote it…and there’s some truth in what I’ve said…but any advert for the eldership might also have to include one of those medical caveats – ‘May cause drowsiness, loss of free time, sweaty palms and heart palpitations’.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start over.
“Do you think God is calling you…or someone you know…to be an elder of the church?” That’s the basic question we’re considering this morning for today marks the start of the process to elect and re-elect elders. So…”Do you think that God is calling you…or someone you know…to be an elder of the church?” Some of you might have now turned off already, thinking ‘no – and so the rest of this message doesn’t concern me’. To those, I’d encourage you to stay with me, for the encouraging and election of elders is something that is vital for the running of the church and even if you think this is not something for you, perhaps you might consider it for others…and perhaps God might have other ideas for you anyway!
Others of you might have switched off thinking, ‘I don’t even really get the question…what is an elder and what does it mean to be called to something’ and to those, I’d say…good point. Perhaps we need to unpack a little what we’re actually asking today. What is an elder and how does God call people to certain things anyway?!
So let’s start with the question, ‘what is an elder’. Well, according to our constitution, elders will be considered the spiritual leaders and form the advisory committee of the church. Hmm. Spiritual leaders. Well, we seem to be getting into tricky waters here for our church traditions would want to emphasise the fact that there is no hierarchy of holiness in the church – no one, neither member or elder, nor minister or moderator – is considered better or more holy than anyone else. So if spiritual leader means spiritually more advanced, insightful or pure, then we can’t go along with that. But perhaps we may question the meaning of the term ‘leadership’.
A few years ago, Christian writer Brian McLaren contrasted two different kinds of leadership seen within the contemporary church. The first was akin to the Wizard of Oz. In the books and the films, the Wizard of Oz is seen to be an almighty, all-knowing, powerful figure who is mysterious and dominating, in control and controlling, intimidating…and ultimately a fraud – exposed as he is as a nervous man hiding beyond smoke and mirrors. Some ministers and elders might adhere to this style of leadership. They are the ones in the know, they are the spiritual leaders who can spout orders, who meet in secret, who shouldn’t be questioned.
Then there is Dorothy. Not exactly the ideal model for a leader. She is the wrong gender for some and the wrong age for many. She doesn’t have all the answers, she’s not always in control, and she has a lot to learn. But she journeys onward, finds other needy people and invites them to walk with her. She believes that their varying needs – for home, a heart, courage and a brain – can be fulfilled on a common quest and her compassion, humility and determination spurs them onward. She doesn’t have the knowledge to help them avoid all their problems and is frequently helped by her companions, but ultimately, she encourages them and helps them to receive what they need. Now we’re not so far from our Ephesians reading and the call to be humble, gentle and patient; to equip one another and build up Christ’s body, are we?
So if the elders are seen to be spiritual leaders, then they are a bunch of Dorothies, rather than wizards…for they encourage me, and hopefully you, in our ministries; they are to be humble and gentle yet will sometimes question decisions or disagree with one another, speaking the truth in love as Ephesians puts it; they are to seek unity and peace in the church, bearing with one another in love.
So that’s spiritual leadership then, what about advisory committee…Perhaps the term ‘advisory committee’ might remind us that the elders are there to serve the church – to work as a team to discern the will of God and advise – in visits, meetings and as representatives on other church councils – by helping us to reflect on issues of belief, action and administration. What does that mean in concrete terms, you might well ask.
Well, there’s the elders’ meeting – a monthly evening gathering in which pastoral needs are acknowledged and prayed for; stewardship of finance and fabric considered; new insights made and suggestions aired that might then go to church meeting for discussion and a decision; and the occasional visit from Father Christmas! Then there is the list of church members and adherents that each elder is given so that they can identify individuals to especially encourage and offer help to. And there are other opportunities and responsibilities that are often, but not always taken on board by the eldership – helping prepare spaces for worship, attending community meetings, seeking fresh ways of serving the community…It sounds like quite a list but different elders take different things on board as appropriate to their context, passions and gifts.
The key thing to remember is that there is no normal shape for an elder. No age or job, intellect or theological persuasion, experience or education which makes one person more suitable for the task than another. Elders are encouraged to be committed to the church, compassionate to those they serve and collaborative in the way they work…but then we all are! Elders are no different in their walking and running, skipping and stumbling on their journey of faith.
So what does it mean to be called to be an elder? Well, the Bible is full of a diverse range of stories that see people being called by God. Some are dramatic – like Mary being visited by an angel or Samuel hearing God’s voice; some are gentle – like Jesus asking the disciples to ‘come and see’; and some aren’t immediately greeted with joy…even Jesus questioned his calling in the Garden of Gethsemane! But whether it’s a gentle nagging or divine prodding, within our church, being called by God is something that is worked out as a community. Often, other people will see gifts in you that you might not be aware of.
My favourite story which illustrates this is that of St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and an important figure in the early church. In the late fourth century there was a deep conflict in Milan between two groups of Christians and when the local Bishop died, it seemed that conflict was inevitable as the sides would never agree on who could replace him. Ambrose was pretty much a civil servant at the time. He was a Christian who was yet to be baptised but who put great importance on the instruction in Ephesians to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. So Ambrose went to the meeting which would elect the future Bishop and encouraged both sides to hear the other and seek peace. During his address someone, allegedly a small boy, began chanting ‘Ambrose, bishop!’ and soon, all those present followed suit. So Ambrose did what any of us would do in such a situation – he ran off and hid! But the pressure on him grew, the Emperor praised the suggested appointment, Ambrose’s host gave him up and within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated as Bishop of Milan. From which point he served the church with grace and passion.
There’s so much I love about this story. The wisdom of the child, the reluctance of the Bishop, the radical nature of the divided Christian groups who called an unbaptized government worker to be the man to bring them together! Now…I’ve checked with the church secretary and I’m told we can’t force anyone here to be elder, even if a small boy starts shouting their name…but we do acknowledge that people are called to eldership by God, through the discernment and decision of the church. We are all invited to nominate and second elders; we are all invited to pray about the nominations and vote accordingly; we are all encouraged to support and sustain, forgive and love the eldership. God might speak to us individually, friends might prod us lovingly, yet it is the members of the church, at the AGM who will vote for the next individuals to be ordained or re-elected as an elder.
So what happens now? Well, we are all asked to reflect upon and pray about who might have the gifts and the calling to fulfil the role of elder. Nominations will be taken from the first to last Sundays in March – with papers to be found at the back of the church from next week and to be given to Marcia…and we’ll deal with the subsequent stages when we come to them!
It can be easy to treat these matters with sighs and rolled eyes. It can be tempting to disregard human bureaucracy in our striving for the kingdom…and yet, if we follow the invitation of Ephesians to treat all this with humility, gentleness and patience, bearing one another in love, then the offices of the church, the timetables and voting and admin might build up Christ’s church, might equip the saints for the work of ministry, might strengthen us in our communal calling to show and share God’s love with one another and with those beyond these walls. So, like Dorothy, may we seek to journey alongside one another with passion, determination and humour; like Ambrose, may we heed the discernment of the church…even when it takes a little while to accept it; and like Christ, may we be obedient to God’s calling, wherever it may take us. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.