“The presbytery is the council serving as a corporate expression of the church within a certain district and is composed of all the congregations and teaching elders within that district. … The presbytery is responsible for the government of the church throughout its district, and for assisting and supporting the witness of congregations to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that all congregations become communities of faith, hope, love, and witness” (Book of Order, G-3.03). This mission is carried out through the ministry and witness of teaching elders and ruling elders within it.
My father was one of those ruling elders; one I look on as my role model of a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church. He served on the session of our church and as their clerk of session. He was often their commissioner to presbytery and was elected as a commissioner to two General Assemblies. He was a faithful member of numerous committees of the presbytery and later served as the moderator of the presbytery.
It is important for ruling elders to participate in the higher councils of the church. Each of us has our unique perspective on the issues that come before the councils. Some of these viewpoints may be different from the teaching elders. Ruling elder commissioners who attend presbytery meetings include those elected by their sessions (Book of Order, G-3.0202a) and ruling elders who have been elected as officers of the presbytery and others by rule of the presbytery during their terms of elected service to the presbytery (Book of Order, G-3.0301).
The Book of Order says that church power “is a shared power, to be exercised jointly by presbyters gathered in councils” (F-3.0208). In our Presbyterian polity, the power to make decisions is given to the councils of elected leaders. Ruling elders and teaching elders have no individual power of governance in Presbyterian polity. Their authority is only exercised in gatherings of presbyters when constituted as councils. All commissioners are independent decision makers and these decisions are made following prayer and discussion.
But even if not elected or able to serve as a commissioner to presbytery, ruling elders can be involved and engaged in the ministry and governance of the body by participating on standing committees/commissions of the presbytery, using their specific gifts and skills in many areas to build up the body of Christ. Some presbyteries also offer educational opportunities related to issues, decisions, and ministries of the larger church, as well as mission and outreach opportunities. Such involvement emphasizes the connectional nature of our church.
When my father was active within the presbytery, I often attended installation and ordination services during the time he served on the commission. As a young person I attended presbytery meetings as the moderator of the junior and senior high youth councils to make reports. Much of this experience carried over as I eventually served as a certified Christian educator for seventeen years in local Presbyterian congregations. While in that role, I attended session meetings and presbytery meetings, represented with voice only. While serving as an associate presbyter later on, I was elected a ruling elder and enrolled as a member of the presbytery.
Consider finding out more about the presbytery. Think about how you might be more involved and aware of the ministry of your presbytery and who might serve as your role model as a ruling elder within it.
For an additional article on ruling elders and mid councils, use the Regarding Ruling Elders archives.
Sally Hinchman is the stated clerk for the Presbytery of Heartland. She served 17 years as a church educator, 10 years as an associate presbyter, 11 years as a general presbyter for 3 presbyteries, and then served as an interim presbyter for 3 years. She decided to retire in the Kansas City area where she grew up.