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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Spiritual Fit Bit
May 31, 2018

Our office is currently undergoing its round of annual performance reviews. We do this not only to encourage each other’s continuing growth, but also to keep faith with our employer’s trust. As I have been conducting these consultations, I have been thinking about how we might measure our spiritual progress as well.

Measuring up. Comparison to ourselves and to others. We do it in countless ways. Years ago, one of our door jambs had lines drawn to mark my children’s height each year. The younger one was especially eager to mark how much she grew because she wanted to be more like big sister. But the main point was to measure one’s own growth compared to last year’s mark.

As adults, we are encouraged to measure our health at least annually, both to monitor our fitness and to catch any disease before it sets in too deeply. Our health insurance plan not only waives the co-pay for our annual physical but rewards us with a $100 gift card if we add to that the completion of other specified fitness activities. They do this not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they know this lowers their payouts for our healthcare costs.

In order to help us measure our health more regularly, many of us wear “fit bits” that monitor our daily physical activity. Smartphones can do the same thing. I know that I walk more when I keep track of my daily step count. I need to measure myself physically to stay fit.

Our Scottish forebears took very seriously the faith development of the church’s members. Elders were required to visit all the homes in the parish, to take regular measure of parishioners’ progress in the faith. This is why they came to be called “ruling” elders – they would apply a “ruler” to each household to measure its spiritual health. Those who passed muster were given a token that granted them admission to the Lord’s Table. No token, no communion. They called it “fencing the table.”

Those days are long behind us, and that may be all to the good, since Scripture admonishes us to examine ourselves, not each other, when we approach the Lord’s Table. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) But have we thrown out the baby with the bathwater? In unfencing the table, have we abdicated our responsibility to measure the spiritual health of the people we have been called to serve?

Many church members assume that it is the minister’s job to tend the spiritual health of the congregation, but our Reformed ancestors tasked the ruling elders with that responsibility. And it’s still so in our Book of Order: “Ruling elders are so named not because they ‘lord it over’ the congregation (Matthew 20:25), but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life.” (G-2.0301)

A physician who is in poor physical condition understandably loses credibility as a health advocate to patients. Similarly, church leaders cannot be effective advocates for the spiritual health of their congregations if they are themselves in poor spiritual health. How do we measure our own spiritual health? What is our “spiritual fit bit”?

Accountability for our spiritual life is necessarily relational. “Just Jesus and me” does not cut it. To whom am I accountable for how I live out my faith and calling? Self-measurement is necessary, to be sure; we need to take responsibility for our own spiritual development. Yet we must go beyond mere self-accounting by opening ourselves to others whom we trust. We may consider them a confessor, or spiritual director, or holy friend, or therapist. We may do so with a group of companions. They need not be considered our superiors; in fact, it’s probably best if they are not our superiors. Just fellow-pilgrims, with whom we share our own pilgrim’s progress.

As important as regular checkups are for us physically, they are even more crucial for us spiritually. What are we doing to open ourselves regularly for spiritual examination?

Your fellow-pilgrim,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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