Some time back, a reader wrote to ask me to address a column to the subject of the practice of “term eldership.” (For those unfamiliar with the practice, allow me to explain: in many Reformed churches, elders are selected by “election” by the congregation for a specified term of office. “Ordained” to office only once, these brothers are eligible for reelection, and subsequent “installation” to office, again and again throughout their lifetimes. The practice differs markedly from that in most churches who hold to the Westminster creedal tradition where the manner of preparation and selection to office for a ruling elder is much more rigorous, and the term is considered to be lifelong.) The reader implied some criticism of the term eldership practice, as I recall, opining that nowhere in Scripture was the practice to be found, either explicitly or implicitly. Further, the writer went on, it is a waste of God’s precious gifts to the local church if several of the men to whom He has given the wisdom and spiritual ability to pastor the flock are on “vacation” from their responsibilities for a year or more at a time. And, as another correspondent observed not too long ago, the practice of “term eldership” tends to tilt the emphasis of the office from pastoring to that of a committee position or a board member term of office—hardly appropriate for an office with such weighty Biblical responsibilities.
PROBLEMS WITH TERM ELDERSHIP
Allow me to make a few observations “up front.” The first is that the practice of “term eldership” today seems to be especially prevalent in those churches whose legacy is that of the Church Order of Dort (the great synod that answered the challenges of Arminius with the Canons and also wrote a comprehensive Church Order whose fundamental principles serve to undergird several such documents, representing many denominations and/or groups of churches today). Term eldership is not customarily the practice in those Presbyterian and Reformed churches whose confessional legacy is that of Westminster, rather than the Continental standards.
Second, among those churches that practice “term eldership,” several bad habits seem to go along hand in hand. One of these is, as the correspondent above notes, that the view of “election” to office carries with it such non-Biblical political connotations as to corrupt the high and holy practice from the start. In the USA especially, where the image of the political process is so low, it is difficult to imagine “election” to the office of elder not being corrupted by association with popularity, the notion of the elder as the democratic representative of a group within the church, and even the practice of “campaigning” for office. Sadly, I have heard much that would indicate that these practices and attitudes are widespread. In addition, the practice of “term eldership” does, at least, suggest a temporary, and thus an insufficient view of the work of the elder. I have railed for years in this column against an “administrative” view of the office of elder, insisting on one shaped by the Biblical image of the shepherd. It is difficult to imagine a true shepherd, in Biblical times, working an 8 hour shift, and then forgetting about his flock for the remainder of the day. Jesus, in John 10, called such a care-giver a “hireling,” and would not even dignify such a man with the term “shepherd.” But this would seem to be the inevitable consequence of electing elders to a 3 year term. Service in office as an elder is viewed as no different than service on the Christian school board. It’s a committee position. And once that notion sinks roots, it is almost impossible to cultivate a strong and Biblical view of an elder as a pastor, daily and deeply concerned about the spiritual life and walk of the flock of God throughout their long discipleship.
Further, if the “term eldership” concept twists the view of elder even a few degrees off Biblical center, the result also affects the preparation process for those entering the office. My contacts within several conservative Presbyterian bodies convince me that their view and practice of the preparation and examination of elders is superior to that in the CRC tradition with which I am most familiar. In the CRC, my experience has been that training often discusses policies, procedures and practices. Newly elected term elders are helped to become acquainted with the routine of the meeting schedule, assigned their “district,” partnered with a visiting teammate, and briefly apprised of “cases” in process. Such a pragmatic approach is necessary with only 3 (and in some cases 2) years in office, one has to “hit the ground running.” In the Presbyterian churches with which I am familiar, elder training involves years of assigned reading and study, thorough grounding in Reformed theology and the creeds, careful examination of the existing pastoral involvement of the potential candidate. (Is he already teaching? How well? What is the level of his discernment? Is he already involved in counseling? Is his work up to Biblical standards? Does he “desire the office of overseer/elder”? Is he willing to do the work necessary to be spiritually prepared?) Only after such careful and lengthy reflection do the existing elders present the candidate to the flock, often examining him in the presence of the congregation, and only then proceeding, should they concur, to his ordination. The result of such a careful process is that a weight of respect and trust is given to the elder by the flock. In my experience, election to a 3 year term often (usually?) does not bestow such respect and trust. (Should you desire to read a bi t more of the theory and practice behind such a view and practice of office, I highly recommend a little booklet by Lawrence R. Eyres entitled The Elders of the Church, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1975).
By this point, you have no doubt noted that I am critical of the “term eldership” concept. Clearly I am, and not several of my friends who hold passionately to the “term eldership” concept to point to any passage that suggests, not to mention insists, that the Bible views an elder in any other way than a man appointed for life. None to date has risen to the challenge. In fact, the “defense” of the practice among theologically competent people is usually apologetic, not passionate. All I hear is appeals to tradition, that “Church Order prescribes it thus and so.” OK, but Church Order isn’t infallible, remember? At the same time, as a minister of the Word in the CRC, I am bound to that Church Order, and am aware that my options are limited. And so, although I write as I do above, hoping and praying to change attitudes and perspectives, and thus practices within the CRC and other churches that have adopted term eldership, here at Bethel CRC in Dallas, we practice term eldership. And, to be honest, I’ve never met an elder with whom I’ve worked in the CRC who doesn’t like the “term” concept (especially in the last 3 months of the last year of the term)! So…
“IF YOU CAN’T SAY SOMETHING NICE…”
To be fair, I must note some benefits in the practice of “term eldership.”
For one, gifted men are more likely to serve in Christ’s church as elder if their service has specific term limits. That benefit is worthy of note in light of the many kingdom causes which place demands particularly upon the most gifted of the men of God among us. They simply do not have the time to serve all who ask; a limited term in each ministry enables them to serve several, in sequence.
Again, the practice of “terms” does allow for the practice of “sabbaticals,” periods of rest and refreshment from the weighty burdens of office. Such sabbaticals, between terms of office, are particularly beneficial for those who serve in very large congregations, with many pastoral duties, or those who serve in young, new or smaller congregations, where the amount of work is not able to be spread around as many willing workers. Of course, granting a temporary “sabbatical” is not inappropriate for those churches that practice life-tenure eldership. In fact, it is quite common.
I will report a benefit which Professor William Heyns alludes to in his venerable Handbook for Elders and Deacons (even though I find it a spurious argument). He suggests that term eldership profits the church by allowing the work to be spread out more equitably among the congregation, and that it profits the church by avoiding “hurt feelings” in those who would otherwise not be able to take a turn. As I said, I find the argument spurious, because in my view it promotes a non-pastoral understanding of the office of elder. I only mention it because it is one of the most popular explanations I’ve heard for the term eldership view in 20 years of ministry (sad to say).
“IF I HAD MY DRUTHERS…”
I would prefer, for the overall dignity of the office, and to preserve the pastoral character of it, that the office of elder be clearly understood to be for lifetime tenure. I believe it is the testimony of Scripture that God makes men elders (Acts 20:28); the church only receives and recognizes them as such. This, of course, would demand a change in the manner of selecting elders (not electing them, but examining and approving them), and may well include the needed admission that the church cannot, indeed may not, determine in advance how many elders it will have. If God makes men elders, He alone determines how many He will raise up. Those whom He has equipped, to whom He has given the desire to serve as overseers, and whom the church identifies and recognizes as possessing these Spirit-endowed qualifications, should be ordained to office.
However, I am unlikely to sway easily the views and practices of Reformed churches and individuals who have several hundreds of years of tradition behind them, I’ll settle for securing your agreement to a couple of smaller points. (If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, but convince ‘em in the process!)
First, even if you practice (and defend) term eldership, please remember that those once ordained remain elders for the rest of their lives, even if they are not in active office all that time. That this point is valid even in churches that hold to term eldership is demonstrated by the difference in “ordination” and “installation.” An elder is ordained once; after that, he is installed. Constant reminders of this fact may assist those making nominations, and help those in the congregation as well to grasp the seriousness and weight of the office, and to avoid the “democratic process” corruptions discussed above.
Second, if your congregation elects elders for terms of office, and then grants them release from active duty for a time, make clear to all that they are still in service, even though the nature of their service may be changed for a time. For example, sabbatical elders (call them that!) ought to be invited to regular and periodic (quarterly?) elder conferences, to be apprised of the status of the spiritual care of the flock, to be involved in prayer on behalf of the other brothers and the flock itself, and to be consulted on matters in which their wisdom would be beneficial. Further, should the burden of the care of the flock become too great, due to some unusual circumstance or set of circumstances, the sabbatical elders could be called in to relieve the active elders of some of the routine (but nonetheless important) pastoral duties.
Finally, even if your congregation practices term eldership, make clear to the flock and to any potential candidates that your local requirements for office are those weighty requirements set forth by Scripture, and not merely a list of “functionary skills” needed for a committee-type position. Far too often local churches get what they deserve—elders unqualified for office because they were neither appropriately trained nor screened. God forbid that should happen to any of you. His church is too precious to Him to be placed under the care of unqualified, untrained, ill-equipped hirelings!
Dr. Sittema is pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.