How Pastors And Elders Can Help Each Other

Recently I had a question from a Presbyterian Ruling Elder (RE) asking about how REs should relate to Pastors (or Teaching Elder). The specific question how REs should relate to TEs in ecclesiastical assemblies. E.g., REs are often at something of a disadvantage in session (consistory) and presbytery (classis) meetings.

It is true that, at presbytery/classis, as a practical matter TEs (ministers) tend to dominate because presbytery (classis) tends to address what they do all day, every day. A pastor would not expect to walk into an accounting firm twice a year (presbytery/classis) or even 12 times a year (session/consistory) and start making decisions. So, an RE is at a natural disadvantage at presbytery/classis.

Nevertheless, TEs (ministers) make a mistake when they do not solicit the guidance of the REs. God gave us REs for a reason. The main thing (most) REs ought to contribute is practical wisdom. What have they learned from experience that a young TE/minister might not know or have experienced yet? So, there should be a collaboration between the REs and TEs, each contributing from their expertise. TEs bring (or should bring) a level of theological training and biblical knowledge that most REs do not have. That’s not to say that TEs have no experience or that REs have no insight into scripture. It’s a relative difference.

The other thing I would say is that REs can help themselves and others by learning three texts:

  1. Scripture
  2. The Standards (the confession and catechisms or the Three Forms of Unity)
  3. The Church Order

In my experience REs do not always know the Standards and the church order as well as they should. We have all agreed to live and work together in the church according to these documents. REs can check the TEs (pastors) here and especially those TEs (pastors) who develop ideas, doctrines, or theories that are contrary to the standards and the church order. One need not be a professionally trained theologian to know the Scriptures, the Standards, and the church order.

TEs (pastors) should appreciate how challenging it is to be a faithful RE, who takes on an office in addition to his daily responsibilities. Session (consistory or council) meetings are usually held in the evening so that means that an RE is missing time with his family. There are other demands of the office (e.g., home visitation, presbytery/classis meetings, and committee meetings). Though REs sometimes receive some preparation much of the ministry is learned on the job. Elder training classes cannot really prepare a man for his first session/consistory meeting when the church discipline cases are reviewed and discussed. It can be shock to the system.

For their part, the RE can do two things to help the TE (pastor): pray and communicate. Being a pastor can be a lonely job. Pastors do not always have friends in the congregation and sometimes they have no friends nearby. Some REs are tempted to see their role as akin to serving on the board of directors of bank rather than as a fellow servant with the TE (pastor). The pastor needs to know that the REs are not simply governing him but also supporting him. Of course, if the TE (minister) acts or teaches out of accord with the Scriptures as we confess them or contrary to the order of the church, the RE has an essential role in guiding and correcting him but before letting accusations fly, communicate. Take the pastor to lunch. Make sure that there are no misunderstandings. Before you take the TE to lunch, pray and before problems erupt, pray for the peace of the church and the purity of her doctrine. If the TE (pastor) knows that you are praying for him, that you sympathize with the challenges he faces, he will be more ready to hear you because some trust has been developed.

The ideal is a collaborative ministry, where the TEs (pastors) and REs work as a team, praying and planning and serving Christ and his flock together. Everyone on the session (consistory) is sinful and we are all the recipients of abundant grace. As we think of ourselves this way we will be ready to forgive one another and to bear with one another as we seek a shared goal of edifying the body and expanding his kingdom through the ministry of word, sacrament, prayer, and discipline.

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  1. Good words here. All church officers should be examined in their knowledge of English Bible, the creeds, confessions, and catechisms, and the church order. They should also be aware of the sorts of extra-confessional issues (and how they are extra-confessional) that you discuss in RCC. Also, they should understand the heresies of popular evangelicalism: Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism eschatology, anti-paedobaptism, and Pentecostalism/continuationism. Of course, these are aspects of the Reformed confession. A well-read and theologically knowledgeable RE can help keep the Minister theologically sharp and alert. While the practical expertise and wisdom of REs and deacons should be valued, often it is the case that a Minister’s love for theology and Scripture is eroded without someone of similar interests being in the congregation.

  2. Thank you for the truth of this, Dr. Clark. As an RE who regularly attends presbytery (which is another issue–the meetings require I take off work, but this is a privilege for me to attend), I do feel awkward speaking up at presbytery, so I know keenly that I am at a disadvantage. It would help if the TEs recognize that the REs come with some wisdom they may not possess given their day-to-day vocations.

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