B25 – Eldership in the Uniting Church

1. SUMMARY

Arising from concerns expressed about the current role of Elder in the Uniting Church, the General Secretary presented a paper to the Standing Committee in March 2014, and a Task Group was appointed to revisit the definition and exercise of the ministry of Elders in the Uniting Church. Following extensive consultation, and in the light of the feedback it received, the Task Group recommended a number of Regulation changes and one change to the Constitution that aim to remove the confusion that is present in the Church about the role of Elders, strengthen the place of Elders in the Church and to continue to allow the flexibility required within a changing Church.

The report was presented to the Standing Committee in March 2015. After discussion Standing Committee supported proposals for changes to the Constitution and Regulations and now brings them to the 14th Assembly for determination.

The Standing Committee recommends that the Uniting Church affirms that Elders are called to exercise oversight of the congregation (Basis of Union Paragraph 14(b), and that they constitute the body which is responsible for fulfilling the responsibilities of the Elders’ or Leaders’ meeting as provided for in Paragraph 15(b) of the Basis of Union.

2. BACKGROUND

The Task Group was formed by the Assembly Standing Committee after its meeting in March 2014. The Convenor was Rev Allan Thompson, and other members were Rev Jason Kioa, Rev Dr Rob Boss, Geoffrey Grinton, Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones, Rev Dr Robert Johnson and Rev Ann Perrin. Unfortunately sickness and other commitments prevented Avril from attending meetings of the Task Group.

The Task Group prepared a Discussion Paper which was distributed across the Church. Over 300 responses were received from individuals and councils in each of the six Synods. Many of the responses included details on arrangements applying locally, and it is evident that in relation to the Eldership there is a great variety of practice across the Uniting Church in Australia.

The responses provided confirmation that since the decision of the Assembly in 1997 to establish one Church Council there is widespread confusion in the understanding of the role of Elders, and their place in the government of the Uniting Church. However, there is a valuing of the role, and the Task Group reported strong affirmation that Elders continue to be seen as integral to the Uniting Church.

The Basis of Union Paragraph 14(b) provides for the congregation to recognise “those endowed by the Spirit with gifts fitting them for rule and oversight”. This giftedness needs to be understood in a broad sense and not be restricted to gifts of pastoral care, prayer and worship leadership (as was reflected in the majority of the responses). “Spiritual leadership” should be understood to encompass leadership in every aspect of the life of the church as congregations are built up in faith and love, and its members are sustained in hope and are led to a fuller participation in Christ’s mission in the world. This range of gifts “for rule and oversight” includes gifts in prayer, worship leadership, music, administration, strategic thinking and management or stewardship of resources. These are all gifts of spiritual oversight.

For many people, acceptance of a broader understanding of spiritual gifts and spiritual oversight will require a change of mindset, but this is necessary if the church of the 21st century is to participate more fully in Christ’s mission in the world.

The current Regulations of the UCA do not provide any guidance to congregations on the role and responsibilities of Elders. This absence needs to be addressed to provide increased clarity about the role, and to ensure a degree of uniformity in the understanding of this ministry.

3. GUIDED BY THE BASIS OF UNION

The Basis of Union makes particular reference to the role of Elders or leaders in Paragraphs 13, 14 and 15.

Paragraph 13 affirms that “the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service”. This affirmation leads on to the last sentence of this paragraph which states that “The Uniting Church will…provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them, and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission”. Neither the Basis of Union nor the Scriptures differentiate between “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” gifts, but rather all are gifts of the Spirit for the building up of the Church.

The preamble to Paragraph 14 speaks of the Uniting Church recognising women and men called of God…to share in government and to serve those in need in the world.

The first sentence of Paragraph 14(b) refers to those who, at the time of union, were appointed to exercise spiritual oversight. When looking to the future, however, this paragraph refers to “those endowed by the Spirit with gifts fitting them for rule and oversight…”It may be noted that there is no qualification or restriction in the reference to oversight.

Paragraph 15(b) refers to the council within a congregation or group of congregations. This council consists of those called to share (with the minister) in oversight. As in Paragraph 14(b) there are no restrictions on the areas of oversight.

Paragraphs 14(b) and 15(b) provide for use of the word “Elder” or “leader”.

4. CONSEQUENCES OF THE 1997 DECISION TO ESTABLISH THE CHURCH COUNCIL

It is very clear that the decision of the Assembly in 1997 to establish one Church Council was seen by many as a diminution of the Eldership in the Church. This was an unintended consequence. It left many Elders confused about their role and led to a wide variety of practice. Unfortunately many congregations no longer recognise Elders, and this has deprived them of a valuable resource.

Although some respondents to the Discussion Paper felt that the previous arrangement of a Parish Council and a separate Council of Elders was preferable to the current arrangements, there was little appetite to reverse the 1997 decisions.

5. CHANGED AND CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE UCA

At the time the Basis of Union was formulated most congregations of the UCA had a minister they could call their own. This is no longer the case, and the government of many congregations is now required to be exercised in the absence of a minister. Yet rule, oversight and spiritual leadership are still required in every congregation of God’s people.

The opportunity given to presbyteries to appoint an Associated Minister [Reg. 3.1.3 (m)] to relate to congregations without a minister in placement is being taken up in many places. In such circumstances it is appropriate for the associated minister to be a member of the Church Council.

It is not helpful to persist with structures (viz Church Council and, separately, Elders) which result in confusion of roles and a lack of clarity about how and by whom oversight is exercised.

The changed mission context, together with the shrinking and ageing profile of many UCA congregations, demands that those in leadership in the church seek fresh ways to worship, witness and serve. The changing nature of church and society requires fresh ways of offering and providing oversight of congregations.

6. RECOGNISING GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT

All baptised members have one or more gifts of the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:7).All members of the church are called to exercise their gifts within the life of the Church. Some are endowed with gifts to serve in the wider community (e.g. workplaces, or community organisations) and some are called to exercise their gifts within the life of the Church.

Just as there was a range of ways to express leadership in the first century Church so there is a range of ways of expressing leadership (what the Basis calls “rule and oversight”) in the UCA in the twenty-first century (see Romans 12:5–8, I Corinthians 12:12–31, Ephesians 4:16).

It is therefore incumbent upon all UCA congregations and faith communities to discern and call those in their midst who have gifts of the Spirit for spiritual leadership and oversight.

The range of gifts for leadership is wide and diverse, including but not limited to worship leadership, prayer, wisdom, strategic thinking, stewardship of resources, pastoral care, administration and music.

7. A PROPOSED WAY FORWARD

The Standing Committee proposes that:

(i) The UCA has an understanding that the gifts of spiritual leadership includes a variety of gifts through which members provide oversight in congregations and faith communities.

(ii) Those recognised with gifts of leadership in the Church be generally known as “Elders”, and this word be used in the UCA’s official documents.

(iii) Those congregations which may not wish to use the title “Elder” may choose another title appropriate to local context, provided that whatever title is used it embraces the functions of Elder as described in Basis Paragraph 15(b).

(iv) The Church Council is those members elected as Elders from the Congregation. Its primary responsibility is for building up the congregation in faith and love, sustaining its members in hope, and leading them into a fuller participation in Christ’s mission in the world (i.e. spiritual oversight).

(v) The Congregation and/or Church Council may establish committees or task groups as desired, and these may include members other than Elders. Such committees and task groups shall be responsible to the Church Council.

(vi) Each congregation determines the number of Elders to be elected, and hence the size of its Church Council.

(vii) Election of Elders follows a process which may include both nomination and expression of interest.

(viii) The tenure for Elders continues to be as stipulated by the nominee, and may be for a term of one to three years. The changing mission context and the changing nature of the church require the opportunity for more frequent refreshing of the councils of the Church.

(ix) Presbyteries will retain the ability to authorise variations in the model where this is considered to be in the interests of the Congregation.

8. SOME IMPLICATIONS

Under the above proposals:

a) The Church Council is composed of all of the Elders of a Congregation.

b) The Church Council is the body referred to in Basis Paragraph 15(b) as “The Elders’ or Leaders’ Meeting” and consists of the minister and those who are called to share with the minister in oversight.

c) Those whom the congregation elects as Elders are those discerned to have a level of spiritual maturity and leadership potential.

d) The Elders are to be encouraged meet for prayer, fellowship, Bible Study and mutual support, but this is not prescribed.

e) All Elders exercise leadership in the worship, witness and service of the congregation as well as through their personal life and ministry.

f) There is considerable scope for congregations to order their life – or from time to time re-order their life – to meet their own local context.

g) The way forward proposed above sets some broad parameters within which the variety of UCA congregations (large and small; rural and urban; those with a minister in placement and those which are largely dependent on lay leaders or a lay ministry team; those which are mono-cultural and those which are inter-cultural) can be organised in ways that suit the local situation.

9. REQUIRED CHANGE TO CONSTITUTION

Adoption of the proposals in this report will require amendment to Clause 19 of the Constitution, with deletion of the latter part of sub clause 19(b).

10. REQUIRED CHANGES TO REGULATIONS

The Regulations are written in such a way as to empower congregations and other councils to act in any way other than what is proscribed. Because of this, the proposals brought are formulated to provide for minimal requirements, but in a way that ensures the polity of the Church is upheld.

The proposals arising from the Report are found in Document C – 1 number 17.

11. TRANSITIONAL ARRANGEMENTS

It is recommended that if the above proposals are put in place:

➢ Those recognised as Elders shall continue to hold office for the term for which they were elected.

➢ Those who hold membership of Church Council shall continue until the congregation institutes new arrangements, but for no more than twelve months from the effective date of new Regulations.

Allan Thompson
for the Eldership Task Group

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