Sunday, November 11, 2018
Scripture: Numbers 11:14-17, 24-30 & I Corinthians 12:14-26
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I can still remember the first time I heard the word “Session” used in the Presbyterian way – not a session musician or a gab session, but as in a council of elders who oversee the church. Jess and I were doing summer Greek at Princeton and meeting our new classmates. Neither of us grew up Presbyterian, and our most recent church experience was as campus ministers in an RCA congregation in Ann Arbor. We were outsiders just entering the Presbyterian waters, but fortunately we found some good guides along the way. I can still see myself seated on the picnic table outside of 202 Loetscher Place. We were talking to Josh and Amy Sutherlun, two third year students who became great friends. I mentioned becoming a Presbyterian pastor to Amy, and she asked, “Have you met with the Session yet?” And I responded, “What’s a Session?”
Oh, how much I have learned since the summer of 2004! I can tell you all about the Session, having been a Presbyterian pastor for the past eleven years. Now, I realize some of you are so seasoned that you know all about elders, the Session, deacons, and the presbytery, but many gathered here really don’t know the ins and outs of how we do church in the Presbyterian way, so I want to take some time over the next couple of weeks to dive into these topics. My hope is to deepen all of our understanding about how we do things and why we do them. My hope is that this strengthens the church and clarifies our understanding of why we are the way we are. This week I’m going to focus on the role of elders, particularly within the context of our congregation.
Let me begin by diving into the biblical roots of the elder. We have elders not only because we trust the wisdom of groups more than the guidance of one individual, but also because elders show up in the Bible almost at the beginning. Moses was the charismatic leader whom God called to liberate the Israelites from Egypt. His charisma got him quite a long way, but after they left Egypt behind, Moses discovered that the burden of leadership was too great for one man to bear. He couldn’t do everything by himself! So he selected seventy elders to help him in the work of tending to God’s covenant people.
Now, these people weren’t appointed because they were the best or most seasoned. Rather, they were competent to do the job because God’s Spirit rested upon them. Our text from Numbers is so fascinating because two of the elders couldn’t make the meeting. Maybe they had sick kids at home or a soccer match to go to – the text is silent on this – but even though they weren’t there, God’s Spirit still came upon them. This bothered Joshua who had dutifully showed up for the meeting, but Moses was thankful because he recognized that the more people who shared in the Spirit, the more the work could spread effectively. Here we are several thousand years later, and we still practice this. Our church operates off of those God has chosen to serve us as elders – not just the 21 who are currently on Session but also all of those who have been ordained to be an elder at some point in their lives. The more we empower Spirit-filled leadership, the stronger the church will be.
So, skipping over several thousand years of history and religious practice, let’s dip our toes in the water of the New Testament. Church Elders are mentioned in 13 different passages or verses in the New Testament.
The Greek word for Elder, used in the New Testament, is presbuteros. It is from this root that the name Presbyterian comes, meaning a Church governed by Elders according to the Biblical pattern. We get the word “Presbyterian” from that Greek word, which means we are a church of elders. From the people of the church, God calls elders to oversee the ministry. Your pastors are merely two of dozens of elders.
Elders show up in the early church in Jerusalem. While Jesus didn’t systematize any way of handling ministry, his followers quickly created systems to further the mission Jesus left to them. This included a system of elder leadership in all of the churches. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders to govern the congregations they founded in other sites. The apostles Peter and John also referred to themselves as elders. Elders are basically tasked with overseeing the flock. They participate in the ordering of its life together. They seek out the deepening spiritual welfare of the church. Everything from managing money to teaching people about the faith falls under their leadership. As we see in Scripture, so our system of elders operates pretty similarly today. They are to be leaders and examples to all of those under their care, which our church means that they are to be praying for and caring for you – their brothers and sisters in Christ.
We read today from 1 Corinthians 12. It offers this compelling image of the church as a body. Every body is made up of different parts – all important and all with a different function. Healthy bodies have those different parts working in coordination with each other. Unhealthy bodies do not. Even though we ordain elders to a specific function within the church, that does not mean that elders are more important to the ministry than other members of the body. As Paul puts it, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?….The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable….If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”
In our way of life together, each member of the church is vital to the whole body. Each member has a specific function, and if that member cannot fulfill that function, then the body is weaker. Each member added together makes the body greater, and each member learning to function well with the others leads to the body being stronger. Elders are members of the body with a specific function to fulfill. It’s not more important or less important than other. It’s a role that God’s Spirit calls some to fill. What a gift it is to this church that we all bring different skills and interests to the common purpose of the gospel! And how amazing it is that God calls ordinary women and men to extraordinary purposes within the community!
So, let’s move from what the Bible has to say about this into what functions our elders actually have in our church today. Basically what it boils down to is overseeing the mission and witness of this particular church as well as encouraging shared ministry with other churches. But when you think about it, almost everything that is First Pres is under the jurisdiction of Session, which is our board of elders. Worship services? Check. Classes? Check. Pew Bibles, hymnals, lighting, toilet paper? Check, check, check, check. We are a church of elders. They oversee and provide for all of our ministries, which happen almost every day of the year.
Our elders lead the congregation while serving it. That means they are charged with overseeing the direction of the ministries. Each elder serves on one of the committees of the church, and so they have the task of working on their specific area of ministry in conjunction with the other church members on the committee as well as the staff. It’s why there are so many meetings in the Presbyterian church. We meet to set the course for ministry, whether it’s worship or children’s ministry or taking care of the building. But as much as the elders are called to lead, they lead by serving. I love seeing them serving communion. I love seeing them mentor our youth. I love seeing them meet with mission groups to see how we can better serve them. Our elders are at their best when they show others the way to service. While we have an amazing staff, ministry does not happen without elders and members taking ownership.
Elders aren’t just doers and meeting leaders, however. They’re also called to be prayerful discerners. Churches make hard decisions all the time, and leading a church is difficult work. We don’t have a product that we market and can sell for a particular price to guarantee a certain income. We work with people, and people are messy. Lives change. People move in. They move out. Through it all, our elders have to discern what God’s Spirit is calling us to today. I’ve witnessed Sessions wrestle with some very significant things in my time as a pastor. The passion and commitment of the elders has always been evident because they care deeply about what God is doing in the church. While hard discussions about budgets, ministry direction, and even social issues aren’t necessarily fun, I have found the elders shine when things are most on the line. Believe me, friends, our elders take their calling joyfully while they take it seriously. As Presbyterians we believe that God moves in group discernment, so we may not move as quickly as others, we do move deliberately and in the direction the Spirit calls us.
Finally, our elders are to cast the vision for the church, which is something our elders have been particularly thinking about of late. As a Session we have been thinking a lot about what the coming years will look like. Where do we focus our talents and energy? How do we provide best both for now and the future? What is God calling us to do? A few weeks ago Kevin Ford worked with the Session on our True North. It happened to be the Michigan-Michigan State game day, so if you ever doubt the commitment of your elders, doubt no more. (God was good, though, and provided a nice delay for us, so we still caught much of the game!) Over the course of five hours, I got to witness how much your elders love your church. I got to see not only their commitment to a sustainable ministry but also ideas about what God may be calling us to in this new chapter of ministry. Our elders are not complacent! They are happy with where we are, but they don’t just want to stay there. They’re ready for what’s next. It was a gift to be with them in their visioning, and it will be a gift to keep walking with them in it in the coming months. Believe me, the elders of this church are a gift from God.
So, I hope you pray for your elders. I hope you’re thankful for them. I hope that you know even a little bit more about what elders mean in the Presbyterian Church. We are all members of this body, each with a specific purpose in making the body whole, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12. But what fascinates me is that the next chapter in Paul’s letter is his magnum opus on love – the words read at almost every wedding. As much as all of us have a vital and serious role in the church, we must be reminded that we have to approach all we do with love – love resembling God’s love – for that is what makes this whole thing go.