Background in Brief (VERY Brief):
In the Reformed Protestant Church, we do our best to limit distinctions between those who serve as official, ordained ministers and those who serve in other ways. The usual shorthand for this orientation is the term "the priesthood of all believers." One of the most famous Scriptural bases for same is found in I Peter 2:9: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
In the Presbyterian Church, the formal terms for our elected and ordained leaders, derived from John Calvin's 16th century days in Geneva, are "ruling elders" ~ those who govern the church ~and "teaching elders" ~ those who lead the church as its pastors.
Those terms are not much used, at least not in the PC(USA) as I know it. In fact, although I am officially a ruling elder of my home church, I had never heard the term until I went to seminary for an admissions interview. ("Oh, you're a ruling elder!" exclaimed the admissions director. "What's that?" I asked.)
Despite all of the foregoing, we have long ordained pastors to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.
This past summer, a new provision in our Book of Order went into effect, a provision which states that pastors are to be officially designated as Teaching Elders. (Thankfully ~ see below ~ the designation "Minister of Word and Sacrament" is retained as well.) The motivation, as I understand it, is to reduce the sense of hierarchy among us, especially among the members of the Session (governing council) of a church and its pastor(s).
I am in favor, on the whole, of minimizing such distinctions. My Catholic friends often make references along the lines of, "She's a laywoman who does such-and-such" ~ references that always cause me to squirm. (Or more. This summer, in response to such a remark by a good friend, I finally burst out with, "Why do you DEFINE people that way ?!") Several years ago, another Catholic friend expressed her surprise at having been asked to make a presentation to a group of priests and nuns ~ "all those people who are way holier than I am!" Needless to say, that seemed an odd concept to me. What would make them any more ~ or less ~ holy than she is?
I'm not a proponent of clerical dress outside of worship, or collars, or titles. It seems to mean a lot to many in my congregation to call me "Pastor," but that's not my doing. From my vantage point, pastoral authority is something very real, but also very low-key. In fact, my usual experience of authority and expertise in all arenas of life has led me to the following conclusion: the more minimal the display, the more impressive the person.
On.the.other.hand ~ Teaching elder? Really? All of the following components of the Ministry of the Word incorporate teaching, but their essence lies in other aspects: Preaching? Proclamation. Spiritual Direction? Presence and guidance. Pastoral care? Presence and assistance. Leadership? Vision and administration. Mission? Hope and Generosity.
And what happened to the sacramental aspect of ministry? Like it or not, ministers ~ teaching elders ~ are the ones who celebrate the sacraments. The vision and hope of exercising that particular leadership is what propels many of us through the years of Greek, Hebrew, theology, church history, and the more tedious aspects of seminary curriculum. And yes, sacramental celebration incorporates a teaching element ~ but sacramental celebration is fundamentally about our connection to the mystery of God through the tangible and embodied aspects of our lives.
Ironically, my own quite brilliant and very Presbyterian professor of worship and sacraments is quite interested in the Eastern Orthodox Church (in fact, I think he's in Russia this year) and often laments the Protestant emphasis on Word at the expense of Sacrament. I wish his views had received more attention during the debate in this particular change in the Book of Order.
As a ready-to-be-ordained Presbyterian minister, I have no illusions about where we stand in the hierarchy of the church. I believe that the pertinent passage is found in Philippians 2.
And I love teaching. As a lawyer, as a mother, as someone actually paid from time to time to teach, as a writer, and as a pastor, teacher defines much of who and what I am.
But the overarching gifts in my life are about ministry, which it seems to me encompasses a different vision,
And so, next Sunday: Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament!