A Historical Perspective on the Role of Elders
In Metropolitan Community Churches, the spiritual leadership of our movement has always been vested in what we have called Elders. Central to this role is trusted influence of these Elders with multiple congregations and their leaders. The function of Elders is to inspire, nurture, guide and strengthen church leaders to build healthy congregations that will fulfill the mission of God. They are often the prophetic voice proclaiming the good news of MCC’s message and our call for justice. This function is widespread in Christianity and is structured in various ways with differing names.
Throughout MCC’s history as both a movement and a denomination, the role of Elder has differed:
- The Board of Elders: 1970 to 2003
- Regional Elders: 2003 to 2010
- Council of Elders: 2010 to Present
Within the first several years from the founding of Metropolitan Community Church of Los Angeles in 1968, a widespread movement quickly formed around the charisma and message of Rev. Troy D. Perry. By 1972 there were 22 new MCC congregations.
The birth of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches came with its first General Conference in 1970, followed by formation as a California nonprofit corporation in 1971. Systems and structures were adopted through which this new movement would continue to grow in its early decades.
The systems and structures fulfilled three essential functions necessary for the growing movement:
- Spiritual leadership would be provided by Elders (similar to some Protestant denominations) rather than bishops (as was the case in some hierarchal denominations). They did not want the authoritarian/hierarchal structure they associated with bishops.
- Connectional management would be provided by Districts dealing with congregational affiliation and needs.
- Governance would be overseen by a Board of Elders, including management of the denominational headquarters, organization of the General Conference, and corporate legal requirements.
The Board of Elders: 1970 to 2003
In this entire period Metropolitan Community Church was a new religious movement led by its founder, Rev. Troy Perry, a highly charismatic entrepreneurial leader. All of MCC’s structures and systems were responsive and reactive to that reality. Whatever the expectations and responsibilities of these Elders, as a Board, they served essentially as a system of support and accountability for the charismatic founder. With the churches, they were often powerful messengers of the movement. The election of an Elder was highly political and sometimes symbolically addressed a major issue at a General Conference. The office was highly volatile; Elders often were not re-elected or voluntarily left office after one or two terms.
In this period, two of the seven Elders were full-time; the others served in a voluntary capacity. A third Elder became full-time in 1999. In 1985, the function of governance was given to the General Council which included the Board of Elders and the District Coordinators. The role of Elder was especially demanding on those who were not serving full-time. For example, some Elders who also served as local church pastors devoted from one-third to half of their time to the role of Elder.
Regional Elders: 2003 to 2010
This period and its structure began to be shaped in 1999 when Rev. Troy made it clear he would retire as the Moderator in 2005. Succession planning, the transfer of charisma and new structures for a new era became the focus of extensive dialogue and deliberation over the next two years resulting in major structural changes enacted by the 2001 General Conference.
In this new structure the Districts were replaced by regions and the District Coordinators were replaced by Regional Elders. The three-tier structure was replaced by a two-tier structure. The role of Elder became more multi-national with each region including more than one nation. This sometimes called into question the title, “Elder”, which did not convey the role in some countries and cultures. With a wider understanding of the title, “Bishop”, in some areas of the world, this title was used in an unofficial capacity.
In this new structure, the role of Elders as spiritual leaders continued to be primary. Elders also became responsible for connectional management as well as spiritual leadership. And all Elders, in theory, were to do the same things. The intention of the new structure to provide resources to the churches through denominational program staff was prevented by lack of projected growth in membership and income. So, Elders needed to also take on the roles intended for program staff. Further decline in revenue required more downsizing to achieve sustainability.
Council of Elders: 2010 to Present
As a result of work of the Structure Review Team, the role of the Elders was restructured in 2010. Regions were discontinued, moving from a two-tiered to a one-tiered structure. In terms of representative governance, the elected officers accountable to the General Conference are the Moderator and members of the Governing Board. The function of governance is vested in this Board.
Elders are appointed by Moderator and confirmed by a vote of the General Conference. A Council of Elders has replaced the Board of Elders. The functions of spiritual leadership and connectional management are vested in the Elders:
- As spiritual leaders their roles are those described in Ephesians 4: apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher. Central to the function of spiritual leadership is the equipping and empowering of new leaders. In MCC this is realized through leadership development of both clergy and laity.
- As connectional managers their roles include oversight of matters of church affiliation, connection of churches with each other, and resourcing the various needs of churches.
In this new structure the Moderator’s role has also changed. The relationship of Elders previously had been that of peer and colleague. The Moderator is now the manager of each Elder. As head of staff, the Moderator is responsible for building a highly effective senior leadership team and other implementation teams.