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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The elder as pastor

                                                                                                                                     August 23, 2013

Looking Back: The Elder as Pastor

This article appeared in the September 1973 issue of Life and Work


By Archie Mills


THE elder is also a pastor. But in the Church today the pastoral role of the eldership, for all its great potential, is limited.

The Church exists in an ‘alien’ contemporary society. This cultural condition limits what elders can do.

What Church people expect from the eldership is conditioned and coloured by everyday ‘secular’ encounters and relationships. As a result, the Church as a community figures less and less in their everyday transactions.

In home life the Church is frequently on the edge of thinking and planning for the family’s future and well-being. The Church impinges hardly at all in social life. In the thinking and philosophy of contemporary society the Church appears to be largely irrelevant.

Something of this inevitably rubs off on Church members. The relevance of the Church and the function of the eldership are not clear. A common view is that of the Church categorised as a building to which one occasionally goes, and the elders as someone who calls for a short time every three months. If the elder is admitted to the home at all, he is frequently treated to a formal politeness that forbids a real relationship and cuts off at its source the possibility that he (or she nowadays) can fulfil a pastoral function.

This is a controversial generalization. Something must be added to it. There is a central core of congregation and eldership who do have ‘a piece of the action’ – and in whose lives the Church really counts. There are some Churches where there is an alertness and an awareness of pastoral responsibility which arise out of a genuine experience of fellowship and community within the congregation. And these spill over into a caring relationship with a range of people in need. At the centre of such congregational activity are to be found some of our best elders. Such a team of minister, elders and congregation can make an impact of some social, spiritual and therapeutic significance to the people who are part not only of its own fellowship but also of the local community.


Great resources

But at present many elders feel diffident about playing a pastoral role. This may be because of the elder’s own inhibitions in this direction, his unwillingness to seem to intrude on the privacy of others, and because he feels he has no particular knowledge or skill to deal with a situation into which he is drawn. Another reason may be that he is seldom looked upon by members in his district as what social workers call a ‘resource’ person – someone with whom they could profitably share their anxieties or situations.

The ethos of the church has not always encouraged such a caring and sharing relationship, or provided the elder with pastoral insights and resources to help him play a closer pastoral role with his people. Many elders feel inhibited in their pastoral task by such things as Scottish reticence, pressure of time, personal temperament, lack of knowledge or training, and polite formalism. They may feel the members in their districts don’ expect much of them. To put it sociologically, the eldership would seem to have become traditionalised and formalised within a minister-centred institution. Yet much has been done to start changing the situation. In its comprehensive course for elders, the former Committee on Adult Christian Education began the process of inspiring the eldership to appreciate its great heritage. Now, as the adult Division of the new Parish Education Committee, it is continuing to seek ways of developing the natural skills of the people in each Kirk Session. There is a pastoral role for the eldership.

What might be offered to the elders in order to realise the potential and the pastoral resources in the eldership? These are some of the things I believe we need.


1 Training in Human Relationships: In this groups of elders would share experience and test the reality of thinking on such subjects are:

How to cope with various individual pastoral situations.

How to understand what lies behind certain kinds of personal behaviour.

How to listen in a pastoral situation.

How to make use of resources available.

How to understand their own needs and anxieties and their own reactions to the situation which has encountered them.

How to grasp the significance of the Gospel in these situations.


2 Training in group processes: This involves understanding the significance of behaviour occurring in groups, and learning how people can grow in relationship through this kinds of understanding.


3 Training in inter-group relationships: This helps towards understanding why different groups behave to each other in particular ways.

All of this, of course, should be available at every level of the Church’s life. But the Kirk Session has particular pastoral responsibility, and such resources should be available for its elders to grasp and use in their pastoral tasks. The training mentioned here is not ‘psychiatry’ It is knowing and understanding people, experience in personal and inter-personal relationships in which every members is involved every day. What is being suggested here is really a better understanding of ‘everyday’ things.

We have immense Christian resources here. All we plan would begin in the context of these spiritual resources. This context lets us consider human relationships and personal need as part of our whole being.

We must also look at our present situation and ask some important questions.

What motives lie behind asking a man (or woman) to become an elder? What does the congregation, through its minister and Kirk Session, want him for?


What do they want him to do? What do they want him to be?

On what terms are they will to accept him? How far are they willing to support him? Are they willing to investigate just what they mean by the elder’s pastoral role? What are they asking him to commit himself to? And are they willing to take on the necessary complementary side of that pastoral commitment?

When a man takes on this extension of his membership (which is what the eldership is) why does he do it? Is it because he feels he ought to do it? And what is the ‘it’ that he feels he ought to do? What is the extent of his concern? Does he realise that he has a tremendous potential which his eldership could enable him to develop? This should happen within an expanding pastoral position in the Church.

There are other things we should think about. There is a pastoral reticence in Church members which derives from a traditional minister-centred attitude. This illustrates a certain false dependency. People want the minister. There would seem to be no substitute for him in their eyes. Sometimes this is perfectly valid, for there are pastoral situations better handled by the minister.

But when a church so organises its pastoral task around one man, it becomes dependent, inefficient and unscriptural. Such an attitude leads to the pastoral potential of the elder being stifled, and acceptance of his pastoral role by the congregation is diminished.

We need changed attitudes, expectations and structures. The availability of contemporary pastoral resources would help to develop the pastoral role, not only of the eldership but of the whole people of God, the Body of Christ. The church has to seek to become the caring, sharing community so much evidenced in the New Testament.

The life of the New Testament community existed within a network of groupings – from the small group in the upper room to the large groups who responded to the preaching. This has been characteristic of the church’s life ever since. Yet most groups in the Church today are better suited to do jobs rather than reach people. They are ‘task-orientated’ rather than geared towards persons and their real needs.

Our present way of doing things carries out many valid functions, yet there is a particular need to reach people at the point of their anxiety, isolation and estrangement. They have an underlying need to belong. The Church has to create conditions within its caring fellowship under which people can be confronted by their inner feelings and resources. They have to be aware of the relationship which they can or cannot make with other persons. As a ‘community within a community,’ the Church extends through its members and its families into the local community. With a network of caring groups the Christian Church could offer fellowship, practical help, skilled understanding and an awareness of the validity of the spiritual dimensions of life and death. It should be an ‘extended family’ and sharing community. The Church is called to renewed concept of ministry, and within that concept there may develop a renewed pastoral role for the eldership.