Choose your words wisely.

Choose your words wisely.

General Assembly was a great experience. Not only were important changes enacted, it was also a learning environment. I paid attention to the many documents, visuals, reports, and committee and plenary conversations. I learned something about language and want us to consider how our words can build leadership capacity in our work with congregations in the presbytery.

In the New Testament, God calls the wise, dedicated, and mature persons of faith to leadership. Though the New Testament makes little distinction between clergy and laity, organized religious bodies continue to make distinctions between function or role. In congregations and in councils of the church, we affirm that all members of Christ’s body, the church, are endowed with unique gifts for the purpose of service. There is a clear differentiation of function, but not of importance. Both of the following terms are used interchangeably to refer to “elders”:

presbuteros — Greek word for elder, from which we derive the English word presbyter, a governance model employed by Presbyterian and other reformed churches.

episkopos — Greek word for overseer, from which we derive the English word episcopal, meaning bishop-led, a governance model employed in Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist churches.

“Elder” refers to one who shares in corporate leadership of a church (see Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–2,Titus 1:5–7). Presbyterians make a distinction in role, using the term "teaching elder" for clergy and "ruling elder" for laity, but each denotes a different function or role in the community of faith, not a distinction of importance.

How might we communicate our "oneness of the Spirit" more clearly in our language as we work and serve together?

Voices within church leadership should be of equal value and afforded functional responsibility and authority. No one person has enough gifts, perspective, and maturity to disproportionately shape the personality and texture of the church. No one role or function can fulfill the mission of a congregation alone. One way to convey mission capacity is to be clearer in our language, especially in the use of labels.

Since the action of the 219th General Assembly (2010), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted a revision of the Form of Government where the name for the ordered ministries changed, but not the function. The labels "Minister of Word and Sacrament" and "Elder" have been replaced with "Teaching Elder" and "Ruling Elder" respectively, but this did not necessitate a change in title. TE and RE references are not titles, but are abbreviations for role, and could be used in ecclesiastical documents when clarifying Teaching Elder Commissioner (TEC) from a Ruling Elder Commissioner (REC), for example, or describing clergy/laity balance, or in official registries. Function, however, is not interchangeable with a person's title. Job functions provide more benefit internally. Titles can provide benefit internally and externally.


For a the Teaching Elder (role): We never used the role, "Minister of Word and Sacrament" as an honorific title (before the name). We did not write, Minister of Word and Sacrament Mary Thompson; we instead properly wrote, Rev. Mary Thompson.


For a Ruling Elder (role): We did not use the role, "elder" before the name. Typically, we would write, John Smith, elder when differentiation was required in the context. We would not use Elder as a title, i.e., Elder John Smith (incorrect), but rather Mr. John Smith, elder (correct). There is no provision in the Book of Order to use the role Elder as a title.


In formal presbytery agendas, dockets, and registries where making a distinction in role between clergy and laity, or where listing the role or function is desirable, refer to the person, the Rev. Mark Anderson, TE. Or, Lydia Rodriguez, RE. (Not TE Mark Anderson, or RE Lydia Rodriguez. Remember TE, RE are not titles, they describe the role. Roles append to the name.


In all other and ordinary correspondence or conversation, such as email and letters, or on the phone, when no distinction between role is necessary or desirable, use the Rev. Mark Anderson, and Ms. Lydia Rodriguez. When a role distinction is required, use the Rev. Mark Anderson, pastor; or Ms. Lydia Rodriguez, clerk of session.

This simple guide can be useful:

1. TE and RE are roles and always appear after the name.

2. Rev. or Dr., Mr., Ms., etc. are titles, and always appear before the name.

We are all called as servant leaders! Let's build the leadership capacity, and the mission capacity, of congregations and councils with our language. By affirming our unity in the body, and wisely and appropriately using labels we will affirm our unity in service but also our unique functions in the church of Jesus Christ, and in the world. Something to think about as we resource our pastors, sessions, and congregations in their worship, witness, and mission. 

Words build mission capacity. Choose your words wisely.