Conversation in a restaurant: “Kim and Joe, would you come to church with us on Sunday morning? Ted and I are both being ordained at the 10 o’clock service and we’d love to have you there for the service and fellowship afterwards.” Kim replied: “Ordained! Neither one of you are trained as ministers. What’s this all about?”
It’s true, Presbyterians ordain to ministries besides that of minister of the Word and Sacrament. “The Church’s ordered ministries described in the New Testament and maintained by this church are deacons and presbyters (teaching elders and ruling elders)” (Book of Order, G-2.0102). Ordination is the rite by which persons are set aside with prayer and the laying on of hands to serve in these roles of ordered ministry (Book of Order, W-4.4001a). The session is responsible for preparation and examination of ruling elders and deacons before their ordination. All those in ordered ministries answer the same questions at ordination, except the final questions that address the specific role[s] unique to that order of ministry.
Call to Ordered Ministry
The people who serve in these ordered ministries are elected by the congregation or council of the church that they will serve. “[T]he right of God’s people to elect presbyters and deacons is inalienable” (Book of Order, G-2.0102). This election by the people is one step in what we refer to as a “call to ordered ministry.” The call has three components: an individual’s sense that the Holy Spirit is moving him or her to such service, “the approval of a community of God’s people” (such as election by a congregation), “and the concurring judgment of a council of the Church” (Book of Order, G-2.0103). You may have thought that you became a ruling elder or deacon because of a phone call from someone on a nominating committee, but in actuality, it was the Holy Spirit making a claim on your life.
Roles of Deacons and Ruling Elders
“The ministry of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of compassion, witness, and service, sharing in the redeeming love of Jesus Christ …” (Book of Order, G-2.0201). The session maintains oversight of the deacons who may be individuals commissioned to specific work, or may be organized as a board. Not all congregations choose to have the ordered ministry of deacon, but the function of this ministry is always preserved and falls to the ruling elders and the session (Book of Order, G-2.0202).
Presbyters are teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) and ruling elders (members of a congregation elected by and ordained in a congregation). Ruling elders are not called “ruling” because of their role in governance, but because they are “to discern and measure [a congregation’s] fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life” (Book of Order, F-3.0202). Ruling elders are not equipped with crowns and scepters, but with measuring tapes and Bibles.
Persons ordained as a deacon or ruling elder ordinarily are in that ordered ministry for life, but will serve specific terms on the deacon board or the session. Elected terms are usually three years, but a person may be reelected to serve a second full or partial term totaling no more than six years. During terms on the session, ruling elders participate in the governance of the congregation. Whether in active service or not, ruling elders may be elected to serve as commissioners to other councils and may be elected by the more inclusive councils to serve on committees, commissions, or as officers. When elected to active service on councils, “ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as teaching elders, and they are eligible for any office” (Book of Order, G-2.0301). Both ruling elders and deacons may participate in worship leadership as detailed in the Directory for Worship (e.g., W-2.3011, W-3.3603, W-3.3616d and e).
Kim and Joe did attend that service of worship and were pleased to see their friends ordained, one as a deacon, the other as a ruling elder, and to witness this uniquely Presbyterian event.
Alyson Janke is a ruling elder, currently serving as the stated clerk of John Knox Presbytery. She teaches Presbyterian Polity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, serves on the General Assembly Advisory Committee on the Constitution, and is commissioned to pastoral service in Wild Rose, Wisconsin. Alyson and her husband and son own and operate a dairy farm in central Wisconsin.