At the PCA’s first General Assembly (GA) in 1973, ruling elders made up 54 percent of the participants. At the 2016 Assembly, they made up 21 percent.
An overture submitted to this year’s Assembly by Calvary Presbytery laments this shift: “We wish to express our dismay at the steady decline of ruling elder participation in the higher court (i.e. [General Assembly]) & the dominance of the higher court by [teaching elder]s.”
Among other causes, a combination of the need to take vacation time and the cost to attend General Assembly likely helps account for this decline. In response, various efforts have taken place in recent years (such as these in 2013) to encourage a resurgence of ruling elder participation.
Calvary Presbytery has proposed two overtures (Overtures 4 and 7) to encourage the inclusion of ruling elders in matters of polity and theological decision-making. The first is to require that at least three ruling elders serve on all ad interim committees. Ad interim committees are formed to study theological and practical issues facing the denomination and to make recommendations to the General Assembly as to what the PCA’s stance should be on the topic and any relevant steps it should take as a result.
At the 2017 Assembly, an ad interim committee presented its findings on the role of women in ministry in the PCA. No ruling elders were present on the committee.
“Our constitutional documents are tilted towards the higher courts (both presbytery & GA) having — not just a presence, but a predominance of — [ruling elders] (just as our Sessions do),” the overture explains. “This can easily be seen by BCO 13.1 (mandates for presbytery) [and] BCO 14.2 (mandates for the General Assembly), where we are told that any congregation — no matter how small — and served by one [teaching elder], are entitled to be represented by two [ruling elder]s at the higher courts. This overture ensures [and] requires the presence of [ruling elder]s even on study committees (ad interim committees).”
Overture 7 acknowledges the need to make General Assembly attendance more affordable for ruling elders and requests that the cost for ruling elders be set at $100.
“We’re well aware of the enormous burden that a [General Assembly] costs,” says Melton Duncan, clerk of Calvary Presbytery. “In the judgment of Calvary Presbytery, we think lowering the registration costs will create an incentive to attract more ruling elders and benefit the church by having more grass-roots participation in the high court. In time a lower ‘[ruling elder] registration fee’ could bring in more revenue overall because of a surge of [ruling elder] registration.”