Elders and Elections
Exodus 3: 7, 9-14; 4: 10-12 and Acts 1:12-17, 21-26
This week I reached the grand old age of 18 (twice over!). And as I surveyed the thinning hair and deepening wrinkles and contacted the local fire crews to be on standby as my Birthday cake candles were lit, my mind wandered back to my younger years – to carefree days spent on bikes and in neighbours’ gardens, playing British bulldog or manhunt in the sunshine until called home for dinner. Of course, these halcyon days are as much a part of my vivid imagination as there are part of my actual history, for we all know that childhood can be full of curiosity, wonder and joy but that there is also no such thing as a problem-free childhood even for the most beloved of children. Friendships can be made and betrayed in an afternoon, scrapes and bumps and sickness are frequent friends and there’s the task of making it through the strange and sometime savage school experience. Do you remember, for example, the horror of PE? Some of us here might well have loved our physical education lessons but others of us will have memories of PE kit mishaps, sergeant like instructors and the terror of picking teams in the playground. Allan Ahlberg, the children’s author and poet from my neck of the woods, put it like this;
When we pick teams in the playground,
Whatever the game might be,
There’s always somebody left till last
And usually it’s me.
I stand there looking hopeful
And tapping myself on the chest,
But the captains pick the others first,
Starting, of course, with the best.
Maybe if teams were sometimes picked
Starting with the worst,
Once in his life someone like me
Could end up being first!
Whether or not you can identify with Allan’s words, the scenario won’t, I’m sure, be completely alien to you. Perhaps you’ll even see an echo of this ‘survival of the fittest’ system in our contemporary political systems in which might is assumed to be right; strength is shown by shouting the loudest and peace-seeking is interpreted as weakness. In the wake of Erdogan and Trump presidencies, right wing rises across Europe and campaign conflict in the UK, it’s clear to see that whilst we may well intend the selection of our leaders to be a practice of electing the most qualified candidates, our processes are most certainly imperfect. ‘Democracy is the worst form of government’, Churchill famously remarked, ‘except for all the others’.
So where does all this leave us, then, on a day when we begin the nomination process for the election of new elders for our community? Before we get into the nitty gritty of our new nomination process, perhaps it’s wise to remember two things – firstly, that elders are no longer held as paragons of purity who exercise a ministry of morality with sour faces and severe deeds. Our current array of elders and our meetings in which a lot of laughter…and often cake…is shared…is testament to this. The elders are not a secret sect who sit on special thrones, compiling doctrine and declarations that the rest of us must abide by. They are not the ecclesial equivalent to the Wizard of Oz but are closer to Dorothy – that most unlikely of leaders who doesn’t always know where she’s going yet who walks alongside her companions, making helpful suggestions and offering challenge and encouragement as they journey ever onward. So, in beginning our thinking about eldership, we shouldn’t be thinking – well who around here has reached spiritual perfection, will always have the right answers and is devoid of all flaws and foibles – for that would leave us with no one applicable! Instead, we might think who has the resources and the willingness to give of their time and energy in sharing their gifts, experience and ideas with the rest of the eldership team and the wider church? Who might add their voice to the dialogue, who might listen to others, including and especially God, as we discern together where God is leading us next…all of which leads us onto our second caveat.
Our selection of elders is, ideally, not our selection of elders. Confused? In essence, what I’m saying is that we believe that it is God – through the Spirit, though our prayers, through our deliberation – who will call certain individuals to become elders. We make our decisions as a theocracy, NOT a democracy. What might this mean? Well, there is no example in the Bible – not one in all it’s varied books – which demonstrates or encourages the selection of religious workers or leaders simply by voting. It is just not there. Perhaps the nearest we come to that is in Acts when a replacement for Judas is sought. Peter offers a few pointers – they want someone who’s been with them since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; someone who is male…and so two men are suggested, possibly through nomination and voting – we just do not know. And even if Matthias and Joseph (or whichever of his three names we want to use) were nominated through voting, the working out of who to choose between the two nominated takes us in a very different election direction for after the gathered community pray, they make their final decision by casting lots. Did you hear that? In order to decide who was to replace Judas, who was to fill the vacancy made by the troubled treasurer who betrayed Jesus, the disciples essentially rolled a dice! Can you imagine we suggested doing the same in our election processes today?! “We’ve got Macron or Le Pen as our final two – let’s toss a coin and decide who’s to be President!”
And yet, the casting of lots as a means of determining God’s mind is a practice used throughout scripture, sometimes even as a way of locating and executing a supposedly guilty individual (check out 1 Samuel 14 for a fascinating and really quite weird example of this). We could, of course, put such a practice down to the eccentricities of more primitive times…but looking at those elected into office today…perhaps we shouldn’t endanger our own governance glass houses! Instead, allow me to highlight three key claims which are common to our way of electing elders today and to the calling of people as outlined in this morning’s Bible readings.
The first of these is the importance of communal decision-making. As we noted earlier, the replacing of Judas by Matthias was decided by casting lots yet this was not done in isolation but was carried out only after the community of one hundred and twenty followers of Christ had first selected two appropriate nominees from their group.
In other cultures and churches, the choosing of people to help with the oversight and encouragement of the church is often left to one or two people in charge. In other words, those already in power – the clergy, perhaps the elders or other significant members of the congregation – might discuss who is most suited to the task, ask or nominate them and then either declare them chosen or put it to the congregation to agree. In our church we do not adhere to such hierarchical decision-making. Here, where we believe in the so-called priesthood of all believers, we make decisions for the benefit of the church and thus for the blessing of our world as a community. All members – be they sixteen or a hundred and sixteen, a new believer or a Christian of several decades, an up the fronter or a quiet back pew-sitter – all members are given the privilege and the duty to reflect, pray and nominate others for eldership. This is not the task of those in the know. There is not a hidden list of eldership requirements known only to a secret few. Rather, we all have the ability to consider and delight in the gifts of others and we are therefore all encouraged to take part and take responsibility for the election of elders.
More than this, we all can pray! Just as with Matthias, where the casting of lots decided his fate only after the community prayed, our choosing of elders should be held in prayer. Today, we will have the chance to spend a few minutes in silent prayer together as we ask God to speak to us, to flow through us, to reveal to us whom we might nominate for eldership – and we will give similar, if shorter, time for such prayer over the next few Sundays. Outside of this building, too, I encourage all members to ponder and pray about this– both about who to nominate and also whether you might accept such nomination. For some of you that might seem like the last thing you would want to do but there’s been precedent for that before, which takes us to our third and final strand to our process – communal decision making, the importance of prayer and, finally, be prepared to be surprised!
The fact is that God’s calling, God’s choosing of people doesn’t bear a close resemblance to that of our political systems or playground games. When the world looks for the strongest, God often calls the weakest. When the world looks for the perfect candidate, God often calls the imperfect. Take Moses, for example. He had everything going wrong for him. He was a murderer, a runaway, a political pariah and poor public speaker. Even he believed he was the wrong person for the job, questioning God five times and begging God to choose someone else to be the Israelites’ leader even after God had vowed loyalty and shared three miracles with Moses! And yet, after all of this, it was Moses whom God chose; it was Moses who faced Pharaoh, Moses who took the Israelites through the Red Sea, who met with God on Sinai, who led Israel through the wilderness and towards the promised land. To all the world, Moses would have looked like a crazy choice but God does not judge us on the troubles of our past or the challenges of the present; instead God created, call us and delights in us as sons and daughters of God And if you’re wondering, well who am I to be an elder, who am I to be called by God to do anything – then just remember, Abraham and Sarah were too old, Mary was very young, Jacob was a liar, Joseph was a dreamer, Samson was a womanizer, David was an adulterer, Elijah suffered from mental ill health, Jonah ran from God, Naomi was a widow, Peter denied Christ, Martha was a worrier, Simon was too zealous, Thomas needed proof, Paul was radicalized, Zacchaeus was a titch and yet God called every single one of them – and hundreds and thousands and billions more – to spread good news, to share great love, to fulfil God’s purposes. God even chose to transform the cosmos through a noisey baby in a stable, through a refugee in Egypt, a man thought mad by his family and a criminal who died on a cross. And as we now live in the light of the resurrection of that same man, we can be sure that God can choose the most unlikely of people, the most unlikely of routes, to shower the world in love.
So as we begin this adapted process of eldership election, whether or not you’re applicable for the nominating or nomination of eldership, may you be reminded that you have already been nominated and chosen, created and called by God to join in with God’s mission of love to the universe. May we be encouraged, challenged and guided by the Christ whose footsteps we are to follow. And may the Spirit surround and suffuse this process so that God’s purposes might be discerned, God’s Church might be strengthened and God’s wonder might be witnessed. For the glory of God, Amen.