My copy of a new Church of Scotland publication arrived in the mail this week. Their new book for training elders as part of the Learn program is simply titled Learn Eldership and it has been a best seller with pre-orders selling out the first press run in three weeks.
The list price with St. Andrew Press, the publishing arm of the Kirk, is £10.00, but you can get it for £7.00, or less in volume, by going through the Resourcing Mission site. The publication date is this Tuesday, March 2, but these distribution channels shipped as soon as they had it in stock. However, the postage to ship it outside the UK could more than double the cost of the book if, like me, you live on the other side of the world. However, I see that Amazon is taking pre-orders for the release this coming Tuesday so that will mean lower-cost shipping for many of us.
There are very good reasons that this 75-page book quickly became a best seller — from a design and structure point of view it is one of the best books for training ruling elders that I have seen. The flow of the book is logical beginning with an Introduction (think of it as the “what am I getting myself into” talk), a section on the Fundamentals like the Bible, creeds and prayer (contextually like the PC(USA) has created the new Foundations section of the Book of Order), and it then talks about Understanding the Kirk and Serving the Kirk.
While it has this flow the articles in it are short, easily read, and written by a wide variety of experienced leaders. And each article is pretty much self-contained and they do not need to be read in any particular order. For example, here is the article on Pastoring the Parish:
Now, I realize that the quality of a book on Eldership should not just be about the layout and typeface but about the content and relevance. Again, this struck me as a good resource from that perspective. For starters, while the articles are easy and short reads it is clear this is only a starting point. In the photo above you can see in the lower right corner two blocks. One is Questions for discussion (e.g. “In what ways can you develop pastoral care within your congregation?”). The other shown is Why not try…, in this case “Why not try… hosting a lunch for interested individuals in the congregation to discuss the pastoral care provision?”
While not shown in this example, most of the articles also have a Further Reading section as well and the checking of those that I have done show that frequently the listed readings are a mix of recognized academic titles (from such sources as Yale University Press and Blackwell) and ones from publishers of more popular titles (e.g. IV Press and Zondervan).
But what I found most attractive about this book is that while it covers the essentials of church governance about the place of the session and the other courts of the church, it really seems to put the main focus on the spiritual and pastoral duties of a ruling elder. Sections about hospital visits, caring for the bereaved, and missional thinking are examples of the nice variety of material that deals with practical ministry aspects of being a ruling elder.
In some ways the attraction of the book is also its greatest weakness. The articles are so bite-sized that for some of the articles I found myself wanting just a wee bit more, but not enough that I would want to go to the trouble of seeking out the additional resources to beg, borrow or buy. But this is probably a product of the target for the book of using it in the Learn program. It is designed to be used in a group setting so it is not as much a handbook as a companion piece and conversation starter and the speaker or group can help fill in the details.
The one section that I wish was in there would be one specifically on the elder tending to his or her own spiritual development. Yes, there are suggestions in the section under the Bible and prayer, as well as mentioned as part of the work of the session. But I think it is an important enough aspect of the work of the elder to deserve more focused discussion. My opinion – your mileage may vary.
And finally, it must be mentioned that the book does reflect the theological circumstances that the Church of Scotland finds itself in at the moment. This is probably best encapsulated in the section on the Westminster Confession where it talks about it being a subordinate standard but only on points regarding “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith.” But an attempt to bring greater clarity to that in the past did not make significant progress and so there is not agreement on those points. It acknowledges that within the Kirk are those that see the Westminster Confession setting a “definitive expression of the faith of the Kirk,” for others it is a “significant document in the development of Reformed theology, and one worthy of ongoing reception,” and finally those that see the document as “highly anachronistic and/or simply erroneous in its theological views.” The good news is that while the doctrinal and the few polity sections must navigate this maze, the many pastoral and ministry sections usually do not impinge on these debates. It is left as an exercise for the reader to keep this situation in mind regarding sections that might have been influenced by these circumstances and sections that might also have been omitted.
So in the pantheon of elder training material where does this one fit? It deals more with spiritual shepherding and much less with governance than The Presbyterian Ruling Elder: An Essential Guide. And it has a clearly different focus than Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders and Blood on Every Page. For many the standard is the 19th century classic by David Dickson, The Elder and His Work, (recently reissued). That is a great source of practical advice in a conversational style and while some may suggest that the style of visitation coached in that book is a relic of a bygone era, I would suggest that there may still be something to it – but I digress. This present work under consideration is a broader and less focused work than that. I do believe that this work comes close to my favorite, the Equipping Elders material from the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Equipping Elders is not as graphically appealing but I have found it to be a great mix of the theoretical and practical and is therefore packed with more information than Learn Eldership. And the electronic version is a free download so you can’t be the price.
Bottom line for Learn Eldership: Easy reading and practical material in good short pieces. A ruling elder with soon want more on these topics – be it reading or coaching – but it makes a good starting point and a wonderful overview of the responsibilities an active elder.