How long should an elder serve?

Presenter: Bob Deffinbaugh

Question: How long should an elder serve?

There are those who conclude that an elder is an elder for life.  I am not one of those.  This is more an argument from silence that from clear biblical statement.  I would say that a man is an elder. . .

so long as he meets the qualifications
so long as he is able to fulfill the duties of an elder
so long as the church continues to acknowledge him as a leader (functionally or formally)
so long as the elder desires to serve in this capacity

In the churches that I have been a part of, elders do not have a designated term.  Some have served for 10 years or so, and have found that it was time to step aside (and in so doing, they continued to serve the flock in numerous ways).  We have elders who have died in office.  We have also had elders who resigned for personal or family reasons.  We have had elders who stepped aside, and later came back on as an elder.

The fact is that the Bible does tell us what elders do and what their qualifications for holding the office are.  But it does not tell us precisely how elders are appointed, or for how long they should serve.  This, in my opinion, should be instructive.

I have been at an international church in Indonesia where some of the elders were in the country for only 3 years, and so their term was short.  I’ve been in some churches where one or more elders are physically or mentally unable to keep up with the task.  I’ve also seen situations where existing elders were no longer regarded as such by the congregation.

One of the dangers among elders (and, it would seem, among members of congress as well) is that the longer they serve the more power and authority they seem to acquire.  Thus, there is also the danger of becoming domineering.

In our church we have an “elder evaluation form” that we ask the church to fill out on all elder candidates (these candidates are put forth by the elders).  We do an initial evaluation (form), followed by a later one (usually 6 months later), so that this person can now be evaluated as one who has been serving with the elders (as a provisional elder).  In our early days, we had a question at the bottom of this form that read something like this:  “Are there any current elders who you believe no longer qualify, or do not fulfill their function adequately, as an elder?”  I think there is the need to evaluate the function of every elder from time to time.  I would recommend that this be done by the elders every year or so, and perhaps by the congregation at some point in time.  It might even be good to have a required sabbatical, where an elder steps aside for a year or so.  At the end of that time, the elders, the congregation, and the individual elder could express their desires regarding an extended term.

In churches where the office of elder is viewed as a lifetime calling, men can be tempted (even pressured) to remain in place, even though they may be keeping younger men from stepping into leadership.  They may also be holding the church back because they are not a capable as they need to be (even senile, in some cases).  Yet the feeling can sometimes exist that one’s authority as an elder is directly proportional to the length of one’s tenure as an elder.  Such thinking is false, in my opinion.

I think it is very important for the elders to be open and direct with one another regarding these matters.  How much better that one of your friends and colleagues inform you that your time of profitable service as an elder has come to an end.

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