Monday, July 19, 2010

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. 


John said...


Keith writes:  "Since elders were no longer regarded as ministers, there seemed to be little reason for them to be ordained."

Perhaps this is just a holdover prejudice from my Catholic roots, but it seems to me that there is significant Scriptural support for the ordination or consecration (setting aside, setting apart) of elders and bishops in the Christian church. (2 Tim, Titus, 1 Peter 5, Acts 14:23) As much as The Disciples of Christ focus on the Scriptural support for the ordinances (sacraments) of baptism and communion, it surprises me that they do not give more attention to this issue. I think that in then process of ordination, ordinary women and men receive power to do extraordinary things. In the ritual ordination in front of their congregation, they learn that they have indeed been called to a ministry, and not merely democratically elected to do a job.


Rial Hamann said...


When I was a member of the Presbeterian (sp) church I was ordained as an elder in the church. I had many of the same responsibilities as the "minister", was not paid, and could not marry people. At the table, we were considered to be equal to the ministerial staff. We would reflect over the elements, pary over the elements, offer the "words" of institution (sp).

Communion was not an every week happening. It was more like "high church". It was a big deal. We, disciples, have communion each week. This is a good thing. I also fear that it may have the effect of making at a common thing, and not a special thing in tthe service. Personally, I find the weekly taking of communion to be important to me, and I would hope to the rest of the congregation.

To John's discussion, I found my ordination as an elder in another denomination to be a very important part of my life. It was an elevation. I take communion; the preperation of, the serving of, the words of institution, and the consumption of to be important to me.

To try to quote John, "In the ritual ordination in front of their congregation, they learn that they have indeed been called to a ministry, and not merely democratically elected to do a job." I found this to be true for me as a person.

I found the giving and receiving of communion to be important when it happened a few times a year.
I have also realized that the same is amplified when it happens weekly, or in some faith traditions, even more often. I also hope and pray that my experience is shared by others.

Respectfully, Rial

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John and Rial,

There is a movement back toward ordaining elders in the DOC churches. One of the questions that faces us as a church/denomination is whether such an ordination is for that particular congregation or whether it is transferable.

As a Pastor, my ordination took place in the congregation, but as ratified by the Region on behalf of the whole church. I would suspect that the ordination of elders would be of a different sort.

One of the issues that sometimes arises is when someone comes into the church, having been an elder elsewhere -- ordained even -- and says to the new church, I'm ordained as an elder, and begins functioning as if they should be recognized as one in that congregation.

So, we do need to have conversations about what all this means -- including education and such.

Rial, I'm sort of surprised that the Presbyterian church you were ordained an elder allowed you to be at the table. Clergy are ordained for the ministry of Word and Sacrament and generally clergy are at the table not lay elders.

Rial Hamann said...

It surprised me also. his particular church had communion (sp?) 12 times per year and encouraged all lay leaders to become trained and very envolved.