What can be done about the high turnover rate for elders and deacons?

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We’re becoming increasingly disillusioned about Reformed polity dictating a high turnover rate in the offices of elder and deacon. It seems like people are just “warming up” to the job when they must leave in favor of others. In the case of one of our deacons, frankly, we were glad to see him go. But most of the time we seem to be trading in our “gifted performers” for “bungling novices.” What’s to be done?

This question is from a real-life situation to which Dr. Henry DeMoor has responded to based on his extensive knowledge of the Christian Reformed Church Order. The first answer given has been taken from the Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary written by Dr. DeMoor.

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My sense is that you are not the only one yearning for greater continuity. There’s a great deal to be said for longevity in office when gifted people are making ministry happen. The chairperson of a nearby diaconate complained to me recently that her deacons never seem to grow out of apprenticeship status. No business corporation, she said, would  ever tolerate such inefficiency. What’s the use of casting visions for true diaconal outreach in the community only to have your hopes for it dashed in the Christian Reformed council room version of musical chairs? Elders tell me discipline just doesn’t work when there’s always a “stranger” attempting the outreach.

As I pondered your question for a while, I began to appreciate your honesty about the one whose exit gave you joy. At the very least it is a glimmer of appreciation for limited tenure. A slated retirement is certainly less traumatic than a resignation or dismissal for lack of performance. The truth is that the practice of limited tenure has certain advantages. The more frequent the rotation, the more people we can use to serve in office. The gifted should have that opportunity. And if terms are reasonably short, more will be willing. Fresh insights and approaches sometimes enliven the council room as well as our congregational life. We avoid all semblance of hierarchy or domination by a particular group and lay no particularly heavy burdens on relatively few. You will counter immediately, of course, with the disadvantages you point to. Practice makes perfect, and the earlier we release from office, the less perfection we attain. Pastoral bonds are important and take time to be developed. Gaining a vision for particular ministries doesn’t happen overnight. Growing in confidence doesn’t either. This phenomenon is especially noticeable at our broader assemblies where ministers generally rule the roost simply because they have the experience. Practical considerations alone cannot settle this issue among us. But the fact that Scriptures do not address the issue directly and that fear of hierarchy is at the root of our choice has made us somewhat cautious about binding the church’s practice in the extreme, about becoming “ultra-Reformed” in the matter. This caution, I suppose, is what I would like especially to bring to your attention as you ponder what’s to be done in your congregation. The fact is that Article 25a does not bind us half as much as our established customs do. And we must never equate those two. Please note carefully that Article 25a does not spell out exactly how long the “limited time” must be. Such a time must be “designated by the council.” It could be two years, three years, four years, or even five years. It could be half of council, a quarter of council, or even an eighth. Thus, in a twenty-member council, you could have two elders and two deacons retiring every year, while the other sixteen members continue on their five-year terms. The article indicates that “the retiring officebearers shall be succeeded by others,” but goes on to say that exceptions are possible if “the circumstances and the profit of the church make immediate eligibility for reelection advisable.” Those reelected must then “be reinstalled.” But as you can see, one person could serve for ten years straight. At the heart of our limited tenure provision is not the detail but the principle that the congregation must remain meaningfully empowered to choose its officebearers. This, it seems to me, is what we must hang on to at all cost because it appears to be the lesson of Scripture, Reformed history, and Reformed polity. At the same time, the Church Order provides far more room in these matters than the local rules most of us have adopted as our own. What’s to be done? We should review them.

I think it is imperative that newly elected elders and deacons undergo orientation and training.  Seasoned veterans should attend continuing education classes.

In addition, all church meetings should follow parliamentary procedure. I think consistory work would be less frustrating if meetings had clear goals and objectives. Otherwise meetings dissolve into soap box complaints, bickering, and hurt feelings.

 

 

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