The Elders' Institute

Mary is a former Professor in the history department at Guelph University. She has served as chair of Assembly's Committee on Theological Education, and on the Boards of the Elders' Institute and The Renewal Fellowship.

Recognizing the responsibilities of Presbyterian elders in the governance and maintenance of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Elders' Institute was founded "To provoke Canadian Presbyterian elders and other leaders to lead the church into more faithful, effective and wise ministry and mission," with the blessing and the financial support of the denomination. To fulfill its objective, the work of the Elders' Institute (EI) was initially directed towards providing learning opportunities for elders through on-line courses designed specifically to meet the needs of elders within our denomination, utilizing the facilities of the University of British Columbia's Distance Education and Technology Department, as well as face-to-face opportunities offered by Elders' Institute staff and teachers in "On the Road" events in various parts of the country. At the suggestion of the Elders' Institute Advisory Council a third prong of the EI ministry was created, the "Elders' Institute In a Box" courses, which are available in printed form, and do not require access to a computer.

The concept of the Elders' Institute was the brainchild of Rev. Dr. Brian Fraser, then Dean of St. Andrew's Hall at the University of British Columbia, and was warmly endorsed by the Board of St. Andrew's Hall, which has continued its unwavering support. The Institute has offices at St. Andrew's Hall, on the beautiful UBC campus. The first Director was Erin Crisfield, well-known to Ontarians for her previous work with the youth of the Synod of Southwestern Ontario. After Erin left EI to continue her graduate program, Rev. Dr. Roberta Clare came from Montreal to assume the directorship. The Elders' Institute was ably assisted in its initial years by Matthew Brough, now minister in Selkirk, Manitoba, who provided welcome technical assistance.

The goals of the Elders' Institute, as stated in the Pilot Project Report to the 2003 General Assembly are:

    1. To improve the confidence and performance of elders in designing the ministry and mission of the church.

    2. To equip elders in their five areas of responsibility as prescribed in the Book of Forms: supervision and oversight, membership and pastoral care, worship, Christian education, and stewardship and mission.

    3. To develop the Elders' Institute's role in enabling leaders to discern a call to eldership, in encouraging an understanding of eldership as servant leadership, and in assessing the needs of elders and of the church.

    4. To make designated programs available to other church leaders.

    (Acts & Proceedings, 2003, p.569)

To assist the EI staff and provide input from across the nation and from a variety of sources, the Elders' Institute Advisory Council was created, bringing together a diverse cross-section of elders plus representatives from Church Offices to meet twice yearly in Vancouver. This group included both older and younger representatives, from churches large and small, urban and remote, from the Maritimes and B.C., plus places in between. Rev. Dr. Hans Kouwenberg served as the interim convenor of the Advisory Council, and on his retirement from this position, Dr. Norah Lewis assumed the role. Although the contributions of the Advisory Council are agreed to have been constructive, financial considerations have forced the cancellation of the second meeting of the Advisory Council in 2004. A listing with brief biographical sketches of the members of the Advisory Council can be found on the Elders' Institute website.

Five courses have been offered in 2004: Teach Us to Pray, by Rev. Sabrina Caldwell; Sections 1 and 2 of Introduction to Lay Ministry, by Rev. Dr. Roberta Clare; Sunday's Coming: A Course for Lay Preachers, by Carey Nieuwhof; and Pastoral Care for Elders, by Rev. John Carr. Each of these courses has been offered in a six-week format, at a cost of $100 per course. It is encouraging to note that each of this year's courses was oversubscribed. A six-week course is being planned for the fall of 2005 by Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris, Dean of St. Andrew's Hall, on The Apostles' Creed, plus another fall course by Rev. Tony Plomp (recently retired as minister of Richmond, B.C. Presbyterian Church, and both former moderator of the General Assembly and current Deputy Clerk of General Assembly), Practical Presbyterian Polity. It is also planned to offer The Role of the Elder as a six-week on-line course.

An innovative course which will begin in January 2005 is When the Pulpit Is Vacant, which is offered to entire sessions by Rev. Carolyn McEvoy, at a cost of $500 per session. This course will meet on-line once a month, from January to June. All EI on-line courses offer technical assistance for those whose computer skills need help. Kelly Duncan has replaced Matthew Brough as Coordinator, Resource Design, and Jean Davidson is the Administrative Assistant. They can be reached by phone at 604-822-0972, or toll-free at 1-866-794-8888.

A check of the Elders' Institute website will provide details of all on-line courses previously offered. These include among others Christian Theology for Presbyterian Elders, by Rev. Dr. John Vissers, Principal of Presbyterian College in Montreal; Hope and Hospitality, by Rev. Dr. James Czegledi, Associate Secretary for Evangelism and Church Growth; The Wisdom of the Elders: A Guide to Provocative Polity, by Rev. Dr. Hans Kouwenberg; and Worship Leadership, by Rev. Carey Nieuwhof. A full list of the courses is provided on the website. The earlier courses were offered in a twelve week format, at a cost of $200 per course. Although the testimonials on the website are an indication of the appreciation and the enthusiasm these courses evoked, the shorter format seems to fit better for most students, and therefore it is planned to reconfigure these courses into the six-week format, where this has not already been done.

To introduce a wider audience to the work of the Elders' Institute, and to serve those for whom computer access might prove an obstacle, EI offers Elders' Institute In a Box courses in printed form. These courses may be used for individual or group study, and with the exception of the first such course, are available either on-line or in printed form, at a cost in either case of $25. Our first In a Box course, The Role of the Elder, by Erin Crisfield, first Director of the Elders' Institute, has proved widely popular, and is still available, free, on-line only. At the present time there have been more than 500 requests, from nine countries. The course can be used effectively either as an introduction to eldership, or as a review and basis of discussion by entire sessions, and has admirably fulfilled its intended purpose, which was to provide a useful and easily accessible introduction to the work of the Elders' Institute. The Pilot Project Report details the appreciation of the session of St. Mark's Church, Charlottetown, for this course, and I can speak personally of its value as presented by our minister to the session of my home church, all of whom were experienced elders.

Further In a Box courses include Discerning a Call to Eldership, by Rev. Peter Bush; How to Make a Pastoral Visit, by Susan Swanney; and Caring for the Congregation in the 21st Century, by Rev. John Dowd. These courses are available either in printed form or on-line, for a cost of $25 per course. Barbara McLean, Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly, is preparing an In a Box course on Session, Board and Committee Relationships, and Rev. Chuck Congram has been asked to prepare a course on Gifts for Eldership. The information about the release of these projected courses will be posted on the website.

Elders' Institute On the Road events have been taking place across the country since the program began in 2000. These are conferences, retreats, or workshops planned and presented by staff and instructors to meet the specific needs and requirements of those requesting the event — congregations, presbyteries or synods. The local organizers are responsible for scheduling, food, and housing, and the EI staff provides the program at a cost of $500 per day, regardless of the location, or the number of participants. This autumn events have been held in both P.E.I. and B.C. This year for the third time EI will conduct an On the Road event immediately prior to the General Assembly: Caring for Today's Congregation, led by Rev. John Dowd, on Saturday, June 4, at Dayspring Presbyterian Church in Edmonton. For further information consult the website.

The Elders' Institute is in the process of creating a pool of resources and tools for elders, to be accessed from the website, which also provides a short biographical entry for each of the instructors of EI courses. The EI Newsletter is also available on the website.

It was originally hoped that after the three-year pilot project, the Elders' Institute would generate sufficient income from courses to be fully self-sustaining financially. Generous individual gifts and funding were received to initiate EI's programs, for which the Institute is very grateful, but the costs of operation, even though carefully managed and audited, have brought the awareness that this useful and valuable program will continue to need financial support. Although the Institute was commended for its achievements, and encouraged to carry on at the end of the Pilot Project, the denomination as a whole did not undertake further ongoing support. At this point, those of us on the Advisory Council were cheered and encouraged by the willingness of St. Andrew's Hall to pledge its continuing support for EI, to the point of taking out a loan on behalf of the Elders' Institute. We are also encouraged by the individuals and congregations who have responded to EI appeals by including EI in their personal giving, and as a line item in their congregational budgets.

The Elders' Institute was created, and currently exists to serve our elders, our congregations, and our denomination, but it can only continue to do so if convinced individuals and organizations provide tangible support. I have been honoured to serve both as a member of the Elders' Institute Advisory Council and as a member of the Board of the Renewal Fellowship Within The Presbyterian Church in Canada because I believe these structures serve complementary roles within our denomination. As a member of the Advisory Council, I would urge our readers to utilize the resources offered by the Elders' Institute, to offer suggestions as requested on the EI web site, and to consider adding a personal contribution to the Elders' Institute alongside your support of the Renewal Fellowship, and likewise to encourage your congregation to include both in the budget.

I would also encourage those who are concerned with the need within the denomination to educate its elders to talk to those who have already taken Elders' Institute courses, and to read the extended information, including the testimonials, available on the Elders' Institute website. The full mailing address of the Elders' Institute is: The St. Andrew's Hall Institute for Elders' Education, 6040 Iona Drive, Vancouver, BC V6T 2E8.