Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Presbyterian Outlook: Younger elders

Younger elders:
"... Why not ask every presbytery to elect one commissioner under the age of 27? Such a commissioner would have been nominated and elected by his/her own congregation and entrusted with leadership in that particular church. He would have been examined by the Session and been ordained into office. She would have voted on church school curriculum, on receiving members, and sorting through the costs of building maintenance. After serving at the GA, this young adult commissioner would give an account to that same local body of leaders. ..."
The Book of Order (G-14.0221) provides that: "... Every congregation shall elect men and women from among its active members, giving fair representation to persons of all ages and of all racial ethnic backgrounds and to persons with disabilities who are members of that congregation, to the office of elder and to the office of deacon (if used in the congregation). ..."

Many congregations, including the one where I worship, elect a high school student for a one year term on Session. This allows them an opportunity to be a part of church leadership without burdening them with a three-year commitment. The idea of ordaining youth and young adults has been around for some time. I was ordained an elder at the age of 21 in the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, and there was at least one congregation that had ordained a high school student in my presbytery. My son, who is a sophomore in high school, began a one year term on Session in early January, so he too is getting a taste of Church leadership.

One of my minor peeves is the way people tend to label them as "youth elders". There is no such office in the PC(USA). These young adults when elected, ordained, and installed to active service on a Session are elders on the same level as any who serve in a like capacity. And, like any other elder, they are elders for life.

There is not complete agreement as to whether this is a good idea or not. One substantive difficulty some have is whether a young person is ready to take on the role of spiritual leader. I have to admit that when I was ordained an elder at age 21, I was not ready to be a spiritual leader. But I had to come to grips with the concept and thus I began a process of self-examination, prayer, study, and service. Now I am of an age where I am an "elder" in the chronological sense, I have presbyopia. and my hair and beard are grey -- I am truly a presbyter. And I still know that even though I am better equipped spiritually than I was 35 years ago, I still am striving to be worthy of the calling of elder. My son is now finding his own way, and I wish him the best.

Jack Haberer's suggestion for each presbytery to send an elder under 27 to General Assembly seems to me to be a solution looking for a problem. There is currently no bar to younger elders serving as GA commissioners, and while I have no idea how many such there are, I suspect there are some commissioners each year who would also qualify as a Youth Advisory Delegate.

I can understand the issues with YADs, but they do have voice and vote in the committees, and often hold the balance of power when the issues are closely divided. Many observers have felt that as a group they are vulnerable to manipulation by special interest groups. There is no question that they are a heavily-lobbied group at General Assembly. But I am not convinced that eliminating the YADs and requiring that each presbytery send one commissioner from that age group is a viable solution. I assume that this would entail significantly increasing the number of commissioners -- otherwise smaller presbyteries would be locked into sending one minister and one youth to represent the presbytery.

One factor that complicates things was our move to biennial General Assemblies. While it was, in general, a good idea, it made it even less likely that any given Presbyterian elder would have the opportunity to serve as a GA commissioner. Short of doubling the number of commissioners, it is hard to see that situation improving. Increasing the number of commissioners could also have the effect of erasing the savings resulting from the move to biennial assemblies.

I see no reason why a younger elder should not serve as a commissioner to General Assembly, but making it a mandate would create problems of its own.

For a thought-provoking essay on how the PC(USA) might go about rebuilding itself, including dealing with the issue of youth representation, check out Beau Weston's Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment, which is made available through the Office of Theology and Worship of the PC(USA). Beau and I see things in a similar way, though I differ with him in some details of youth involvement.


Reyes-Chow said...

Thanks for the post. I actually think that we should just try to have churches that better model the demographics of the community. While I disagree greatly with some of how Beau Weston would handle some of today's ecclesiastical issues, I no long thing the best way to integrate folks is through force representation. Need at some point AND still in need of monitoring, when it comes to youth/young adults, I think having a designated only further marginalized folks. Two cents.

Denis Hancock said...

It sounds like you are leaning toward some form of "local option".

Local option may be the only thing that will keep our denomination together, if that is what we truly want. I know that even though I disagree with many of of my fellow Presbyterians, I can't imagine not being a member of the PC(USA).

Did you see the Viewpoint article on Presbyweb today? (We read Scripture differently)

His last paragraph might point a way forward not only for the issue being voted on in Atlanta that day, but for many of the issues facing us, including how to encourage/enforce representation.

Reyes-Chow said...

Not quite, more that I think designated spaces around age is just one way that we will make sure we stay older longer. It would almost be better to go ahead and create a specific elder office for Youth (under 18). When it comes to adult members of the church, I think that if we are simply more part of the communities in which they live and open to their leadership, then they participate. I think when it comes to other demographic or theological diversity issues, it is a much more complex issue to deal with.

Rev Dave said...

Bruce and Dennis:

There was a specific provision in the older chapter 14 in the Book of Order before the big rewrite two (three?) years ago specifically allowing congregations to elect people under 25 to shorter terms as elders or deacons, if the congregation desired.

This more or less established the youth elder position that Dennis is describing his son serving currently serving as elder. My internship church used the same provison to elect a youth to session for a one year term as well.

Unfortunately, that vanished in the rewrite of chapter 14, something I missed in reviewing it. Terms for elders and deacons are now three years, with no loopholes provided. I didn't pick up on it until someone asked me about the possibility of electing a youth elder here. I searched the new chapter in vain for the provision I just _knew_ was there for some time before realizing what had happened. And as most of our youth are heading off to college, electing a youth elder to a three year term seems kinda moot.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again...

Denis Hancock said...

Dave -- Funny you should mention that. I was looking for the citation to bolster a point and couldn't find it. It is on the 2005-2007 B of O, but not on the 2007-2009 edition.

Are you suggesting that such ordinations are irregular? It seems as if this is still a common practice...

Reyes-Chow said...

While I think there are places where we must be a little more direct in filling slots for diversity sake, this is not one of them. The church I serve just ordained 10 new elders with the average age of 27. To live within the 3 year term we simple said that if/when any had to resign they would simply do so. With such a young and transient group there are always great hopes of longevity that surround us, but if we can't meet them, that is okay.

Rev Dave said...


I'll leave the polity question up to the polity wonks who are wonkier than I (and I am pretty wonky). But it would be a good question to ask the Stated Clerk's Association or OGA, isn't it? Meanwhile, tell your boy to keep up the good work!

I do wonder how many people realize that that sentence or so allowing for shorter terms got removed in the revision of Chapter 14. And how many churches are still plugging along like it was there all along. I don't remember any discussion of it at the time the revisions were up for voting two years ago. The focus then was on the wisdom of taking stuff out of the BOO and putting it in the hands of the presbyteries in the form of administrative manuals regarding the ordination process. (That does bring up a question in my mind about the wisdom of making sweeping changes rather than the seemingly aggravatingly slow process of amending a portion at a time.)

I do agree with Bruce that the best work-around is to elect for three year terms and to fill the vacancies as necessary as folks move along. Which is what we do anyway with older folks.

Want to sponsor an overture to return the language?

Denis Hancock said...

Bruce -- As Rev Dave points out, the workaround you suggest may be the best way to accommodate youth who may be able to commit to one year, but not to three years.

I would be far more comfortable with a solution rather than a workaround, though. The earlier provision for elders under 25 was optional ('may' rather than 'shall). I wish that had been retained, but I understand the desire to simplify the B of O to being a true constitutional document rather than a manual for operations.

There may actually be a path to achieving the same end as the earlier provision for young people to serve. The wording of G-14.0222 states this:

"An elder serving on session, or a deacon on a board of deacons, shall be elected for a term of no more than three years, and service in consecutive terms, either full or partial, shall be limited to six years. ..."

I am not a policy wonk, nor have I done an exhaustive search of the Book of Order, but it seems to me that the three year term is an upper limit with no lower limit defined, thus providing for filling unexpired terms, equalizing class size, and perhaps allowing a young person to serve on Session.

Rev Dave said...


I thought of that section as well, but I don't know how to square it with the rest of the paragraph that goes on to describe the number of classes elected each year and that "only one of which shall [darn it, it's a shall]expire each year." It would seem that a church currently can't have different length terms of service. I'll end the polity wonking now.

I would like to add that another way of including youth in the life of the church is to encourage them to serve on committees and participate fully as possible in the worship and service of the congregation. I'm convinced we do our youth no service when we split their participation apart from the rest of the body and relegate them only to 'youth events."

Denis Hancock said...

Thanks, Dave. I guess your initial suggestion that this was one for the State Clerks to mull over was spot on.

Charles Hedrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Hedrick said...

Maybe I'm being too literal in reading 14.0222, but I don't think it prohibits youth terms. Or if it does, it also prohibits filling unexpired terms, which seems like a reductio ad absurdum.

14.0222 says that officers shall be elected in classes of equal numbers, with one expiring each year. But it doesn't say that everyone elected this year must go in the same class. We put youth into the class whose terms expire in a year.

If we are required to put everyone in the same class, then we can't fill unexpired terms. I very much doubt that this is an intended effect. I think it's best to say that the Book of Order does not specify all the details of the election process, and that Sessions and the Presbyteries that advise them have some flexibility in how they handle this.

RobeDownLow said...

I appreciate this discussion (even though I am two years late to the party). We are looking at involving some of our younger people in leadership in the church and I think language matters.

Anyway, thanks for starting the discussion. I'm a graduate of Mizzou from '96 and it's always good to hear the thoughts of someone up in Columbia.