The Book of Order says that “the Presbyterian Church (USA) shall be governed by representative bodies composed of presbyters, both elders and ministers of the Word. These governing bodies shall be called: session, presbytery, synod and the General Assembly.”
The Presbyterian Church gets its name from the Greek word PRESBUTEROUS meaning elder. The word “elder” occurs about sixty times in the New Testament and about a hundred times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
In some instances the term is used to indicate older members of the community. In other instances, however, the word is used in a more specialized fashion to designate a particular office of leadership in the Old Testament congregation and in the New Testament church.
In the Pastoral Epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus), we find mention of the basic qualities of life which are expected of church officers, including those who have been chosen to serve as “elders”. In a quite literal sense a Presbyterian church is a church governed by “elders” or to expand the definition a bit, a church with a representative form of government by elders elected by the people.
Some of our overzealous forbearers claimed that the Presbyterian form of church government was the only form for which there was a scriptural warrant and then a divinely ordained system. Today we wouldn’t claim exclusive scriptural authority for our way of doing business, but clearly we are on biblical ground.
The Presbyterian Church is unique in that it is governed by “ordained persons”, ministers of the Word and elders. Each member of a Presbyterian Church has two distinct and inalienable rights: (1) the right to elect their own minister, and (2) the right to elect elders to govern them.
The Book of Order says: “Elders are chosen by the people. Together with ministers of the Word, they exercise leadership, government, and discipline and have responsibility for the life of a particular church as well as the church at large.” (G 6.0302) Both ministers of the Word and elders are ordained – that is officially admitted to the exercise of their office.
Except for one question the affirmations that are expected from both ministers of the Word and elders at the time of their ordination are the same. Ordination is for life. A person may be an active elder – currently serving – or an inactive elder – not currently serving on the session. There is no clergy – lay division in leadership in the Presbyterian Church, but rather a mutuality of ordained persons.
A particular church (local church) is governed by the Session. “The session of a particular church consists of the pastor, or co-pastors, associate pastors, and the elders in active service.” (G 10.0100) The session of Carmel Presbyterian Church is composed of 18 elders of three classes of 6 elders each. We elect elders every year for a term of three years. The session is responsible for the mission and government of a particular church.
The Session has the power:
- to receive new members into the church
- to lead the congregation in participation in the mission of the whole church
- to provide for the worship of the people of God.
- to provide for the growth of its members and for their equipment for ministry
- to develop and supervise the church school
- to lead the congregation in ministries of personal and social healing
- to challenge the people of God with the privilege of responsible Christian stewardship
- to establish an annual budget and determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences
- to lead the congregation in discovering what God is doing in the world
- to engage in a process of education and mutual growth
- to instruct , examine, ordain, install and welcome in common ministry newly elected elders and deacons
- to delegate and supervise the work of the deacons
- to provide for the administration of the program of the church, including employment of non-ordained staff
- to provide for the management of the property of the church
- to establish and maintain ecumenical relationships
- to serve in judicial matters in accordance with the Rules of Discipline
- and finally – to keep an accurate roll of its membership.
The Session is at the center of the life and mission of a Presbyterian church.
In one sense, all of the new and continuing programs of Carmel are under Session leadership and approval. The Session, which is the official body of the church, must make all major decisions in the life of the church. Session must approve actions and plans of all other church groups and boards, and this group of dedicated men and women must take the ultimate responsibility for all church programs and property.
Much of the work of Session is carried out by committees which include elders, persons from other boards, and members of the congregation at large. These committees are concerned with issues such as Christian Education, Congregational Life, Evangelism, Church Officer Nominating, Memorials, Personnel, Property, Stewardship, Finance, and Worship. Each committee plans appropriate activities and events, proposes a budget to cover these plans, and submits plans and budget to Session for action.
What do the Trustees do? The trustees are entrusted with oversight of the physical plant and financial affairs of the church. Building maintenance, improvements, care and administration are their responsibility. In 2007 Carmel Presbyterian Church moved to a “unicameral board,” which means that the Trustee work is accomplished by the Session. These duties are now taken up by the Session committees for Finance and Property.
At Carmel Presbyterian Church the BOARD OF DEACONS is composed of 15 Deacons serving three year terms with five elected annually. The office of deacon as set forth in Scripture is one of sympathy, witness and service. The deacons are the caring heart and arms of Carmel Presbyterian Church. They are ordained, like ministers of the Word and elders, and serve on the various committees of the church. But this is merely a small piece of what they do.
In their ministry of care and compassion, the Deacons designate the mission dollars of the budget to various organizations, they make provisions of food and clothing for the needy, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, hospitalized or shut-in, and provide needed care for members within the parish.
Among their other services are arranging for the Bloodmobile and membership in the Pennsylvania Blood Bank, which makes blood available to any member of Carmel needing it (including his or her children and parents, and an emergency response fund to handle unplanned needs.
At Carmel Presbyterian Church the BOARD OF SHEPHERDS is composed of 15 Shepherds serving three year terms with five elected annually. Shepherds are an integral part of the church leadership as they help make preparations for worship, particularly communion. They visit and take chancel flowers to the hospitalized and homebound members of the congregation, and they are assigned to a district within the church, to serve that district alongside an elder and a deacon.