One of the recommendations in last year’s Diakonia: Remixed report was that the Christian Reformed Church allow for longer, more flexible terms of service for elders and deacons. I recently discovered that the Presbyterian Church in Canada had taken a step in the opposite direction.
Diakonia: Remixed recommended that “the length of term should be appropriate for continuity and succession of ministry leadership, accountability for ministry outcomes, and the regular infusion and flourishing of gifts as the Spirit endows each generation” (revision to church order article 25). The report hoped that longer terms with more intentional training might “help unleash ministry potential, change the minimalist perception of the role of deacons, and lead to healthier churches with dynamic ministries.”
In 1997 the Presbyterian Church in Canada allowed congregations to move away from life time service for elders. A report evaluating this change (Term Service for Elders, available at http://presbyterian.ca/elders/) found that the response was generally positive. Those who responded agreed that fixed terms encouraged some to serve who might have been put off by a life time commitment and allowed for a graceful exit for those who no longer wished to serve. They also found that frequent leadership changes had not undermined the stability of congregations as some feared, and that sessions were not spending an unfortunate amount of time in leadership training.
The two reports are not exactly talking about the same thing. The Presbyterian terms are six years, not three years as is customary in the Christian Reformed Church, and Diakonia: Remixed was not advocating for life time service. But a Presbyterian move towards fixed terms can be a caution to the CRC if it considers longer and more flexible terms. I most cases that I have observed elders and deacons are grateful for the break the end of a term gives them, and in those cases when elders of deacons have agreed to extend their term by a year, this has rarely been a positive experience for them.
This may have less to do with the length of terms than it does with our practices for identifying and nurturing leaders. Diakonia: Remixed identifies intentional training as a factor for a revitalized diakonate. One of the Presbyterian churches surveyed said that training had become a continual practice. That church added, however that instead of being a burden this was a good thing.
The Christian Reformed and Presbyterian reports appear to be taking steps in the opposite direction, but both are concerned with providing leadership that will lead to healthy and dynamic ministry. However, much can be done to better and identify and train leaders within our existing structures. As Henry De Moor points out in his Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary “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.” (p. 138)