Richard R. Gerber
Presbyteries give a gift to every group being received as a mission work. As a presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church responds affirmatively to the request of a group of people asking to be received as a mission work, its first thought is to give it the gift of a body of elders.
These elders serve both the presbytery and the new mission work. They are the presbytery's representatives, given to help the young church develop into a mature congregation. They provide the spiritual care and oversight needed by members of a mission work. When an organizing pastor is brought onto the scene, he joins them in taking care of God's church.
Sometimes the entire session of a local church in another community is appointed by the presbytery to be the overseeing session. Sometimes several members from the same session are appointed for that purpose. But more frequently individual elders and ministers from various congregations are appointed to serve as an overseeing session.
Selecting Elders for an Overseeing Session
How does a presbytery home missions committee find elders to serve? Elders who are geographically proximate to the mission work may serve more easily than those at a greater distance. Elders who are not already carrying heavy workloads may have more time to serve. But not every elder is suitable to serve a mission work. Those who serve best usually have these four characteristics:
1. He has a heart for the extension of the church. He shows interest in the church-planting efforts of the presbytery. He is involved in outreach and evangelism in his own congregation.
2. He has usually served as an elder in more than one congregation. He has experience working with several pastors and sessions and has learned that there is more than one way to do something in the OPC.
3. He is able to think conceptually about the church. He has demonstrated within his session and presbytery that he is able to understand a situation or solve a problem within the church, even though he has not faced it in his own experience.
4. He has a servant's heart. Much time and energy will be required for this work. He will usually maintain oversight responsibilities in his own congregation while taking on even greater ones with the new mission work. Unless he has demonstrated a sacrificial, servant attitude in his present oversight responsibilities, his service as a borrowed elder will usually not be effective.
Structuring an Overseeing Session
A new mission work, even with all the things it lacks, is an infant congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Its members are members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Its needs are those of any body of Christ, however youthful or immature it may be. So the elders who have been assigned to provide oversight are to care for all the members and their families individually.
But they also care for the emerging body as a new corporate entity. The new group's small size and lack of organization do not make it any less a church, nor should the care provided by the overseeing session be any less formal or intensive. In fact, because the new church needs much help to develop the right patterns and practices, it usually takes more time and energy to provide care for a mission work than it does for an organized congregation.
The overseeing session should meet regularly and separately. Good patterns should be set for the new church from its earliest days. The session of a mission work should organize itself formally, with a moderator and a clerk. Regular, announced meetings should be held on the site of the new church. There is much work to do, which will be discussed below, and biblical patterns of review and control must be established. Vital to this is setting in place a good system of record keeping. Session minutes and a membership roll must be maintained from the earliest days.
The overseeing session should know the flock. One of the main difficulties initially faced by the borrowed elders is that they do not know the people well. It is vital that a system be established early on of regular, intentional visits by the members of the overseeing session. Some of these can be on the Lord's Day, but it is also important for them to spend time with the individual members of the mission work at other times as well. Individual elders should visit member families in their homes to become acquainted with them, to learn of their abilities and their needs, and to encourage them.
The overseeing session should constantly remember its unique, temporary task. The overseeing session of a mission work has a delicate task. It is working itself out of a job even as the need of the mission work for wise oversight increases. The elders are keenly aware that they are providing spiritual guidance and direction to believers who have not chosen them or called them to that task. The work of this session is different. It involves setting patterns, developing maturity, and identifying leaders. And it is temporary, lasting only until the new body of Christ reaches sufficient maturity to be able to choose its own officers wisely.
The Work of an Overseeing Session
The borrowed elders must recognize that the mission work is a church itself. It is developing a separate identity as a body of Christ. The elders have specific shepherding responsibilities for the spiritual care of the members of a mission work. They also provide care and encouragement to the organizing pastor.
The overseeing session prepares prospective new members, examines their professions of faith, and receives them into membership. The elders seek to build good working relationships and mutual respect with the people. Problems of a disciplinary nature arise in every congregation. A mission work is no different. So an overseeing session must be prepared to take the time required to instruct and correct effectively.
The session oversees the ministry of the pulpit and the administration of the sacraments. It develops sound, biblical, and acceptable guidelines for worship.
The session seeks to promote the spiritual growth of the people. Working in conjunction with the organizing pastor, the session must develop sound ways of discipling men, women, and children and infusing the Reformed faith into the life and work of the church. Sunday school, family visitation, congregational prayer, Bible studies, youth programs, and discipling ministries are all involved.
The development of outreach and evangelism ministries is vital. Working in conjunction with the organizing pastor, the session must develop ministries and programs of outreach that will enable the young church to reach out into its community with the gospel and to make its ministry known.
Ministries of mercy and concern must be set in place. Working in conjunction with the organizing pastor, the session must provide opportunities for the Holy Spirit's work in the lives of members to take the forms of caring for the needy and performing deeds of kindness.
On top of all that, the session must be concerned with how a myriad of administrative matters are being handled. Are two people counting and recording the offerings? Are the bills being paid on time? Are financial reports being presented in a timely fashion? Is the worship room conducive to worship? Are the setup and the breakdown being handled in an effective manner that does not burden only a few? How are bulletins and other materials being produced? Are they effective and attractive?
In every area of this new church's life, patterns are being established. There are no long-established procedures that require only occasional attention. The overseeing elders need to be involved and vigilant in every area of the church's ministry and life.
Overseeing elders are sacrificial servants, indeed! By God's grace, the OPC has planted many new congregations in the past two decades. Thank God for the multitude of elders who have served on the overseeing sessions of these mission works. Ask God to continue to provide faithful elders to serve in this demanding ministry. Pray that God would sustain them in their arduous labors.
The author is associate general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. This article is based on material in Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (CHMCE, 2008). Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2010.