Officer Training for the NEXT Church

Officer training needn’t be like this.

by Tom Are, Jr.

They said “yes,” which is no small thing. They had been asked to serve as Elders in my congregation… a three year commitment. It would mean a lot of meetings, more than a few conversations, a growing “to-do list” and perhaps some debate. They would be asked to provide leadership for the church in a time when it is hard to discern the best direction to move. So, they would need training: Officer Training.

They had ordination questions to answer about Confessions and doctrine and would make commitments to do nothing less that work for the reconciliation of the world! That’s a pretty big job.

When I began teaching Officer Training over twenty years ago, I was pretty clear regarding the purpose. They needed to know about these Confessions they would promise to be guided by. They needed to be able to articulate a doctrine of scriptural authority and confess scripture as holy revelation. They needed to know about synods and commissions and that serving in “governing bodies” meant they would go to Presbytery.

It is a lot to learn; a lot to know. And to my pleasant surprise, because these were the types that would say “yes” to being an elder, they kept coming to officer training and telling me how “interesting” the classes were.

Mission accomplished, right?

Nope.

I blew it, to tell you the truth.

Where did I get the impression that being a disciple of Jesus was primarily a matter of knowing the right information? Oh, I know, we don’t say it that way. We say it’s important to have good theology. Or believe in essential doctrine. Some might even say it’s a matter of knowing the truth.

I like knowing the truth, when it can be known. My shelves are filled with theology, both the formal and informal kinds. Doctrine matters to me. But, when Jesus was asked what’s the most important thing in our lives, he didn’t say, I have some things I want you to think about. He said, love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus was essentially relational.

I have changed my mind, my heart and my ministry. The church is not the church because we think the right things. We are not the church because we have found the right language to describe the difference Jesus makes in the world. Jesus does not come simply into our heads. The truth is, he doesn’t come into our hearts either….that’s far too narrow. He comes into our relationships.

So, in Officer Training we still gather around the scriptures and the Confessions but it’s not simply to gain information. It is to discover a new lens through which we learn to see ourselves and one another. After all, our primary offering and witness to a hurting world is not information we have, but love we give. It was Jesus who said, “They” shall know that you belong to me by your love for one another. Now in Officer Training in addition to learning doctrine, they learn to be a friend among their colleagues in ministry.

It’s not rocket science—the truth is, my approach to Officer Training might not seem any different than before if you weren’t paying attention. We just spend more time telling our own stories, praying together for the church and one another. We spend time exploring not only the Confessions of the saints who have gone before, but offering our own “confessions” working to find the language to describe what God is doing among us. It’s pretty simple, but it has made a difference.

We asked newly elected officers to share about their faith journey. They spoke of their grandmothers and youth leaders and Montreat. A few mentioned moments in worship and others mentioned the birth of children or trips in nature. But recently when some of these were asked the same question after they had completed their time of service: “Tell us about an important moment in your faith journey,” they mentioned serving on the Session together. That’s no small thing.

Tom Are is pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, KS and is co-chair of NEXT.

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