Elders today

Travelling here and there, travelling from here to there…

All elders in the Church of Scotland have been called to its highest office; indeed, they have been ordained to it. That means they are similar to ministers, and shouldn’t let the clerical collar make anyone think otherwise. Collar-wearers are Teaching Elders, others are Ruling Elders – but elders, nonetheless. It is the combination of these complementary but distinct roles which has shaped the Church of Scotland.

I suspect you are attending this conference because you want to learn more about how to be an elder. A good, helpful, effective elder, ‘encouraging, comforting and urging [fellow believers] to live lives worthy of God’ as Paul puts it in his First Letter to the Thessalonians; and also enabling those not yet part of a community of faith to hear and see and understand the Good News of Jesus Christ across Scotland, that they may come to ‘share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2Thess 2:14). In this early session in the conference I’d like to offer a few pictures which I hope will serve not only as illustrations but as ways of thinking about what you’re doing as elders.

So let me warm you up to think this sort of way with a first picture. Many of you will be familiar with a sat-nav, so you’ll know that it sometimes offers a big map of the whole journey. It’s that larger-scale view I hope you’ll see in the pictures I’ll describe. At other times, the sat-nav display focuses in more detail on a junction, showing you the roads and, perhaps, telling you which lane you should be in. That detailed guidance as it relates to the eldership is something you’ll get in other sessions.

To take the picture further, if you use a social media based sat-nav like Waze, you’ll know that through that app, other people on similar journeys can share their experiences. The same thing happens here over the course of the next few days, often over coffee or lunch. These are ways and times to learn from others on similar, but not identical, journeys. Their insight, encouragement and shared challenges can be immensely helpful. Make the most of all that’s involved in being here!

Minding the Gap

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I serve in the south of Glasgow so I didn’t have to go far to get my first pictures. This used to be the Caledonian Railway Bridge, built around 1877 to take trains from the south across the Clyde into Central Station. Ninety years after it opened, resignalling work meant meant there was no further need for the bridge. The girders and railway track were removed in 1967 leaving only the pillars, these iron and granite columns sunk right into the river bed.

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The pillars themselves are interesting, inscribed by the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. On the east faces of the easternmost piers are two sayings from Plato’s Republic (how cultured; this is Glasgow, though).

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The English saying on the south-most pier is easy to read: ‘All Greatness Stands Firm in the Storm’; the words on the north-most pier might roughly be translated: ‘All great things are perilous, and it is true, as the proverb says, that beautiful things are hard [to attain]’.

It’s all quite impressive. The pillars are grand and strong: they’ve stood for a century and a half. But for a third of that time, despite being so solid and firm, they’ve been stuck in the mud and practically redundant.

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They don’t do anything and serve no purpose. People might stop and look at them, and be intrigued by the inscriptions. But they help no-one get across the river. People are still getting across, and in fact they’re using many bridges built since the mid-1960s; but none of those is for rail traffic.

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The pillars stand, idle and irrelevant, watching people cross by car, bike and on foot. Times have changed but the pillars haven’t moved.

This feels to me a little like the Church of Scotland. It is deeply embedded in Scotland’s culture. It has stood firm through the storms of the years. It’s solid, reliable and dependable, and twenty-five years ago when I was setting out on ministry the ‘brand’ or sense the Kirk had, quite widely in our land, meant that both in times of joy and crisis the Church was part of many people’s landscape. Then, it did help people on their journey through life; now, it is fast becoming redundant.

In the 2016 Social Attitudes Survey, nearly 60% of Scots said they didn’t belong to any particular religion. Back in 1967, the year the superstructure of the bridge was dismantled, just under a third of the total population of Scotland were members of the Church of Scotland. Now it’s well under one in ten. It’s great that ‘Greatness Stands Firm in the Storm’. However, a bridge is not much use if it doesn’t get you to the other side. And we can’t presume that because it was fine once, it remains fine always.

If form follows function, which is a way of saying that we need to design with some sort of destination in mind, then we need to have some clues about what the Church is to be about before we can craft ways of achieving that. Thomas Reeves, writing in the American context, says that mainstream church in the US ‘has become so secularized and indistinct that it cannot compete successfully with an abundance of causes and activities that many find ore valuable. The great majority of Americans still cling to the Christian faith, or at least a watered-down version of it, but many fail to see good reasons for committing themselves to a mainline church.’ (Reeves, 1996, p.171). We need to know where we are helping people go, and we need to enable them to get there.

I suggest we do that by moving, ourselves, from institution to inspiration and invitation. Rather than focusing on structures and processes, on buildings, construction work and committee meetings, we ought to emphasize the serious work of regularly and intentionally recognising God’s presence in all life and specifically in our own lives. We should concentrate on following Jesus’ exhortations and example in all our dealings with people and this planet. We should engage broadly rather than narrowly with others to discover the God who is in our midst, and who leads us on.

We do that by developing practices of personal spiritual growth and in expressing our devotion. There’s no set way, and this isn’t about feeling bad when we fail or forget. But eldership is, surely, about a life of commitment to prayer and scripture study, to worship and honest reflection, to participation with others and collaboration in loving our global neighbours as ourselves. You expect that, rightly, from ministers; but they are merely a type of elder. And you are elders, too. There are loads of tools, many ways of travelling, and plenty people to accompany us on these journeys. But we can’t simply stand on one bank and look wistfully to the other side. We need to make progress.

As elders, we are encouraged to care in quite practical ways for those given to our charge. In former times that might have been in an elder’s district; in some places that still works well. But we have to check whether this still works for many, and whether new communication approaches might be worth exploring, and how we might address social isolation not simply with personal visits even several times a year but by getting people together.

And we could combine these first two ideas by encouraging people to come together to explore faith, and to express faith in loving action. That’s happening everywhere, but there is potential for much more. I’d encourage elders not always to wait for the minister’s initiative. There’s a place for us all using co-ordinated innovation. We don’t go off and do our own thing without mentioning it, but neither do we sit, frustrated at inaction, with good ideas in our minds which we never bring to the fore. The ministry of suggestion is deeply important. So, suggest away!

The pillars of structure and good governance, are largely in place – and we should be grateful. We still have premises and people in many places all across Scotland – that is such a valuable resource. But these are days when we need to move from pillars – solid, staid and stuck – to enabling inspired, committed, Spirit-led progress in the lives of God’s people individually and together in all sorts of faith communities. There is a daunting amount of work to be done. But it is hugely exciting, too.

A Useful Stop on the Way

My second image comes from further west. Various things came together and I found myself, the other month, driving east through Texas to Amarillo (someone told me this was the way, but didn’t promise that sweet Marie would be waiting for me – and she wasn’t).

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After driving for a couple of hours we needed a break and pulled in at Russell’s Truck Stop.

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We chose that one rather than any of the others because on Google we discovered they had a 1950s-style diner, effectively on the famous Route 66.

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It also housed a car museum and a shop. So I managed to fill up on coffee and enjoy some nostalgia among cars from the fifties to the seventies.

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Then I saw some stained glass in a window next to an old petrol pump, and went to explore.

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It was a church.

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It turns out they hold services each Sunday morning and some folks from the nearby town come along. But it’s there through the week, available but not imposed, right in the midst of a place which is quite enterprising in meeting all sorts of different needs from fuel to food to fun objects – and faith.

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As a minister I was attracted to this because it was a little bit ‘churchy’ – it wasn’t so fresh that you couldn’t discern that it was church. But it was in an entirely different setting, right where people needed things, quietly offering space for reflection and (in the Christian staff) someone you might speak to if you wished. It was a resource for travellers on the way.

Don’t take this literally – I’m not suggesting we install a Portacabin at the Harthill Services on the M8. But are we providing resources for life’s way at places, times and ways that make sense in modern Scotland? Are we doing that in a distinctively Christian way, offering something of value from the treasure of Christian institutions? Some of the recent evidence is that we are not; the older ways work for the decreasing numbers who find that familiarity useful. But it is less successful at engaging with increasing numbers of younger people.

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We need to consider, and to have opportunities to think in, radical ways. Fresh Expressions gives us a huge selection of worked examples, many of which are successful. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel because we can learn from others, then adapt to local situations and needs. What we can’t do is stop travelling.

What opportunities, then, can you give to help people take the next few steps on their life journey, and their faith journey, too? (Those two things are closer than we might imagine). This is about helping people get from one place to another. But it starts where they are, not where we are.

A little help from some friends

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My final image comes from last November. I needed to get out so I rose early on a Saturday and drove up to Loch Long. It was a calm autumn morning and not too cold; I wandered up The Cobbler. All was going well until I turned left onto what is effectively a stone staircase built into the hill. The sleet started, then it snowed, and as I got to the top of the steps I was in a bit of a blizzard.

There was a rocky outcrop fifty yards ahead and so I clambered up and hid under in a bit of a sheltered spot and did what all good hillwalkers do in such a situation: I got out my flask and sandwiches. I also got out my phone and discovered two things. One, that I didn’t have a mobile data signal. Two, that I hadn’t actually downloaded the detailed map I had looked at the previous evening.

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I was sure I didn’t have far to go, but I didn’t have a clue where I was, and I couldn’t see more than twenty feet ahead of me. I also thought there was probably a steep drop not far away. Then, through the snow and fog, I saw two other figures who looked about as lost as I did. They approached me and asked for directions (well, what were they to know?) I did my best to hide my ignorance but was delighted to see that their download had worked.

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So we had a chat, and Michael, Jacqueline and I looked around and worked out what we thought was the best way forward. We rounded the other side of the rocky outcrop I’d tried to climb. There was a wee path and, within three minutes, we were on flat and level ground.

And then, as happens sometimes, the snow stopped and the sky cleared. I had been hiding twenty feet below the summit because I didn’t quite know where to take the final few steps. It took a bit of team-work and a slightly better connection to get us all, me included, up to the top.

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I’m showing you these pictures partly because I’m proud of them, and to let you see the view from the summit.

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At one point I had been all set to retrace my steps and head home without seeing anything. However, I met other people on the way and, though none of us knew everything, together we made progress towards a view that made my heart sing.

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Now, I suggest there’s a model of church. People getting together, sometimes in adverse conditions or perhaps facing a challenge; people who are all well aware they don’t know it all. Yet, as they work together, enjoy friendship and make God-focused progress, they discover beyond any of them the touch of God’s life that delights their souls.

I’ve experienced that sort of thing in church, from time to time, in worship and in mission, through prayers and in study groups, sitting at peoples bedsides or taking part in marriage or funeral services. And it has been wonderful. These are not experiences restricted to those who wear plastic rings round their neck. They, and many more, are the things of God experienced by the people of God and those God is calling to belong among this people. I think this is mission in practice, and I imagine you’ve seen and sensed it, too.

So I offer you these three images or models. None is an answer; but I hope there are things about each, and then all of them together, which help us to see that the days are here when we see our structures not as the end but as a useful foundation. And we build on them contemporary, relevant practices which are nevertheless embedded in the historic truth and practices of our faith. These allow people to journey towards God and to draw close to others in loving service. That will often bring people together, and it is together that we pierce the snow and fog of missing God’s mark in so many ways and, instead, glimpse the wonder of the Spirit at work among us.

Where might we be heading?

But let me finish with a real-life example of where we might be headed. Through a mutual friend I had the chance to interview the kind of person we might hope to have as an elder in the Church of Scotland. He’s in his early forties, married with a young daughter. He’s a partner in an international consulting firm and lives in central Scotland where he attends a mainline, but not Church of Scotland, church. I interviewed him over a pleasant dinner in Glasgow (not all mission work is tough!) and I asked him to place, from left to right in order of importance as he saw them, aspects of church life.

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This was his (and only his, but we must start somewhere) categorisation. I’m most interested in the top third, those on the far left of the image. For him, these were ‘must-haves’: without them, he simply wouldn’t be interested. He said, in the interview I recorded: ‘It’s got to be lively, otherwise it’s boring. … The Bible’s not dull, and Jesus wasn’t dull, so…’ He was clear that the cardinal sin a church commits is to be boring. Liveliness, principally characterised by the worship – and also what I called the ‘vibe’ – caught his attention.

Would you describe your congregation as having a good vibe, being lively, with engaging sung worship and praise? That’s what he was looking out for. Closely thereafter he valued the quality of what was on offer for his children, be wanted sincerity (that those talking believed what they were saying). He valued high quality teaching through a sermon, and was attracted to a congregation which had a clear vision which they made clear to people.

He didn’t care about the things on the right. He wasn’t worried about the service sheet or the web-site: he wanted to meet real people, not do stuff virtually (though he might be the generation older than those who might prefer that). He didn’t care much if the liturgy and crafting of the service wasn’t first-rate. Some ministers, like me, take some pride in doing these things, and trying to do them well. But they not be all that important.

I offer you this not because I think he’s right, but to show we can ask people and we can gather information which might be useful, and challenge our assumptions and habits. I never got a class on ecclesiastical vibe when I was studying for the ministry, yet this sort of thing might be important – and we might in very large part be missing it.

Where do we go from here?

In each of these situations, someone helped me. I read material someone had written about the Caledonian Bridge. I spoke with the chap behind the counter in Russell’s truck stop. I met Michael and Jacqueline on the hillside. I recorded the conversation over dinner with Andy. People mattered to Jesus; they matter now. Who will be the human catalysts and the coordinators, the midwives and the motivators of the new life into which God is calling his church in these challenging days? Elders. Ruling elders and teaching elders, working creatively together, stepping out in faith, risking a bit, learning a lot, and relying on each other all the time.

All my pictures had in common the theme of travelling. That was deliberate. Staying where we are is not a proper response to the one who invites us saying, ‘Follow me.’ Christ’s words demand that we get moving. And I hope that this weekend you will be helped to take the next steps, probably together in some way; that we may help one another in our churches and in our Church, and so be the active, Spirit-moved people God is calling us to be.

Discussion Questions

1. What’s your church’s role locally: Pier, Track, Train Driver, Passenger? Should this change? How?

2. Is eldership about commitment to prayer and study, worship and honest reflection, and engaging with others to love our global neighbours? What helps us do all this?

3. In what ways might your congregation offer a ‘place on the journey’ for the people who live and work where you are?

4. Who do you see as the companions on your individual, or your congregation’s, faith journey? How might they help?

5. Would liveliness, an upbeat vibe and invigorating praise be ‘must-haves’ in your church? What would yours be?

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