January 26, 2104, I Corinthians 12:4-11
This morning we are ordaining two and installing four new Ruling Elders. A few years ago Presbyterians changed our terminology for this office; before the change these people were simply elders. Now they are Ruling Elders and ministers or pastors are called Teaching Elders. The terminology is important, it reflects our understanding of how the church should be managed and governed. One of the incoming elders when he heard the new term said, “I want an inauguration!” Later he asked for a scepter. Here’s a walking stick, it’s the best I could do.
When we ordain and install new officers we ask them to answer 9 questions. Eight of those questions are answered by all three types of officers: Deacons, Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. We hold the service of lay people in very, very high regard.
We also believe in the living, dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. Three different times in the nine questions the Holy Spirit is mentioned. I want to go into a little more depth about the Holy Spirit this morning. When we elect ruling elders and deacons we elect individuals. We do not elect people who represent a particular agenda. It’s not like the church has political parties. We elect individuals, from our membership, whom we know and trust to vote their consciences on the important matters facing the church’s life. That means two things—Presbyterians do not allow proxy voting, nor do we permit instructing delegates how to vote on particular issues. Because we believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and dynamic, we believe it is present in the debate and deliberation of the various voices on the Session. Someone who has not been present for the debate would be unable to change his or her mind because of it. I have personally had the experience of changing my mind after listening to debate. Upon hearing a viewpoint that was new to me I have understood the issue in a new way, and thanks be the Holy Spirit, changed my mind. Every two years before General Assembly meets, there is a training event for the delegates from our Presbytery. They are the ones who vote on proposed changes to the Book of Order and other important topics in the life of the national Presbyterian church. They are oriented, but never instructed.
When we talked about this at orientation for new elders Tuesday night I really stressed that the congregation trusts its leaders. Then we began the Session meeting with a discussion of the New Testament lesson for this morning. We need variety. We need all kinds of gifts. And if everyone had the same gift the church would simply be boring. Variety is the spice of life and all that. But I want to take this idea a step farther this morning. Not only is it beneficial to have a variety of opinion and viewpoints—it can dangerous not to have variety. Researchers have studied how groups make decisions. The groups that make the best decisions are those that have a wide variety of experience, perspective and opinion. So let me tell you about the variety on your Session. We have 16 people on Session—and there’s room for two more! There are 9 women and 7 men. They range in age from 15 to over 80 years old. One has been a member of this church for 49 years, two are products of the most recent confirmation class and have been members less than one year. Two Ruling Elders are not citizens of the United States. But that’s just the visible variety of Session members. Each person has lived a distinct life and has had different experiences of following the Risen Christ. Each person has been given an array of gifts by God—and today’s lesson says those gifts are to be used for the common good. Think about that, I have been thinking about it a lot recently. How can I use this gift for the common good? Sometimes I rephrase that question, what good is this gift? Another aspect of our gifts is that usually other people are better at recognizing our gifts than we are ourselves. Which means that accepting a call to serving the church puts people in situations where they can begin to recognize and use gifts they might not have known they had before. Which is another way of saying that it is a way to grow in faith.
I said a minute ago that it is dangerous not to have a variety of opinions. Retired U.S. Army colonel Greg Fontenot has studied military decisions that have led to catastrophe—like the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba while John Kennedy was president. What the colonel found is that some groups are so tight, so insular that they engage in what is now called “Group Think.” They can only see the brilliance of their own idea and reach important decisions in an effective echo chamber. Too much cohesion and too little variety means that hazards and potential pitfalls and difficulties are overlooked. The army’s response to this situation is called “Red Team University.” Colonel Fontenot trains soldiers in all fields to see what no one else sees, to raise questions no one else is asking, to use a perspective that no one else has. Occasionally you hear someone sharing an opinion that he doesn’t agree with, but thinks is worthy of consideration as playing the Devil’s Advocate. It’s an unfortunate term to use in church perhaps, but is a role that groups need because people make mistakes. We’re human, flawed, fallen, limited. Even groups of people united in their common desire to serve Christ through the church are human, flawed, fallen and limited. Sometimes, even with the best of intensions we hurt people. And we don’t always have the best of intentions because we’re human, flawed, fallen and limited.
The solution to the peril of Group Think is variety. We need other people who see the world in ways that we do not. And we need to create environments where they can safely and freely contribute their opinions, viewpoints and perspective for the common good. This is really hard, but essential. And this is what we ask our ruling elders and deacons to do. To be open and responsive to new ideas, to listen attentively to people whose experience is different from ours.
We got at this on Tuesday night when we went through the questions of ordination. This one, “will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love?” is very important to us. We put those words into our mission statement because they are inspiring and challenging. I’ll talk a little more about them next week too. But for now, I want to close with what this promise means to our new ruling elders. One said that energy means “excitement.” There’s movement is this idea. Another said that imagination means “creativity and freshness,” while we don’t like the cliché it means thinking outside the box. Another elder defined love as “family.” And love in families is about loyalty, commitment and acceptance not necessarily about being happy with the other members of the family all the time, but staying together. I loved what the new ruling elders said about intelligence. But first let me tell you what they didn’t say—they didn’t say that intelligence meant a high IQ and being super smart. Intelligence means to be willing to learn other people’s perspectives and to come to the meetings prepared.
These two need to be together. Reading the material before the meeting means each person can form his or her own opinion on the decisions the Session will make. But that is balanced by listening to the conversation and opinions of others as well. The Holy Spirit is an important part of this process. Sometimes when ideas crash into each other new and better ideas emerge. A conversation among committed, passionate leaders with different perspectives can lead to really, really good ideas. I had this happen Thursday. I’ve invited Mariana Berbert to preach on February 16. She has so much to share about her faith in Christ and as we have talked and offered opinions and insight to each other we find—always—that our conclusions are better and more profound than the thought we had alone. There is a dynamism or maybe synergy in our conversations that is real, and completely unpredictable. We laugh a lot at these discoveries, and we are thankful for them. We’re better Christians together.
We’re better together. Every one of us has been given gifts [which Paul calls “manifestations of the Spirit”] to use for the common good. You have selected wise, varied leaders to lead you in following Jesus Christ here in this place. We thank God for their gifts and their willingness to serve, and we trust God to continue to equip them, as together, we seek to serve Jesus Christ, from the Heart of Oshkosh with energy, intelligence, imagination and love. Amen.