Elders and the Table -- the uniqueness of Disciple experience
I asked the question -- who may preside at the Table --and noted the Disciple experience. Unlike most other traditions, the Disciples have been known for having lay elders pray at the table and that these prayers are normally of their own composition. Disciples have worship aids, but no official book of worship. Due to a shortage of clergy in other traditions, questions are being asked there about how to provide the Eucharist in congregations without regular clergy -- and some of them are trying things that look a lot like what Disciples are doing. So who are these Elders that share leadership a the Table? They are not, as in the Presbyterian Church, a board of oversight with no place at the table nor are they clergy like the Methodists. No they are quite different.
As a way of helping us understand this situation I'm offering a quotation from Keith Watkins' book Celebrate with Thanksgiving (Chalice Press, 1991).
The typical patter of leadership in Disciples congregations today resembles this ancient system. Ordinarily congregations are led by one or more ministers, who are theologically educated. occupationally full-time and salaried by the church. Serving with the minister or ministers are the elders of the congregation, who are men and women from the congregation. The elders serve on a volunteer basis, giving limited amounts of time, and ordinarily do not have special theological training for their work. Disciples came to this pattern in three stages. The early ecclesiology of Alexander Campbell called for the election of ministers from the membership of the congregation. He used biblical terms -- elder or bishop. One of these persons would be elected president of the eldership on the basis of superior gifts for the work. This person would serve full time and be compensated while the other elders would serve part-time without compensation. (p. 45).
In the next generation, congregations began to call upon young college graduates, presumably from outside the church, to serve with these congregational elders, and in the midst of this questions began to arise about the nature of this ministry -- was "he" an elder or an employee of the church under the supervision of the elders. Over time, it became established that congregations would be served by pastors who were employed by the church and a board of elders. The role of these elders was generally limited to praying at the table and gathering to discuss the congregation's spiritual well being. Early on elders were ordained, for they were considered the ministers of the church, but by the mid-20th century the practice had generally disappeared. Keith writes: "Since elders were no longer regarded as ministers, there seemed to be little reason for them to be ordained" (p. 46).
Keith offers an alternative understanding, one that reaches back to the early days of the Disciples movement, but with revisions, that may make better sense as elders take their place at the table. He writes:
Pastors and elders together are them ministry of the congregation. The pastor and assistant pastors work to see that the gospel is proclaimed and the people equipped to do the work of Jesus Christ. The justification for a praying eldership is that these men and women are united with the pastors to be the corporate spiritual leadership of the congregation. A well-ordered congregation has one ministry -- elders and pastors acting as one body with varied responsibilities assigned to the several members. (p. 46).
We need to break this down more, but such an understanding makes sense ecumenically, but it would assume that elders ought to be ordained and that they take very seriously their calling.