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Not just a pastor’s job


A ‘Year of Leader Formation’ helps laity step up to serve

By Rick Jones | Presbyterians Today

Graphic of man raising his armsIn the late ’90s, Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri became a member of a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation in Puerto Rico with a membership of fewer than 20 people. The congregation, the co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) recalls, had gone through a schism, and her spouse, the Rev. José Manuel, was called to be its redevelopment pastor. When the couple arrived, they discovered that there was no session, no deacons, no Christian education programs and no musicians. “Church” consisted of Sunday worship only. An administrative commission appointed by the presbytery served as the session.

“The sanctuary had worn-out rusty office chairs, a chancel without a cross and a pulpit that was falling apart,” Cintrón-Olivieri said. “The first two years were the toughest, but we pressed on, identifying those people who could serve as worship leaders, elders and deacons.”

Slowly, the work of the church began taking shape. Leaders began to emerge and the church began to grow. A church member took it upon himself to build a cross for the chancel and installed it with the help of others from the congregation. A member of a sister congregation donated the communion set. Volunteers took turns preparing the sanctuary for Sunday worship.

“Gratitude and wonder abounded, and so did frustration and discouragement,” said Cintrón-Olivieri, adding a sentiment that many Presbyterian congregations can relate to: “Doing ministry in survival mode was no easy feat.”

“Some of our members had been ‘doing church’ the same way for many years. Trying to fit what had always been done to a new reality would not work, and new ways of being church were feared,” she said. “Others got discouraged by what seemed like an enormous task or could not imagine worshiping a cappella for an extended period of time.”

Yet while it was a difficult time, Cintrón-Olivieri says it was “a period of redefining what it meant to be church in our community and a period of many firsts: first-time members, first-time leaders, first-time elders and first-time deacons.”

“If we were to succeed in this endeavor, we would have to surrender to these facts: This was God’s church, not ours; we needed to work together to move the mission forward; and we would have to commit to learning new things,” she said.

The hard work, perseverance and prayer, lots of it, paid off. By the time the administrative commission was dismissed, a four-member deacon board and a five-member session were installed to lead and serve the small congregation.

Cintrón-Olivieri often thinks back on the time in Caguas, Puerto Rico. “We were small, and we were also mighty. We made it through by the grace of God; no doubt about it.” And she knows that her experience is not an isolated one.

“Our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations are facing, and will face, many challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemics of racism and divisiveness. In the midst of it all, we have seen the Holy Spirit busy at work. This is God’s church, and whomever God calls, God empowers,” she said. But securing leadership in churches as they dwindle is not just about calling a pastor. Empowering the work of elders and deacons is needed.

Focus on formation

The specific roles that ruling elders and deacons play in the life of the church may vary between congregations, but their significance in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) cannot be overlooked. Leaders in the Office of the General Assembly are in the midst of a yearlong initiative focusing on the ecclesial formation of these leaders.

The initiative, a “Year of Leader Formation: Investing in Ruling Elders and Deacons,” incorporates a new training resource, a series of articles, a webinar series and other tools to help participants grow in the role. “As a denomination, we haven’t offered new training resources for our ruling elders and deacons for quite some time. This really goes beyond how you are prepared to serve in these roles but also how you live that out,” said Martha Miller with Ministry and Education Support in the Office of the General Assembly. “It is a continuous process focusing on relationships with God and with each other.”

The resources include, but are not limited to:

  • “Coming Alive in Christ: Trainng for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons based on the Constitutional Questions,” a multi-session resource delivered through the denomination’s online training site, Equip, that can be found at Study guides are provided for leaders to use in monthly and retreat formats.
  • “Regarding Ruling Elders: A Monthly Series for Serving Faithfully,” which consists of a series of articles with a leadership formation thread in each issue. Issues are posted through the Presbyterian News Service, on the ruling elder webpage, and with a searchable archive of past issues available in Equip.
  • Three webinars covering topics of interest to both ruling elders and deacons. The recording of the first webinar, “Discovering Our Gifts,” is available on the “Year of Leader Formation” webpage.

A lifetime of learning

“When we think of faith development, we tend to think of it focusing on children and young people, but all of us are continually developing, growing,” said Miller. Jihyun Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly, agrees, adding that learning to lead is a “lifelong journey and formation process.”

The Rev. Tim Cargal, manager of Ministry Preparation and Support for Mid Council Ministries in the Office of the General Assembly, sees the importance of leadership formation growing especially as there is more fluidity between denominations and even faith traditions in American society.

“One consequence of this movement is that people with excellent skills and gifts for ministry leadership in our PC(USA) congregations and worshiping communities may not also have significant knowledge about and experience with what makes our reformed understanding of the Christian faith and community practice distinctive,” he said. “While we certainly want to be open to what we can learn about God’s mission in the world from others, we also need to be sure our leaders have training to enable them to bear witness to the world of the Presbyterian and Reformed understanding of God’s mission.”

Cargal says one of the primary contributions of Reformed and Presbyterian theology to the global church has been its insistence that ministry is not the exclusive domain of clergy and priests.

“In their baptism, God calls and enables all Christians for the work of ministry. And in recognition of specific gifts, some people are called forward within faith communities to help discern what God’s mission is for that time and place (ruling elders) and to lead in ministries of compassion and justice (deacons) in the furtherance of that mission,” he said.

Cultural contexts considered

The highlighted resource, “Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons,” includes a monthly leader guide for use during meetings of the session and deacons throughout the year with each month diving deeper into one of the constitutional questions. The resource is available in English with plans to provide a culturally translated version in Spanish and Korean in the future. Rather than providing a direct translation, this method will take into account the different cultural contexts of Spanish- and Korean-speaking congregations.

The Rev. Rosa Miranda, associate for Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support in the Office of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, says this is an encouraging first step. “It is my hope that in this process we may learn ways that might be adapted to other contexts to connect and bring together leaders and faith communities isolated or in the margins,” she said.

The collaboration includes the National Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Caucus and the Intercultural Congregational Hispanic Latina Office.

While the “Year of Leader Formation” is taking place in 2021, Miller says the initiative, while timely, wasn’t structured around the pandemic. “It’s really about relationship and formation and what it means to be a Presbyterian leader.”

Opportunities for continued formation are expected to continue beyond 2021. Cintrón-Olivieri encourages all to take part in this formation. “I encourage you to advocate for leadership formation and to care for and invest in your own education as a leader or officer of the church. Empowered leaders empower,” she said.

Rick Jones is director of communications for the Office of the General Assembly. Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri contributed to this article.

Learn more

Resources for the “Year of Leader Formation: Investing in Ruling Elders and Deacons,” including the new resource “Coming Alive in Christ: Training for PC(USA) Ruling Elders and Deacons based on the Constitutional Questions” and the “Year of Leader Formation” hymn “Each Christian Has a Calling,” are available at

Three leadership lessons learned

By Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri
  1. We serve God and the people in shared ministry. One of the characteristics of our Reformed Theology that is present in Presbyterian governance is the priesthood of all believers. Ministry is for the whole body of Christ. As the Book of Order in G-2.0101 states, “The basic form of ministry is the ministry of the whole people of God, from whose midst some are called to ordered ministries, to fulfill particular functions. Members and those in ordered ministries serve together under the mandate of Christ.” We serve together, and Christ is our leader. In the case of that small church in Puerto Rico that my husband and I were serving, ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament in other congregations volunteered to help out a sister congregation in need.
  2. Continued, thorough training of new (and not-so-new) officers is key. Elected ruling elders and deacons are required to undergo training before being examined by the session and being ordained or installed (see the Book of Order, G-2.0402), yet I have witnessed in some church settings that the training is minimal and sporadic. I have heard ruling elders define their service in the session as they would define their service in a board of directors with little to no understanding of their spiritual role in the congregation or their call to discernment as well as governance. I have heard deacons describe their service as a minor, less important role in the ministry of the church, seeing themselves as “third-class” church officers. In general, the church needs to do better in affirming we are all called to service, and each person has a unique role to play in the ministry of the church. There is no “preferential call” nor hierarchy in our governance. We are called by the Holy Spirit to ministry in different ways with different functions, all important in the community of faith. One of my favorite quotes in the Directory for Worship (W-5.0204) describes pastoral care. The third paragraph states, “All members are called to take part in the ministry of pastoral care, visiting the sick, supporting the weak, and comforting those who mourn.” A careful reading of the Directory for Worship will shed light in many areas ruling elders and deacons are able to contribute to the life of the church, from leading or participating in worship and other services, to exercising pastoral care, to teaching and also preaching, when asked to do so, among other areas. Pastoral leadership models have been changing. Small congregations, which are in the majority in our denomination, benefit from well-trained and involved leaders who serve alongside full- or part-time ministers of the Word and Sacrament or Commissioned Ruling Elders.
  3. Rethink priorities: Do we really need to do what we have always done? If we have learned something as a church from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is to rethink, reassess, establish priorities and redefine who we are in the here and now. Congregations have taken inventory of resources available and considered not what has always been done, but what can be done at this time with the resources available. For example, studying the Bible is of utmost importance in a community of faith, yet Sunday school, as it has been done in the past decade, will possibly be ineffective in our context now. Are there other ways to provide for the responsible study of the Bible? Looking at the organizational structure of the congregation, does a 12-member session make sense right now? A nominating committee may be struggling to “fill slots,” and is that really what’s desired? Could a nine-member session work? Our session then had five members, including the pastor. That was it. Rethinking these areas was the only option. Thorough training, along with mentoring, was key. It paid off. Witnessing new elders and deacons lead worship for the first time, or step away from of their comfort zones to lead a class, was a joy to behold.

Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri is an educator and a Presbyterian ruling elder. A member of First Spanish Presbyterian Church in Miami, she has most recently served as co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018).

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