Elder Terms of Service: Definite or Indefinite?

Should lay Elders have definite terms of service (e.g. 3 year) or indefinite?


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C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
I'm a Baptist affirming a two-office (elder & deacon) view. My question is regarding lay elders. Should lay elders serve a definite term of service and then be rotated off or should they serve indefinite terms so long as they remain biblically qualified? Please give a defense of your position.
 

Scott1

Puritanboard Commissioner
I think by analogy at least, certainly by biblical principle, officers ought have something like a sabbatical built in.

Three year terms, then a mandatory break of at least one year after two terms (3 x 2 = 6 years) works well in practice.

You probably understand the offices are perpetual (deacon and elder) but "active" (being on session or diaconate) at a given time is a useful distinction. That recognizes the difference between ordination (done only one time) and installation (which installs them in a religious ceremony) for a term of office.

In practice, even while not active on session or diaconate, those officers are drawn on for assistance.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
By "lay elder" do you mean one not supported financially by the church?

Yes

-----Added 10/8/2009 at 07:16:17 EST-----

You probably understand the offices are perpetual (deacon and elder) but "active" (being on session or diaconate) at a given time is a useful distinction. That recognizes the difference between ordination (done only one time) and installation (which installs them in a religious ceremony) for a term of office.

In practice, even while not active on session or diaconate, those officers are drawn on for assistance.

While I would agree with you here, not all churches see it this way. Some (Baptist) churches do not consider you an elder once you rotate out. Only active elders are elders. Now I don't agree with this but I would be interested in hearing what arguments some of you would make against it. This might provide me with some insights that I've overlooked.
 

Rich Koster

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Scripture says elders should be qualified and willing (1 Tim 3, Titus 1). The only time they should be forced out of service is when they are disqualified. They should be allowed to remove themselves (inactive status) for a period of time that they may be unwilling to serve for health, personal or family reasons. They may also go inactive upon recommendation of the rest of the elders (unrecognized burnout for example). Forced term limitations are manlaw. They can force someone out at a critical time.

If there is a control/domination issue, it will not be resolved by rotation. There is something else wrong if that attitude is allowed to set itself up. Elders should be servant leaders, not dictators.
 

RickyReformed

Puritan Board Freshman
From the "First Book of Discipline", "The Eight Head, Touching the Election of
Elders and Deacons, etc." found in the _The Works of John Knox, Vol II_ edited by David Laing.

The election of elders and deacons ought to be used every year once (which we judge to be most convenient the first day of August); lest that by long continuance of such officers, men presume upon the liberty of the church. It hurts not that one man is retained in office more years than one, so that he is appointed yearly, by common and free election; provided always, that the deacons, treasurers, be not compelled to receive the office again for the space of three years.

I pulled the above quote from the SWRB site - First Book of Discipline (1560). but Google Books has a scanned version of the work along with the original spelling. The quote below is found on page 234 of the edition found on Google Books:

 
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au5t1n

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
We're talking about church, not the House of Representatives. I think those men who are especially wise and fit for ministry should be always over us, if it is desirable to them - leaving room for the possibility of "inactive status" for a time. I don't think regular term lengths is a good idea at all. You might force a church to rotate out well-qualified spiritual leaders and replace them just for the sake of following the term pattern.

Am I completely off track here? :think:
 
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Montanablue

Puritan Board Doctor
The Church is not a republic. I think those men who are especially wise and fit for ministry should be always over us, if it is desirable to them - leaving room for the possibility of "inactive status" for a time. I don't think regular term lengths is a good idea at all. You might force a church to rotate out well-qualified spiritual leaders and replace them just for the sake of following the term pattern.

Am I completely off track here? :think:

In theory, I agree with you. In practice, I've seen (well-meaning) elders completely dominate a church, so the idea of rotation appeals to me. I'm not sure what the best and most Biblical practice is though.
 

Blue Tick

Puritan Board Graduate
It's up to the church. If the church votes them back in to serve then move forward. If the church votes not to have them serve then take a break. Obviously, it depends if the man is willing to serve as well.
 

au5t1n

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
The Church is not a republic. I think those men who are especially wise and fit for ministry should be always over us, if it is desirable to them - leaving room for the possibility of "inactive status" for a time. I don't think regular term lengths is a good idea at all. You might force a church to rotate out well-qualified spiritual leaders and replace them just for the sake of following the term pattern.

Am I completely off track here? :think:

In theory, I agree with you. In practice, I've seen (well-meaning) elders completely dominate a church, so the idea of rotation appeals to me. I'm not sure what the best and most Biblical practice is though.
Sorry, I edited my post for clarification after you quoted it. I am willing to see another view on this, but I feel like term limits is too...American. I just can't picture the Apostles setting up a rotation system in the early church when they appointed elders. :D
 

OPC'n

Puritan Board Doctor
I think it should be rotated so that they don't get burnt out. Each qualified man should take his turn.
 

Montanablue

Puritan Board Doctor
The Church is not a republic. I think those men who are especially wise and fit for ministry should be always over us, if it is desirable to them - leaving room for the possibility of "inactive status" for a time. I don't think regular term lengths is a good idea at all. You might force a church to rotate out well-qualified spiritual leaders and replace them just for the sake of following the term pattern.

Am I completely off track here? :think:

In theory, I agree with you. In practice, I've seen (well-meaning) elders completely dominate a church, so the idea of rotation appeals to me. I'm not sure what the best and most Biblical practice is though.
Sorry, I edited my post for clarification after you quoted it. I am willing to see another view on this, but I feel like term limits is too...American. I just can't picture the Apostles setting up a rotation system in the early church when they appointed elders. :D

No, I agree with you. "Term limits" do seem a little...vulgar... Its just that from my own personal experience I can see the rationale for doing it that way. Perhaps there are better ways to deal with the issue though.... I've often wondered if having elders control a church is more of a problem in an independent church than in a church with more oversight (such as a Presbyterian church)
 

au5t1n

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Does anyone know how the synagogue elders were appointed and maintained in Christ's time? I have heard that early church leadership was modeled somewhat after the Jews' familiar synagogue structure, and I can see how that might be the case. So does anyone know whether synagogue elders were rotated? Not saying that should be the deciding factor in what the Church should do, but it might be interesting to note.
 

Brian Withnell

Puritan Board Junior
I see nothing in scripture that puts a term on how long one should serve. If I am called as a deacon (I believe I am, and have had that call affirmed by my church) then in what way is the calling of God revoked? By a time elapse clock? Ah, you aren't called by God to the office any more, as your three years are up.

I can see someone taking a sabbatical rest for special circumstances (one of our elders stepped down for a time to take care of his extremely aged mother ... she is in her 90's and frail). I could even see someone demitting the office if they question their calling. I do not see how a local church can put a time limit on what is a calling by God to one of the offices of the church.
 

Scottish Lass

Puritan Board Doctor
If you require term limits, what happens in smaller congregations where there are very few qualified men to serve?
 

RickyReformed

Puritan Board Freshman
Austin,

The question can be asked - if the spiritual leaders are well qualified, why would a congregation vote them out? Furthermore, what if the spiritual leaders are *not* well qualified, how then does a congregation replace them with qualified elders? Notice that the First Book of Discipline does not forbid an elder from being elected yearly, but only that the elections be "common and free" and that deacons and treasurers not be _compelled_ to serve "for the space of three years."

Also, what exactly does it mean to be an "inactive" pastor, elder, deacon, treasurer, etc? If the office is divorced from the **work** of the ministry, is it not just an empty title? I can understand if a minister or pastor is hindered providentially for a season due to illness, etc., but is not a minister called to minister to a congregation and a pastor called to feed Christ's sheep?

Then entire section titled "Eighth Head -Touching the Election of
Elders and Deacons, etc." is very edifying and I highly recommend it.

I hope that helps.
 

N. Eshelman

Puritan Board Senior
I voted 'definite'; but I meant 'indefinite'. There is no biblical evidence that the elders in NT Church were on a three or four or one year rotation. They were ordained and they served.

Especially as a two office position- do the teaching elders get to rotate their office as well? Pastor for 3 years and then sit down and allow another man to fill the pulpit for a couple of years until your name comes up in the rotation again! :)
 

uberkermit

Puritan Board Freshman
I voted 'definite'; but I meant 'indefinite'. There is no biblical evidence that the elders in NT Church were on a three or four or one year rotation. They were ordained and they served.

Especially as a two office position- do the teaching elders get to rotate their office as well? Pastor for 3 years and then sit down and allow another man to fill the pulpit for a couple of years until your name comes up in the rotation again! :)

Ha! I am glad you clarified this, Nathan. When I looked at the poll results, I was thinking maybe they had gotten to you at PRTS! (The Dutch folks, I mean) ;)
 

MMasztal

Puritan Board Sophomore
In the ARP, elders are elected for life and at the option of the local session can rotate elders with the guidelines of minimum active period of 4 years, but no longer than 6 years and then 1 year off.

I think it's good to rotate elders to prevent little dynasties from developing which is something I've seen in the past.
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
I agree with my husband's observation -- one does not suddenly become disqualified after a set time. "Dynasties" should be prevented by a plurality of officers and by extreme care in selecting and training them -- that process can take a couple of years in some congregations. The opportunity for sabbaticals can help to deal with "burn-out." So can a properly-operating congregation that takes up the burden, allowing the elders the time to study the word and pray.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
Should a Pastor have terms?

This is a sticking point for me. In order for one to be consistent in that lay elders must rotate in and out of active service they must also acknowledge that the circumstances effecting lay elders would also effect the teaching elder (if you will). The question is then: why would the paid elder not rotate out after a certain number of years? I don't think they should and so the only other option is for one to accept that the lay and staff elder are fundamentally different offices. Which I do not accept.

I'm aware of the pragmatic issues in play, but our conclusions can't find their base on such circumstantial grounds.
 

fredtgreco

Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
I voted 'definite'; but I meant 'indefinite'. There is no biblical evidence that the elders in NT Church were on a three or four or one year rotation. They were ordained and they served.

Especially as a two office position- do the teaching elders get to rotate their office as well? Pastor for 3 years and then sit down and allow another man to fill the pulpit for a couple of years until your name comes up in the rotation again! :)

It would appear to me that the proper analogy would be a pastoral sabbatical. What prevents a pastoral sabbatical is not theology, but funds, in the vast majority of churches. That is why larger, multi-minister churches give their pastors sabbaticals (usually 6 months).
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
I voted 'definite'; but I meant 'indefinite'. There is no biblical evidence that the elders in NT Church were on a three or four or one year rotation. They were ordained and they served.

Especially as a two office position- do the teaching elders get to rotate their office as well? Pastor for 3 years and then sit down and allow another man to fill the pulpit for a couple of years until your name comes up in the rotation again! :)

It would appear to me that the proper analogy would be a pastoral sabbatical. What prevents a pastoral sabbatical is not theology, but funds, in the vast majority of churches. That is why larger, multi-minister churches give their pastors sabbaticals (usually 6 months).

Fred, I understand the sabbatical, a period of rest. I can see this.

However, I have concerns, there are churches (the majority of them, to my knowledge) which then after that 1 year break or whatever, require that the congregation then re-elect the RE back onto the Session.

Personally, holding to a lifetime RE view, unless a RE is disciplined he should be serving as RE in the church, if he has a sabbatical then as soon as the time of rest is over than he is back on (no questions asked).
 

fredtgreco

Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
I voted 'definite'; but I meant 'indefinite'. There is no biblical evidence that the elders in NT Church were on a three or four or one year rotation. They were ordained and they served.

Especially as a two office position- do the teaching elders get to rotate their office as well? Pastor for 3 years and then sit down and allow another man to fill the pulpit for a couple of years until your name comes up in the rotation again! :)

It would appear to me that the proper analogy would be a pastoral sabbatical. What prevents a pastoral sabbatical is not theology, but funds, in the vast majority of churches. That is why larger, multi-minister churches give their pastors sabbaticals (usually 6 months).

Fred, I understand the sabbatical, a period of rest. I can see this.

However, I have concerns, there are churches (the majority of them, to my knowledge) which then after that 1 year break or whatever, require that the congregation then re-elect the RE back onto the Session.

Personally, holding to a lifetime RE view, unless a RE is disciplined he should be serving as RE in the church, if he has a sabbatical then as soon as the time of rest is over than he is back on (no questions asked).

Ordination is different from service. Ordination is for life. But that does not guarantee lifetime service. It is similar to when a TE takes a different call. It is also an opportunity for the congregation to affirm the service of the RE. This is especially true where you have new people in the congregation who were not members of the congregation when the RE was elected.
 

JBaldwin

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
The question can be asked - if the spiritual leaders are well qualified, why would a congregation vote them out? Furthermore, what if the spiritual leaders are *not* well qualified, how then does a congregation replace them with qualified elders? Notice that the First Book of Discipline does not forbid an elder from being elected yearly, but only that the elections be "common and free" and that deacons and treasurers not be _compelled_ to serve "for the space of three years."

From what I can see from Scripture that elders and deacons are for life. The problem comes when congregations do not follow the Scriptures when it comes to choosing elders. If a man does not already display the gifts of an elder (shepherd) outlined in Scripture, then he should not be elected or even nominated. Too often, men are chosen based on their status in the church or even the community, rather than what gifts they possess.

In an aside to the OP, I question the idea of the combined elder/deacon positions. From what I can see in Scripture, these two offices are not only separate, but rarely does one man possess both sets of gifts. The office of deacon should not be a stepping stone to becoming an elder. I have only seen this cross of gifts once or twice in all the years I've been in church, but often, I have seen deacons who were promoted to elders making a mess because they were totally out their element. It is the congregation who suffers greatly in these cases.

In response to the question of what do you do with an elder who should not be there, provisions are made to recall someone who is not qualified, and it is the responsibility of the congregation to begin that process. When our church chose their first elders this past year (we are a brand new church), I was pleasantly surprised to hear our pastor take great care to explain to the congregation their responsibility before God of choosing elders based on Scriptural requirements and of recalling men if they failed to meet those requirements once elected.
 

Rich Koster

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
We're talking about church, not the House of Representatives. I think those men who are especially wise and fit for ministry should be always over us, if it is desirable to them - leaving room for the possibility of "inactive status" for a time. I don't think regular term lengths is a good idea at all. You might force a church to rotate out well-qualified spiritual leaders and replace them just for the sake of following the term pattern.

Am I completely off track here? :think:

I think you are spot on.

-----Added 10/9/2009 at 05:04:01 EST-----

Does anyone know how the synagogue elders were appointed and maintained in Christ's time? I have heard that early church leadership was modeled somewhat after the Jews' familiar synagogue structure, and I can see how that might be the case. So does anyone know whether synagogue elders were rotated? Not saying that should be the deciding factor in what the Church should do, but it might be interesting to note.

I believe in Leviticus retirement at age 50 is stated and there was a rotation of duties. However, we don't do temple worship and animal sacrifices any more.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
Does anyone know how the synagogue elders were appointed and maintained in Christ's time? I have heard that early church leadership was modeled somewhat after the Jews' familiar synagogue structure, and I can see how that might be the case. So does anyone know whether synagogue elders were rotated? Not saying that should be the deciding factor in what the Church should do, but it might be interesting to note.

I would love to find a scholarly article on first century synagogue polity. I think we would find some striking similarities between first century Jewish and Christian polity. :think:
 
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