What does an elder do, anyway? How does one “eld?”

My background growing up in church was anything but formal.  It started in Fulton Church, the church my grandfather pastored and I grew up in.  When he arrived there in 1962, they rustled up everyone and their brother and had all of 22 people show up for his first service.  7 of them were Bilhorns.

There they all showed up – some in their boots from milking, others who got a little more dressed up.

The church grew, but it kept it’s down-to-earth flavor.  Proof? Dad still plays the banjo once a month to lead singing in church.

Yes, a banjo.

During my student years at IIT, I had great experiences two racially and socio-economically diverse churches on the West Side of Chicago, and another phenomenal experience being a part of the Hyde Park Vineyard in it’s early planting years.  All of which where pretty raw in nature – and I suppose it was that that attracted me most.  I’m not one who cares a whole lot about things that glitter.

So if you had ever told me that I would grow up in a church in the country, mature in the church in the hood, and I wondered what was next.  When I moved to the North Side of Chicago and was to select a church, it took me a good eight months to find a place.

Boy was I surprised when I felt a tug inside when I started attending a Presbyterian Church in Evanston.  I attend a men’s breakfast to find out more about the church, and this retired Presbyterian Pastor named Lou decides to pray for me as I am launching a new season and career in my life in ministry among college students.  I tingle a little bit and sense that for some reason I was called to be here.

I could barely spell Presbyterian, and didn’t really even know what it meant.  The only thing I knew about being a Presbyterian is that they had the nickname, “Frozen Chosen.”    But I walked into this beautiful, ornate sanctuary with stain glass windows that I could stare at for hours, there was something that just drew me to the beauty.

There was more than just the church building.  Presbyterians follow a liturgy and the church calendar – something at first I thought was completely inauthentic at first.  But as I read prayers of confession, as I learned to follow the church calendar, I learned more about rhythms and seasons and what once seemed like confining wrote prayers have become freedom to give words to my deepest feelings.  A sense of beauty in architecture, art, music, literature, and rhythm have served as a firm foundation despite having transition all around me all the time.

On Sunday, I was installed as an elder of the Presbyterian church where I worship.  I was a little surpised to be asked, because I’m much younger than the other elders and taking a job that defined me as old is not what first came to mind.  But as I prayed, thought, talked with friends, I realized how much I do love my church and what a privilege it is to serve in it.

I wondered what it really meant to be an elder as I walked into the service – but that day I seemed to get my answer. I walked in and sat down and one of my students saw me after being abroad for the fall.  Another friend from a group I met with weekly sat next to me with her 2-year-old son who decided to give me the silent treatment.  Another friend from longer ago was visiting back at the church after he moved away and we spoke briefly on his new location.  A friend who I knew when was single, crying that she wasn’t dating anyone, got married a couple years back and announces to me that she’s pregnant.  I give her a big hug and we agree that celebration is in order.

I stand and walk to the front of the church during the installation of elders and go through my vows.  The remaining elders, past and present, come pray for me, including Lou.  He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “I got your back, Andy.”

I smile, and realize later the irony in the scene.  It was Lou’s prayer that God used to touch my heart, and now as I’m being ordained to lead in the church, Lou is once again the one praying behind me.

After the service, I continue to talk with friends in the church.  Others greet me who have never met me and assume I’m important now that I’m an elder.  Hardly.  If they only knew…

What does an elder do, anyway?  How does one “eld?”

I know the qualificaitions from the Scriptures, but as I sit and think about it, it’s really it’s more about who I am than what I do.  And as I reflect on my conversations the folks in my church, I remember it’s genuine friendship that is essential in following Jesus.  Pursuing God in the company of friends is one of the greatest gifts we have as we have the opportunity to truly know others and be known.  We need each other.

Whether it’s in the country in Fulton with banjos, the underserved west side of Chicago with hip-hop, the diversity of Hyde Park unplugged, the slums of Cairo and Mexico City with clapping of hands and singing, the villages of Uganda with hand drums, or among the over-educated in the North Shore with a pipe organ and liturgy, I’ve seen that the church is at it’s best when it loves Jesus enough to have authentic friendship where we know others and are truly known and fulfilling God’s purposes in the world.

However one “elds” that is what I hope to understand better in the next few years.

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January 2009

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