Getting Started as a First-Time Elder

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I watched my granddaughter come up to the front of the church for the first time. She did not know what to do. Where would she sit? To which children did she belong? What was she supposed to do? Or not do? What was she listening to? Did it matter? The first task was sorting out what every other child seemed to know. 

Entering the council for the first time can feel like that. Thankfully, many councils take time to help every newly ordained elder get the lay of the land. Much of what we need to know initially can only be discovered in the local context. Some of it will only be learned over the time of the first term of office. 

Who makes the coffee?

Every community has its habits. They are so ordinary that no one either questions them or names them. But for someone walking into the room for the first time they are the first encounters into a new world. Who makes the coffee? How do we greet each other? What are the Sunday morning tasks? Many habits are formed overtime and the original purpose has long since been forgotten. 

There are two ways you find out about these mysterious practices: by asking deliberately or by being there and learning by osmosis the rituals of this new crowd. 

In my congregation these are some of the practices:

  1. Everyone gets a turn to do devotions. When it is your turn to do devotions, you make coffee. Usually you provide the snack. 
  2. If you close in prayer at the end of the meeting, you do devotions the next.
  3. We shake hands with each other at every meeting, including Sunday morning before the service. You don’t shake hands before the Sunday evening service.
  4. The person who leads in prayer before the service leads the pastor into the sanctuary and shakes hands with the pastor in front of the congregation and blesses him/her with appropriate words.   This is only done before the service and not after like it is done in other CRC congregations.
  5. When you serve at the communion table, you wear a tie. Unless you are a woman. The women have always dressed appropriately. 

The list is longer. For some we have reasons. For some we have forgotten our good intentions and well considered reasons. My best advice is ask. Fact is, even when I try to put everything on a list to share with new officebearers I have missed some. They are so ordinary that these practices do not come to mind. So ask.  

The question is: what do I need to know about how we do things so I will not be embarrassed in a meeting or in the congregation? Someone knows the answers. 

What am I supposed to do?

This is a harder question. There are a few avenues we can go to walk through the calling we have has elder.   One road we go down is the vow we make before the congregation and the charge we receive. This is discussed more fully in another article (insert link - coming). Every time I read these words as elders are being ordained into office, I am impressed that the officebearers don’t start a rebellion. The task is large and the demands are many. The time required and the insight demanded can overwhelm any novice (see link –coming). Remember you are not alone. 

Another road to travel is the church order. This avenue helps us understand some of the history and practice that is part of who we are. For instance, the rule of elders is a vital part of the Reformed heritage and they lead in pastoral care alongside of the minister. The Bylaws that congregations are governed by affirm the role of officebearers as stipulated in the Church Order. Examining this document helps us come to grip with our task. 

Another road is the particular job descriptions and divisions of the local congregation. Many congregations now divide responsibilities between administration/ executive boards/committees, councils, pastoral elders (consistory), deacons, and staff. The only way to get informed of these unique tasks is through the leadership of your council. 

Finally, we need to look at the variety of roles we have. Being an elder may grant us a calling in the congregation but each elder has distinct roles (at times competing) that require us to think about our particular responsibility and its limitations. Understanding them will help in sorting out how we function as elder. The Various Roles of An Elder

What is the Form of Subscription?

The bigger question is why do we ask those who have stood before the congregation and vowed to uphold the Scriptures and the Confessions of the church to sign the Form of Subscription?  

Ephesians calls us to uphold the unity of the church in the gospel of Christ. We believe that the confessions are rooted in the struggle of the church to uphold the gospel. Signing the form of subscription is a way to commit ourselves to our common understanding and to way of resolving differences through respectful process rather than divisive practices. 

This form is itself under revision to establish greater clarity and deepen the bonds of unity between us. 

Growing as an Elder

Whether you are on a steep learning curve or a gentler one, learning is an ordinary part of an elder’s life.   Learning Scripture, paying closer attention to the movement of the spirit in your own and others lives, finding resources to deal with the issues at hand, and discovering what shepherding demands of you are all ongoing challenges. This is a calling in which we learn on the job all the time. 

What is helpful is to take opportunities to attend conferences, read books and magazines that encourage the various gifts you bring to the table. Browse this website for suggestions. 

Submitted to God

We are under the leadership of Christ. Christ leads by His Word and Spirit. The simple requirement is that we pay attention to Word and pray faithfully believing that the Spirit of Christ will always be whispering in our ears, lighting the path and empowering our service. Our service is not about us; we do it in Christ and for Christ. 

May God bless your service. 

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