“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). This is the key verse for the two orders of elder in the PCA, ruling and teaching. Consider for a moment the title of Ruling Elder. The word “rule” in 1 Timothy 5:17 literally means “to stand before” in the original Greek. It also can be translated “to care for, to give aid, and to lead” (Thayer’s Lexicon). The duty of elders is to be out front leading the flock of God, which is a part of shepherding. Shepherds with a plan can better lead a congregation.
A synonym for “elder” in the New Testament is the word “overseer” which means one who is charged to see that things are done right. It also has a meaning of looking after, and caring for. It is interesting that both root words for rule and oversee include the concept of caring and looking after the affairs of others. The spiritual oversight of the members of the church is the elders’ responsibility. Shepherds who have planned well will know what they are called to oversee.
In thinking about the phrase “rule well” and what that means for the elders serving as a Session, it would seem they need to have a strategic plan that would describe how ruling well would look. As leaders in the church, they need to be integrally involved in planning the course and direction of the church’s ministry. This will involve following the instruction of Paul to the Corinthians regarding worship that “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
The question is, “How do they rule well?” One has to turn to 1 Thessalonians 5:12 where Paul instructs the believers, “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” The honor comes as the elders “labor among” the people. They are to be loved “because of their work.” The Session of the church must not act as a board of directors, which simply makes decisions and pronouncements regarding the programs of the church. To do so puts them in danger of ruling in a hierarchical and dictatorial manner. This also leads to power struggles in churches, and sets groups against one another. They can only rule well as they live and labor among people, by getting to know them and their needs, and by getting involved in their lives.
If you look at Chapter 12 of the BOCO you will find a description of the duties of the Session, the first being “to inquire into the knowledge, principles and Christian conduct of the church members under its care.” Session members cannot fulfill this duty unless they have a plan to effectively accomplish this inquiry. Notice that the word “care” is used to describe the relationship of the Session to the members.
As you read the remaining list of duties you will quickly see that the Session will need to plan how they are going to fulfill each of these duties. The Session must plan how to divide among themselves the labors for which they are responsible. They must also delegate and appoint others to assist in the ministry. This helps in the development of the Body by utilizing their spiritual gifts. In order for Session members to make right decisions about the ministry of their church they will need to know the spiritual gifts and graces of their people. Elders can know these things only as they personally interact with the members of the congregation. The Apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian elders how he ministered not only publicly, but also from house to house while he was with them. Such household ministry almost seems a thing of the past in many churches today. One reason may be that Sessions fail to plan for such ministry.
Whenever the Session involves itself in the process of planning, they should model the teaching of James 4:13-15: “Those who say that tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make profit-yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” This puts planning in the proper perspective of God’s will and allows Him to dispose of our plans and their results Proverbs 16: 1,9. This doesn’t mean that leaders should not plan, but they should be open to the Lord’s leading them through his Spirit and Word, and through prayer. Read Acts 16:6-10 for another example of being open to the Lord’s leading in the planning process.
The elders must remember that they are members of the congregation and as such they and their family must be actively participating in the various ministries. This is another aspect of “ruling well.” If the programs of the church have no value to the Session and their families, why would you expect it to have value to the other members of the Body? Remember 1 Thessalonians 5:12; it is only as leaders work hard among the people that the people will show honor and respect. When Sessions often think they are delegating they are really dictating, and not willing to show a servant’s heart.
Planning becomes a must for them to be effective and efficient in their ministry of leadership. In planning, the Session must practice and model the process then they must include others in the congregation to join them by exercising their spiritual gifts. If the Session is a good model, it will encourage the ministry committees of the church to listen and follow their example in planning the various programs of the church. This allows for shared leadership and also servant leadership. To grow up into the fullness of the stature of Christ means that each part of the Body, each ligament, must do its part, Ephesians 4:16.
Whenever the Session sets out to make plans for the future, they must take great care to give themselves to earnest and fervent prayer that the Lord would grant wisdom and power to carry out their plan for His glory. I think you will find that in many non-growing churches the Session does not have a sense of purpose nor a plan for ministry. The church carries on the same activities year after year without knowing why they do what they are doing, and no one ever evaluates the activities because there is no strategic plan to measure results. Moses led, ruled, and cared for the nation of Israel, because he knew God’s plan and followed it. The Lord left a plan for his disciples when he ascended into heaven (Acts 1:8).
Finally, the Session must remember the words of Hebrews 13:17. There the writer commands believers to obey leaders and submit to them, because they (leaders) will have to give an account for watching over the souls of believers. That accountability should highly motivate elders to be careful to plan and to fulfill their duties as set forth in BOCO chapter 8, and 12. These two chapters should be read on a regular basis at Session meetings.