“What were we doing here?”
The question was out of his mouth before the car door was even closed. He was a new elder and this was his first experience of classis. He’d gone even though he had not been delegated; he was interested, he was free that day, and going to classis is one of the things elders do. But as soon as the meeting was over he asked, “What were we doing here?”
This elder’s question could be unravelled in a number of different ways. I intend to follow some other threads in future posts, but for now I just want to focus on one; this elder wondered what elders were doing at classis. He wondered because almost everyone who had any visible role that day was a minister. To him classis looked like a playground for pastors.
Move forward about twenty years to another classis meeting. At this meeting we were sitting at tables in a large hall, not in pews in a small sanctuary. Some things had changed. But, at this meeting the elder beside me kept asking the same question; “who’s that?” He’d ask that question each time someone rose to speak and each time I’d given almost the same answer, “that’s pastor so and so.”
These two meetings were held in different countries and in different decades. Between those two meetings, classes have focussed on renewal. Classes have adopted mission and vision statements. Classes have shaped their ministry around core values. Classical Ministry Committees have replaced by Classical Interim Committees. Classical agendas include more time in worship, prayer, and learning. Much has changed, but the second elder’s questions reminded me that elders still go home asking “What were we doing here?”
Of course not everyone sees it this way. A deacon once reminded me that the other offices are present at classis and that their influence is felt, even if elders and deacons are less likely to speak up in a meeting. That is encouraging, but even this person agreed that elders and deacons are more often observers of and not participants in the discussions at classis.
It is not for lack of trying. I’ve heard that some classes suggest that churches delegate the same elder for their term in office, so that these elders will become familiar enough with classis to be comfortable speaking in the assembly. Some classes incorporate small group prayer times and round table discussions into the meetings. This winter Canadian classes experienced a facilitated discussion that included both small and large group listening. Each of these models can help delegates feel like they are something more than spectators, but my sense is that when it comes to the real business of classis we hold a plenary session and see the familiar parade of pastors.
I’ve suggested elsewhere that I think these questions will only become more acute as deacons are delegated to broader assemblies. When the number of delegates to classis swells by a third, planning teams will have to work even harder to shape agendas in ways that allow meaningful participation by delegates. If we do not, we will just end up with more people wondering what they are doing here.