“How do we encourage people to serve as elders and deacons?” In my experience, this is one of the more frequent responses to the church article 41 questions on the credentials for classis. These questions invite church councils to suggest an aspect of ministry they would like to see discussed at classis. More often than not the response is some version of this question. Unfortunately, the discussions tend to end up in the same place. People will talk about aging congregations, shifting attendance patterns, or the decline in volunteerism. Predictably someone will say that people are just not as dedicated as they once were. Then a year or so later, the question will be asked again with the same result. That makes me wonder whether we are asking the right question.
The same thing could be said for just about any area of ministry that requires volunteers. How do we find Sunday School teachers or Cadet counsellors? The list could go on. Most often the questions are focussed on finding people to fill open slots in the ministries we have. That makes some sense. We have well defined leadership structures in the CRC. We also have a strong set of programs meant to carry out ministry. We naturally want to see these continue. But sometimes these structures and programs also limit our creativity. Asking how to find elders and deacons can keep us from asking another set of questions that focus on the reasons we have the structures and ministries in the first place.
What if instead of asking where Sunday School teachers will come from, a church asked how they could best nurture the faith of children and adults? They might come up with an entirely different solution. What if we asked how we could best encourage a robust ministry of mercy in our world? We might come up with an answer that does not involve delegating deacons to major assemblies. What if, instead of asking how to encourage people to serve as elders and deacons, we asked how we could best provide leadership or pastoral care in a congregation?
I once heard of a congregation that was l on the verge of becoming an organized church. This gave them some freedom to ask different questions. They decided not to ask how many elders they needed. Instead, they asked how many elders they had been given. After a period of study and discernment, they determined that they had been given one person who had the gifts and qualifications of elder. They made it work.