For the most part, Forest Hill Church cares more about being a Christian church than a Presbyterian church. That’s one of the things that draws people from different faith backgrounds to our congregation. But there are some great things about being Presbyterian. One is the way Presbyterian churches are organized.
Each church’s governing body is called the Session, and consists of members, called Elders, elected by the congregation for 3-year terms.
Our Session has 20 members: 19 Elders plus a Clerk of Session to keep track of what’s happening. They meet monthly to share concerns, pray, laugh, and try to discern God’s will for the church.
Our Session has divided the work of Forest Hill into 7 ministry areas:
- Justice & Mission
- Leadership Development
Each ministry is headed by 3 Elders, serving staggered 3-year terms. Each year we elect one new Elder for each ministry.
The current Clerk of Session is Elder Jeff Smith. See Current Elders by Ministry
So does the Session run the church?
Well…..technically Session does have the final say, but it’s always with input from the rest of the congregation. And of course, since Forest Hill is part of the Presbyterian Church USA, we also have access to the resources of our Presbytery.
Every Presbyterian church is part of a local Presbytery. Presbyteries ordain ministers and pay a small staff to track and support all the Presbyterian churches in a geographic area. Ours is the Presbytery of the Western Reserve. Every other month representatives from each church in the Presbytery get together to worship and talk about official Presbyterian stuff.
OTHER GOVERNING GROUPS
Each Presbytery is part of a larger organization called a Synod, which supports a large number of Presbyteries. Our Presbytery is part of the Synod of the Covenant. All the Synods report to and are ruled by one big national church group called the General Assembly, with offices in Louisville, Kentucky.
Every other year, the General Assembly sets priorities for the church’s mission under Christ, develops overall mission objectives and strategies to guide church life, provides programming to help with the overall balance and diversity within the mission of the church, and runs national and international ministries of witness, service, growth, and development.
If I decide to join Forest Hill, would the “General Assembly” tell me what I have to believe?
One of the nice things about being Presbyterian is the lack of rigid creeds and doctrines. In fact, the word “Presbyterian” refers more to how our church is organized and governed than about what we believe.
To be a member of a Presbyterian church, as with most other Protestant denominations, you just have to commit to trying to follow the teachings and authority of Jesus Christ.
Even if you’re not sure about Jesus, you’re still welcome here. Many of the people in our pews are here not because they’re sure of their faith but because they want to learn more about what faith is and what it means to follow Christ.
THEN WHAT MAKES SOMEBODY A “PRESBYTERIAN”?
Every Presbyterian is considered a minister of the church. In the Bible, this is called the “priesthood of all believers.”
Some in this priesthood are called to be ordained Pastors (sometimes called Teaching Elders), others are called to be Ruling Elders or Deacons, and others are called to particular areas of service according to their gifts and passions.
This system works well for us, but we don’t believe that our church is the “One True Church” or even that our system of church government is the only one authorized by the New Testament.
It’s not a perfect system – after all, it is run by people. But when we make a mistake, we keep working to fix it.
For example, many of us thought the General Assembly erred many years ago when they prohibited local churches from ordaining gays and lesbians, so after lots of discussions and committees and votes, our rules now allow ordaining bodies – local church sessions for elders and deacons and local presbyteries for ministers – to determine someone’s fitness for ordained office.
In other words, persons in a same-gender relationship can be considered for ordination.*
So now, if you’re gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered or queer, nothing stops you from being a member or leader of a Presbyterian church or from serving God as you feel called to serve–whether that’s teaching Sunday School, leading a small group book discussion, facilitating a prayer group, or being ordained as an Elder, Deacon, or Pastor. All members of the LGBT community have always been and will continue to be welcome and supported at Forest Hill.
*The new wording states: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all the requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
Historical note: Forest Hill and the Presbytery of the Western Reserve have been advocating for this change for almost 3 decades. We think the famous Presbyterian, Henry Sloane Coffin, a self-described “liberal evangelical” born in 1877, would agree. In 1925, Coffin asked “whether we have any right to call ourselves a Christian Church, if we exclude from its ministry any whom Christ manifestly does not exclude from the gift of His Holy Spirit.”