Friday, October 21, 2011

Minister of Word and Sacrament, or Teaching Elder?

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).

The dilemma:

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!


  1. As a "Ruling Elder" who has a vocation for teaching, I find them kind of meaningless semantic designations. Our church--except the poor clerk of session who is a very by-the-book person, as is befitting for such a one--is pretty much ignoring the change. It's not like it actually changes anything. Now, if it meant I could celebrate communion...

  2. Oh, and, I'll be thinking of you next week. Reformation Sunday! What a day to celebrate your Ordination to Word and sacrament!! (I find myself wishing I didn't live all the way across the country.)

  3. My favorite thing is celebrating communion. My comment was headed towards a blog post, so that's what I'll do.

    Sorry I'll miss your ordination.

  4. It's this tendency toward automatic respect that makes me think we all hold our pastors and ministers and other religious leaders to a higher standard than most of their fellow humans. Yes, you ordained folks are human too - but have worked hard, sacrificed much, and responded with your actions to a call from God. Those three things deserve respect and have earned you a place of leadership.

    To keep that respect and place of leadership it seems to me that ordained and religious people may need to make themselves known. I'm grateful that my pastor, Fr. Kevin, wears black and a collar. I want him to be seen as a priest, and I expect him to comport himself with dignity and love and to be seen that way by others. Perhaps because I have been raised in the Catholic Church I don't find collars or other pastoral dress distancing, I see it as another one of the non-verbal clues I have about the person I'm dealing with.

    I'd be loathe to define anyone by a single element. Education, gender, sexual preference, vocation or career. However, knowing more and more about a person helps me to feel comfortable in their presence, and to share more of myself.

    If a religious or ordained person identifies that part of themselves to me, I am far more likely to approach them with a deeper level of trust, communication and openness. I do not hide my Christianity or my Catholicism. I wear two medals and am happy to have them on all the time, letting anyone who would like to be aware of my religious beliefs and that part of my identity.

    I feel for the person who saw those nuns and priests as "holier" than her. I think that is something that has been informally passed down from our parents and grandparents. It's too bad, and certainly the recent scandals in the Catholic Church have shown us that is not at all necessarily so.

    But my experiences with the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit also has taught me that some areas of Catholicism, of identity, of separation from the world are vital, profound and very very comforting. I like knowing the monks by their habits, and seeing them walk across the green actually makes me feel a warmth and connection to something much bigger than myself.

    I think you will be a marvelous pastor, and a great asset to the church as a whole! I'm thrilled to imagine a world where your voice will be added from the inside of the institution and to see how that transforms and moves the particles about!

  5. Thank you for that perspective, Cindy. A lot to think about. Especially the part where you say that you are more likely to open yourself to a religious person who identifies her/himself as such by dress. I am quite the opposite; I am much more comfortable around clergypeople when they are dressed in regular clothing. I sometimes wonder whether I would have ever approached the Catholic priest who became my first and extraordinary spiritual director had he worn clericals all the time -- I very much doubt it.

    I really appreciate hearing a different POV.

  6. It is a sword that cuts on both sides.

    I have made some TERRIBLE mistakes by assuming a level of compassion and/or consciousness based on someone's vocation or career. I'm thinking mostly of therapists here, as I really have not had an extraordinary amount of contact with clergy.

    I guess I mean it as a more subtle thing. I wouldn't just walk up to a stranger in clerical garb and start pouring out my heart.

    But I've had some very meaningful friendships start, and some wonderfully deep conversations, when someone has approached me and commented on my necklace. (There are two medals: one is a cross with a guardian angel and the other is a Miraculous Medal.)

    It is more of a quiet, intimate invitation.

    And, on a totally different angle I've lately made myself get all extroverted and greet men and women in uniform at the airport. I make a point to say "thank you" and "I hope you stay safe." I think this is another part of the garb issue.

  7. I actually have a medal depicting Mary that I now wear sometimes. You may recall that my first biospy took six hours instead of the expected one, and that the nurse assigned as my companion and I developed a friendship around shared issues of loss; around suicide, in particular. When I returned a week later for my first surgery, she gave me the necklace. I treasure it.

    No one has asked about it yet, though!

  8. 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.

    That's an understandable response for a Presbyterian to offer, I think, given the strong emphasis on the priesthood of all believers that one finds in the Reformed tradition. At the same time, those distinctions are integrally embedded in the Catholic tradition, so I don't think it's a ultimately a question of changing mindsets so much as it is dealing with the tradition in its integrity; in other words, the Catholic Church can't do without these distinctions.

    In a sense, I think that emphasizing that one is capable of serving the Christian community precisely as a layperson is a way of positively asserting that there is a special (and essential) lay vocation that complements that of the ordained and those in consecrated life. Making distinctions between these groups in the church can be a way of valuing the distinctive gifts that come with different vocations.

    I'll grant that the above vision has been imperfectly realized. As the discussion of issues around the wearing of clerical dress brings out, there can be negative manifestations of clericalism which also tend to devalue the vocation of the laity. (On the same token, there can also be a kind of "lay clericalism" that devalues the contribution of clergy - i.e., a desire for clergy to get out of the way to make more room for the laity.)

    In my experience as a Jesuit, Catholic laypeople often feel more strongly about the importance of clerics identifying themselves with distinctive dress than clerics themselves do: laypeople often see this dress as having an important witness value and aren't pleased to see it dispensed with. This should be a sobering reminder to clergy that theirs is a vocation of service, a vocation that requires one to deny oneself in a very real way. The pectoral cross that priests in the Byzantine tradition bears an inscription on the back: "Be the image!" In other words, be like Jesus Christ whom you represent! Such reminders are critically important, especially when there are so many temptations to do otherwise.

    So that's my view from the other side - I respect the views and insights that the Reformed tradition brings to bear on all of this, but I also think there could be some value in articulating in positive terms what these distinctions in role and dress can mean for a Catholic.

  9. Thank you so much for that contribution, Joe. I so appreciate hearing these other viewpoints and being offered the opportunity to re-think my own, regardless of whether the consequence is a modification or a solidification.

    In addition, I think that it's critical that those of us on the "outside" of a tradition try to understand the self-interpretation of those on the "inside" ~ which will certainly enlarge our own grasp on a particular matter. In a reverse example, I was watching a Robert Barron youtube on Protestantism one day and, while I think he's marvelous, he said something about the Protestant take on something that caused me to say, "No! That's not right!" (I hesitate to cite the example, as I have no doubt forgotten the specifics and will only embarrass myself.) My point is simply that we (any "we") often analyze and evaluate ourselves differently that others might.

    On another note, sometimes I wonder whether, for me, this is all about a 60s mentality. I'm spending an awful lot of time with doctors lately, and I do hate those white coats! (In fact, they are the source of some genuine blood pressure concerns.) It's sometimes a real challenge for me to balance genuine respect and regard for someone's achievements, expertise, and authority against my natural inclination to level all playing fields.

  10. Robin,

    Thanks for the follow-up - your point about appreciating the self-understanding of others within the context of their own tradition is very well-taken; of course, it takes conversation to get there, which is one reason I always enjoy reading threads like this one.

    Your point about generational mentalities also hits home: there's a lot of conversation on this topic within Jesuit communities, as younger and older members of the Society have had very different experiences of ministry and life in the church - with a lot of gradations and nuances and particular priorities and worries for each group: the oldest group is made up of Jesuits who came of age before Vatican II, the middle group is self-consciously defined by the Council and the decades that followed, and the youngest are, I think, trying to forge a path that is alert to the signs of the times but also seeks to appreciate the past in a way that moves beyond the pre- vs. post-Vatican II identity struggles that mean a lot to older generations. In two or three decades, I'm sure, the lines will be drawn differently.

    In writing the above, I also wonder how much of this is particular to my own (Catholic and Jesuit) context and how much of it is reflective of broader trends in American Christianity. Other churches have gone through dramatic shifts in recent decades, so does that mean that similar generational divides show up in those communities as well? I would imagine so, but my experience is sadly limited. Have you found some of this in your own congregation?

  11. Maybe some of my Protestant brothers and sisters will weigh in?

    I don't think that we as a whole have nearly the sense of history that Catholics do; we do not emphasize tradition in the same way and we do not have a recent major formative event such as Vatican II. In fact, many might say that our last one was in 1517! One of my pastor friends recently wrote about the role that Presbyterians played in the American Revolution, but I would venture that few Presbies know much about that contribution.

    To generalize in a huge way, I think that both social justice liberals and conservative evangelicals are rediscovering the traditions of the early and medieval church, albeit in different ways, which is a fascinating development. In some ways there are probably significant parallels in Catholicism and Protestantism, in that those of us who grew up influenced by the proponents of social justice tend to see those concerns as essential to the message and worship of the church and want to hang on to a vision of a church turned outward toward the broader culture, while many young people see the church as in decline as a consequence of the chaotic transitions of the 60s-80s and are seeking a much stronger orientation toward a church focused primarily on Christ rather than on its prophetic voice.