The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil. Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
In preparing this devotion I refreshed my memory around some of the descriptions in the New Testament about how the early Church was organised. There is plenty about relationships within the community, and about how the early Christians were expected to behave, but relatively little about how it might be led. Peter clearly has a leading role in the opening chapter of Acts, but as the Church grew it must have developed new models of leadership with some being called to lead, not just follow. These verses from 1 Timothy (which probably wasn’t written by Paul) set out some of the qualities that such people should have – though, depressingly, the prominent role of women in the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament seems to have been airbrushed out.
These verses refer to Bishops (or ‘overseers’ in some translations) and Deacons (or ‘servants’). Frustratingly, there are no job descriptions attached for us to check whether the duties the URC Manual assigns to Elders are aligned to either role! But most of the characteristics seem to work well for us.
Having been a serving Elder for the last 18 years, I am struck by the contrasts with leadership roles in my life as a civil servant; there is more listening in being an Elder, for example – listening for God, listening to each other, listening to the wider congregation. Unlike a leadership position at work, being an Elder isn’t a promotion, it is simply another form of service. And unlike any promotion exercise I’ve ever run, potential candidates tend to reflect long and hard before allowing their names to go forward!
Let us pray for those we call to be Elders that they may feel able to accept this call to serve God and their local churches in this ministry.
We give thanks for our Elders; faithful women and men who answer the call to serve. May they be kind and constructive in challenge; concerned and supportive in care; bold and inventive in mission. We pray that they may know the value of their service, feel able to lay their responsibilities down at the right time, and unlock the gifts and service of others, so that together we may build the Kingdom of God. Amen.
Gordon Woods is an Elder of St. Columba’s URC, Oxford.