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April 3, 2017

Session: Board Room or Upper Room?


Can you relate?

I have worked in 6 different Presbyterian churches as a lay person, then as a Pastor since the early 1990s. I have been attending Session meetings monthly since I was 25 years old soThat all adds up to over 170 Session meetings! I am guessing that some of you might have attended a fair amount of Session meetings yourselves. I have learned a few things along the way about myself, about the way most Sessions operate and about effective spiritual leadership- I’d like to share my experience with you and see if you can relate.

In my first call out of Seminary, fresh and idealized about church ministry, I eagerly joined the Session in the leading of the church. I was excited to gather with Godly men and women who had been called and equipped to serve the church as elders. I felt proud of these elders who had stepped up to serve church with their precious time and talents (without any monetary compensation such as I was receiving).

During my first year of my first call, I began feel like something was missing in the way that we functioned as a Session and the way we led the church. I talked to other Pastors and elders who felt the same way about their Sessions and I began to wonder what this tension I was feeling might be about.

Back in 1999, I providentially came across a book to help me explore the tension I was feeling: “Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders” by Charles Olsen.

Stirring of the Spirit

Reading the book must have made me feel like I was doing something to ease the disconnect I was feeling between my life of faith and the corporate efficiency of Session. But, I am sorry to say, that the busyness of my first call, left the book collecting dust on my shelf for many years. I shoved away the stirring of the Spirit which was inviting me to see a new way of doing church leadership and instead chose to go with the status quo and fill the role I was expected to fill.

Sixteen years later, the Spirit has stirred again which has inspired me to begin again. I have learned, the hard way, that my effectiveness as a church leader, depends primarily on the nurture of my own soul in Christ. I have studied many books on Leadership which have given me some good tools in my Leadership tool box, but the “missing piece” was a deep spiritual formation linked with my leadership skills.

Charles Colsen (with a grant from the Lily Foundation) did years of research and interviews with church board members who had a deep hunger to do Session differently, but didn’t know how. Colsen and his team use a term I love: “worshipful work” to describe the link between our faith and our leadership. He prays for the Church to:

See a future when Sessions function out of the heritage of a rich faith tradition rather than out of the latest fad in management circles.

  • I see Sessions inspired and inspirational to the congregations they lead
  • I see people growing and healing and forming a deep faith at the tables of their meetings
  • I see meetings so alive that they seem shorter rather than longer than they actually are
  • I see congregations being transformed by the impetus their Sessions create
  • I see elders being schooled in an avenue of discipleship that will lead them into lay ministries in other sectors outside the church

I love his vision! This vision leads us to ask these important questions…

Board Room or Upper Room?

Does your Session function like a corporate board meeting? Relating to one another as business colleagues who have a task to accomplish? Relying on your agenda and Robert’s Rules of Order ?

Could your Session function more like the Upper Room? Relating to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ who encourage and pray for one another? Relying on the movement of the Holy Spirit and listening for God’s agenda?

As I have worked with ECO churches in ELI, Discipleship Initiative and Becoming a Flourishing Church I have seen elders and Sessions change the way they work together. As they lean into a “worshipful work” model, they are experiencing growth as disciples, soul-satisfying true community, life-giving meetings and a church that is flourishing in new ways. In the Upper Room, the Holy Spirit flows freely and the disciples are guided and filled by the Spirit to do the Lord’s work together.

ECO invites you to journey with your Session and church leadership towards the Upper Room.

Rev. Lisa Johnson
Director of Lay Leadership Development

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