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How to Speak Presbyterian


What is all this Presbyterian lingo?


By P. J. Southam

The mysterious jargon of Presbyspeak can baffle even longtime church members. Here’s a guide to some of the most-used terms and abbreviations:

Commissioned ruling elder (CRE). A growing number of presbyteries have programs in which ruling elders are trained to preach, lead worship, and carry out other pastoral functions. The presbyteries authorize or commission CREs (formerly commissioned lay pastors, or CLPs) to meet mission needs that cannot be met by ministers, educators, or other available leaders.

Commissioners. Representatives (a proportionate number of ministers and elders) elected by the presbyteries to serve as voting delegates to the biennial General Assembly. Rather than being instructed on how to vote at the assembly by their presbytery, the commissioners as a body seek to discern the will of the Holy Spirit.

Committees. You’re not a real Presbyterian until you’ve served on at least one of these. Committees are the primary way Presbyterians organize the work of the church, make decisions, and deal with difficult issues.

Councils: session, presbytery, synod, General Assembly (GA). These are the congregational, regional and national groups that make decisions for the church. They are composed of presbyters elected by the people. There are 170 presbyteries, each made up of a group of churches usually in a certain geographical area. The presbyteries are grouped together into 16 synods. The General Assembly meets biennially to vote on matters affecting the whole church. The term “mid councils” is used to encompass both presbyteries and synods.

Debts and debtors. When Presbyterians pray the Lord’s Prayer, we use the words debts (“forgive us our debts”) and debtors. Other Christian bodies use trespasses or sins. This is because the Lord’s Prayer is found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and in the original Greek they used two different words that mean “to sin.” In Matthew’s version, the word used means “to owe a debt,” but a debt of sin, not money.

Ecumenical bodies. These groups are made up of representatives from various Christian denominations. Among the bodies in which the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participates are the National Council of Churches (NCC), the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC).

Great Ends of the Church. A kind of mission statement, the six “great ends” (or chief purposes) of the church are outlined in chapter 1 of the PC(USA)’s Book of Order: “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world” (F-1.0304).

Manse. Many congregations own a house, called a manse, that the minister lives in. In some denominations this house is called a parsonage. The word manse comes from the Latin word mansio, which means “dwelling.”

Moderator. The person who runs a meeting of ruling elders or deacons, or a presbytery or committee meeting. In a secular club or other gathering, he or she would be called the chair or president. The moderator of a church session is usually the pastor. Each General Assembly also elects a moderator, who officiates at assembly business sessions and then serves for two years as a sort of goodwill ambassador for the denomination.

Overtures. Items of business sent by presbyteries for action by the General Assembly.

Per capita. Congregations pay an annual amount of money per church member, or per capita apportionment, to their respective presbyteries to cover the costs of church government. This includes funding for General Assemblies and other meetings, ecumenical participation, ordination exams for ministers, the Presbyterian Historical Society, and many other activities. (It does not include money for the church’s mission work.) Per capita is part of the glue that holds Presbyterians together.

Presbyterian Mission Agency. The ministry and mission arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), responsible for implementing programs and policies authorized by the General Assembly. Governed by an elected board, the Presbyterian Mission Agency has more than 300 staff, most based in Louisville, and mission personnel serving in approximately 50 countries around the world.

Reformed tradition. The theological tradition that emerged from the work of John Calvin (1509–64), John Knox (ca. 1513–72), and other reformers following the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, in contrast to Lutheran and Anabaptist theology. Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are distinguished by a theology that emphasizes God’s initiative in salvation and usually by a representative form of government.

Ruling elder. Elected by the congregation and ordained to ministry, a ruling elder serves as a voting member of the congregation’s decision-making council known as the session. They are called elders not because of age but because they are considered competent and wise enough to make good decisions. Once ordained, a ruling elder is always a ruling elder, continuing as a spiritual leader of the congregation, even when not actively serving on the session (which does have term limits).

Session. The group of active ruling elders, elected by the congregation, who make decisions for the running of the local church and serve as spiritual leaders of the congregation. In some denominations this group is called the church council. The session has responsibility and power to: provide that the Word of God be preached and heard, primarily through worship; authorize the celebration of the sacraments; receive and dismiss members; provide for the education, ordination, mission, and care of members; oversee financial stewardship and church property; and maintain discipline.

Stated clerk. The person who is elected to maintain official records of a church session, presbytery, synod, and General Assembly. The stated clerk of the General Assembly also represents the denomination in ecumenical settings and oversees the work of the Office of the General Assembly, based in Louisville, Kentucky.

Teaching elder. Also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament, teaching elders are ordained to preach and teach the faith of the church, interpret and administer the sacraments, provide for the care and mission of the people, and participate in the responsibilities of governance. Many teaching elders serve a congregation as your typical pastor, associate pastor, or youth minister. But other teaching elders serve as hospital and military chaplains, Christian educators, college ministers, mission coworkers, even church journalists. Before ordination, they go through an intensive inquiry and candidacy process of preparation, attend seminary where they earn a master of divinity, and generally do field education placements in both chaplaincy and congregational settings, as well as learn both biblical Greek and Hebrew. Though called to this special form of teaching ministry, all people are ministers in the PC(USA).

Some definitions adapted from “How to Speak Presbyterian,” by P. J. Southam (originally published by Presbyterian Survey), and The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Donald K. McKim (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

Reprint Permission

Rev. Southam gives permission for this article to be reproduced for local use — with two stipulations:

  1. No payment be charged for the reprints.
  2. Copies of the reproduction be sent him at the following address:

Rev. P.J. Southam
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church
506 W Armfield St.
St. Pauls, NC 28384