Five things every ruling elder must do

One of the unique things about the way presbyterians do church is that we share spiritual leadership of the congregation between clergy and lay leaders. Presbyterians churches are led by elders who together form the session, the governing body of the congregation.


There are two types of elder–teaching and ruling. Ruling elders are not considered clergy, but their ministry is amazingly significant. Here’s how the Book of Order defines ruling elder:

As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people….Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation (Matt. 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life….

Read that once again and drink it in. If you’re a ruling elder, then you have been ordained and installed in order to minister in partnership with your teaching elders (pastors). 

  • You’ve been given oversight of the congregation to “measure its fidelity to the Word of God…”
  • You’ve been called to “strengthen and nurture its faith and life…”

This is a pretty important job you’ve been asked to do.

Let’s face it, often what say we believe about elders is far from the on-the-ground reality of being an elder. Sometimes it can feel like being an elder is all about reading the docket and going to committee meetings. That’s part of the job, but it’s a small part of the job–don’t let it be your whole experience of being a ruling elder, unless you like reading reports.

In order to be an effective ruling elder, it’s important to do at least five things. Doing these five things will increase the chances that your experience of congregational leadership will be rich, rewarding, will benefit the congregation, and potentially change your life.

  1. Devote yourself to prayer. Nurture your relationship with God through the means of prayer. As you lead, you will need to depend upon Him to help you make decisions and minister to the people of the church. Pray for church members, for the other elders, for your pastors.
  2. Deepen your knowledge of Reformed theology. I don’t mean this as an academic exercise. Theology, at it’s fullest, is a means of knowing God more fully because it takes us outside of our own limited experience of Him. Study the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism and see if your heart isn’t strangely warmed by the beauty and the glory of your God.
  3. Expand your spiritual leadership skills. You might consider attending something like the Elder Leadership Institute at Whitworth University, a program designed to help elders grow in spiritual leadership. Check out Ruth Haley Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership or Bob Fryling’s book Leadership Ellipse. Spiritual leadership requires some fine-tuning and reordering of the leadership that’s often modeled in the marketplace.
  4. Find a mentor. Is there someone you respect who has served on session before? Did he or she really thrive as an elder? Was he or she recognized as a wise and effective elder? Ask that person to help you grow into the office. Or–if this isn’t your first time on session–reach out to newer colleague and help them find their feet.
  5. Remember–your calling is bigger than the docket. The week before every session meeting, elders are emailed this 50-page .pdf document of the agenda and reports for the session meeting, called the docket. It’s one big chunk of “time” landing in your inbox. The docket’s important and it should be read attentively and prayerfully, but don’t let the docket come to define your ministry as an elder. In reality, you’re not so much as board member as a minister.

If you’re a ruling elder–thank you. Yours is an important office in the life of the church and worthy of respect. Here’s hoping that in your service God will meet you and change both you and your congregation for His greater glory.

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