Friday, April 4, 2014

Can elders rotate?

I was recently (briefly) part of a discussion on a Facebook group for PCA Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders (I know, that may sound like it has strong potential to be a dull-fest—it’s actually a great group), and the topic was on elders—specifically, ruling elders in this case—having an agreed-upon “rotating Session” system.

For those unaware, here’s a brief synopsis: ordination to the office of ruling elder is life-long and perpetual, unless an elder gives up his office either voluntarily or involuntarily (the latter being due to a discipline issue). However, elders are not always active in their office; some will step off of “active duty” on their Session for a time, or perhaps they move to another congregation and aren’t (yet) elected to serve in the office. The question, then, is whether a Session should be “permanent,” in which case an elder serves indefinitely unless/until he moves or requests a break; or whether a Session should be “rotating,” wherein elders serve for a defined “term” of some stated number of years, after which he rotates off for a stipulated period of time.

Part of what makes this a controversial topic is the fact that in a rotating system, elders typically must be re-elected by the congregation in order to resume duties as active Session members. This seems, to some, to be antithetical to the perpetual nature of the office of elder. This is a sticking-point for most discussions (at least the ones that I’ve been a part of) on this topic.

For full disclosure, let me say that I lean favorably toward rotating Sessions, as I believe they have many merits and, in healthy congregations, few disadvantages. I should also note that neither of the congregations I have served as pastor have had them; and, in both cases, I was happy to submit to my fellow elders and to the will of the congregation about the matter.

In the particular discussion that I mentioned above, there were a number of points raised (or at least referred to), which I’d like to address. I believe that the stock answers to these questions, especially from the decriers of the rotating Session concept, are shortsighted and/or somewhat lacking in nuance. Therefore, this isn’t meant as rebuttal, but rather as a “fuller sense” of the questions and issues at hand.

(A couple of supporting “documents” were mentioned in this discussion, and I will respond to two of them directly; one is a blog post, which can be found here: Should Elders Be Ordained for Life?; the other is an article by John Sittema, from the OPC’s Ordained Servant magazine, entitled “Some Thoughts on Term Eldership." A further note here: I looked for John Murray’s article, “Arguments Against Term Eldership,” to no avail; perhaps it has been pulled down from sites that previously had it, as it is apparently included in a collection of works by Murray published by Banner of Truth.)

Claim #1: no biblical warrant

One of the most emphatically asserted claims is that “there is no biblical warrant for rotating terms of eldership.” It’s true; there is no proof text that I or anyone can point to where one of the apostles urged elders to rotate on and off of Sessions. Open and shut case?

Not quite. As the author of the URCNA blog linked above acknowledges, there is no biblical warrant for forbidding them outright, either! In fact, what is striking to me is that Scripture is essentially silent on the question of whether a ruling elder can or should serve indefinitely or on a rotating basis. At best, this question should be seen as an example of adiaphora—matters that are not essential, and of which Scripture displays a certain amount of indifference with regard to practice. (To say otherwise is to shift the burden of proof—which is a fallacious argument. It may also be a case of Bulverism.)

Two other factors on the “biblical warrant” question come to mind, though. First, if we insist that the lack of any biblical support for a rotation system means that it shouldn’t be done, doesn’t that also prohibit any kind of sabbatical or inactive duty whatsoever? In other words: as long as an elder remains a member of a congregation that has installed him as a ruling elder, is there any biblical justification for any cessation of that active duty (short of a sin/discipline issue)? It seems like you can’t really have it both ways here.

Second: when we lack a normative or prescriptive basis from Scripture (as we absolutely do with this issue), it’s useful to look for examples. Admittedly, we don’t have examples of ruling elders rotating off or taking sabbaticals from their duties. But we do have examples of teaching elders who do so! (Think of Timothy and Apollos, who served as pastors of New Testament-era churches, but only for a time before stepping down.) And interestingly, it often seems to be the stringent “two-office” guys who protest the loudest about a rotating system (the PCA Position Paper on the number of offices is helpful in understanding what this means). But if ruling and teaching elders are the same office utterly, why the double-standard when it comes to how pastors (teaching elders) are called to local churches, but usually only for a season? In other words, why don’t we expect pastors to serve congregations for the duration of their active lives of ministry? 

(I’ll admit that this last point is weaker; I believe, though, that its weakness is due to the inconsistency inherent to a straight-up “two office” view.)

Roy Taylor remarked that, "To argue that a rotational system is "unbiblical" is to infer that Calvin, Knox and the First General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (to which we trace our lineage) were either ignorant of the biblical teaching, in the least, or deliberately chose to ignore the biblical teaching.” Are we ready to do that?

Claim #2: the permanence of the office

Another problem highlighted with a rotating system is that it appears (to some) to fly in the face of our view of the office of elder as a permanent office: men who are ordained to the office never stop being elders. How can you have this and also a rotating Session?

Sittema is helpful here, as he points out the unfortunate association of the concept of “election” with regard to church offices to other forms of “election,” particularly of the more political form. This, he says, introduces some “bad habits” in terms of a congregation’s view of what it means when they elect men to serve as active Session members. He’s right, too, that such a bad habit—or rather, severe misunderstanding—leads to a highly problematic understanding of what an elder’s role in the local church actually is. In this case, a rotating system can be a further obstacle toward proper understanding of the office; indeed, it can further entrench the misunderstandings.

I think there are two things going on here, and both should be addressed. First, if there are misunderstandings about what elders do, they should be corrected. It is the Session’s job to instruct the congregation in the proper concepts of eldership—what it is, and what it isn’t—and to labor faithfully to disciple their flock in what they should expect from their elders. There is absolutely a pastoral and shepherding nature to the office, as is clear from Scripture and from the PCA’s (and others’s) church order; this is not in dispute by either side of this discussion. Elders must shepherd; they are not merely “board members” (which is exactly why I despise the label “Elder Board” instead of “Session”). 

Second, I believe there is a persistent misunderstanding in the PCA (again, among others) in the difference between “being an elder” and “being a member of the Session.” A church’s Session is the seat of its oversight, and is the sole authoritative body for a local congregation. No elder has any authority unto himself, except that which the Session delegates to him (this includes the pastor!). Elders are shepherds, and no less than that—but also, apart from their function as members of the Session, no more than that

This is actually the very reason why a healthy rotation system can benefit a congregation. The Session's authority and oversight requires certain kinds of work and demands attention that can sometimes stand in the way of a shepherd fulfilling all of his ordinary shepherding duties. (Most of us who are elders have been a part of Sessions where some matter arises that requires every minute of attention we can give it, for a season; this isn’t ideal, but it is the reality.) When an elder rotates off of the Session, he doesn’t cease to be an elder to the congregation; his responsibilities as an overseer, however, are lessened. In at least two congregations I’ve worked with (prior to my own ordination) where a rotating Session was in place, the “inactive” elders were really even more active in their shepherding of the congregation! They were freed to focus on visitation, teaching, and other shepherding responsibilities because they weren’t also given the demands of the congregation’s oversight.

Again, Sittema is helpful on this; even as he personally objects to rotating systems, he urges: “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."

Claim #3: the lack of continuity 

A frequent complaint about a rotating system is that an elder serving a three-year term is barely getting started in his work before his term is up! And it is true that a three-year term (which is a very common length of term for rotating systems) goes by very quickly. An elder serving for only three years would have to hand off a lot of responsibilities, and each hand-off would potentially slow down the progress of the proper oversight of the church. Is there a problem of continuity in a rotating system?

Probably not—mainly because this is something of a straw-man argument. It’s true that most rotating systems specify some term in the three- or four-year range. However, I’ve never seen such a system in place that didn’t allow, or even expect, that two consecutive terms could/would be served back-to-back. So now we’re up to six years.

(In one church where I worked, there were at least two examples of men who had been asked to serve a third term of a single year—and, upon his concurrence, the congregation had voted to approve this. Admittedly, this begins to undermine the very purpose of a rotating system! But it goes to show that, when continuity demands it, such a system can accommodate.)

Further, any major lack of continuity many indicate a lack of understanding of what it means to be an elder (see #2 above)—because, in a healthy system, an elder rotating off of his Session should actually be able to do more in terms of shepherding. This may extend to his participation in presbytery or Assembly-level work, as well, as there is no stipulation (to my knowledge) that, for example, elders serving on presbytery committees or commissions must be active on their congregation’s Session. 

Also: hand-offs happen all the time. Sometimes they are inconvenient, and even problematic. But there is very little difference in a hand-off that happens because of an elder retiring or moving, and a hand-off that happens because of a rotation. Oh, but one difference is key: with a rotation system, the hand-offs are both expected and normal, so everyone is used to it.

Claim #4: not enough men

Opponents of rotating systems state that rotations mean that leaders are annually burdened with the responsibility of finding qualified men as candidates. Nominations, training, examinations, and elections have to take place each year, in order to fill the next year’s “class” of elders. And what if no qualified men are found? Sessions will find less-than-qualified men and “create an Ishmael” (so says the URCNA blog post) instead of waiting for the Lord. What about this?

Here we have a continuation of the straw-man from #3, because the possibility of current elders serving consecutive terms is not taken into account. If there are no fit candidates to be newly-ordained and installed, then it is likely that at least some of the elders whose term is “up” can remain active for a second term.

This argument also ignores the fact of a long-standing rotating system: that, potentially, there will be a handful of men in the congregation who have served as elders previously and who are currently inactive; and, that these men might be re-activated for a new season of service on the Session. In a healthy church with a rotation, elders are multiplied over the years and there is virtually always a pool of fit, trained, and experienced candidates.

But isn’t this claim also an indictment against the pastors and elders who have neglected discipleship of their congregations? In a church where discipleship is actively occurring (led by the elders, teaching and ruling), God raises up those who will be led into service—as volunteers, as teachers, as deacons, and yes—as elders. Could it be that the reason why there is often such a shortage of “qualified” men for eldership is because the current elders haven’t identified men that could be qualified and sought to prepare them to be such?

Claim #5: not enough men, part deux

One interesting claim against a rotating Session is that it keeps the Session from growing to the size that it could if every possible elder simply was added to the existing Session. Many hands make light work—and by rotating some off, it keeps the workload unnecessarily high for the active elders. Shouldn’t we simply build up our Sessions with every elder that we can?

Three problems here. First, this continues the fallacy that an “inactive” elder is doing nothing at all. If inactive elders continue to fulfill their office as they are able, the workload will be diluted for the rest. 

Second, if a Session is concerned that the ratio of elders to congregants is getting too imbalanced, there may be deeper problems at work. It may be that the congregation is growing numerically, but not enough discipleship is going on to accommodate the growth in a spiritual parallel—and consequently, there are not enough potential candidates to be nominated for eldership. Or it could be that the Session simply isn’t accounting for this numeric growth in the way that they present the need for elders to the congregation, come time for nominations—and they need to ask for more elders than before.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t the Session’s final decision. In the PCA at least, our church order states that the congregation determines the number of officers to be elected, not the Session. The Session can (and should) make recommendations, and if they have taught their members well on the function and role of the elder then the congregation should happily accommodate the need for more elders! But it is the congregation’s decision. (Which, I would argue, means that the decision for whether a Session should be permanent or rotating should also be a congregational decision, after much instruction.)

Claim #6: we just don’t do that around here

In Sittema’s article from The Ordained Servant, he acknowledges that a rotation system (“term-eldership” in his words) is more of a “continental Reformed” approach to church order, rather than one of the Scottish/Westminster persuasion. The URCNA post perpetuates this, too, touting that the permanent/indefinite Session has a “long history” going back to our Scottish roots. Are we bound to a permanent Session because of our presbyterianism?

I’m all for learning from the wisdom of our tradition, and I definitely think we shouldn’t throw something out that is a long-standing universal practice (and especially not because it is a long-standing practice!). Yet here’s another potential fallacy, or a couple of them: this could be an inverse Chronological Snobbery (claiming that it is true simply because today’s thinkers are inherently inferior to those in a past era, also called an Appeal to Tradition) or an Inductive Fallacy (saying “here are many examples, therefore it must be so”). We have to be careful not to fall into a sectarianism about this kind of thing, because the Scots got it wrong sometimes, too. 

Why can’t we learn from the continentals, as well as from the Scots and Westminster folk? I don’t see why there must be a bifurcation, especially on something like this.

In the PCA, our Stated Clerk, Roy Taylor, commented extensively on the question of whether a rotating system is allowable within our polity. He said:

A rotational system of officers is in keeping with the early history flowing from the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. John Calvin led in restoring the office of Ruling Elder in reforming the polity of the Church in Geneva in the Reformation. Those who hold to Presbyterian polity trace their theological-polity lineage to him. Calvin instituted a rotational system of officers. It is interesting to note that they had one-year terms.

Is a rotating system “un-presbyterian”? Not according to our polity, nor that of some key players in our heritage. 

Freedom for Sessions!

Let me state plainly what I implied above: Sessions are free to go in either direction here. I may have a strong opinion about it, and many reasons why I think a rotating system is beneficial—but it would be wrong of me to impose that on even my own Session if they are not in agreement. It would be even more wrong of me to insist that other Sessions choose one way or the other, because there is no right and wrong direction to go here. Frankly, those who assert that there is are the ones in the wrong, in my view.


  1. Murray's writing in Elder Rotation is still available in a book series containing his works. I think volume two contains that writing.

  2. John Murray's writing on Rotating of Elders is available in the "Collected Writings of John Murray - 2:Systematic Theology," vol.2. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust. Chap. 29, pg. 351.

    I find your blog very interesting, but will have to digest it further as I think the preponderance of biblical evidence supports the permanency the office of Elder, but I never considered how that might relate to the session. My question would be, is the session biblical and can it be separated biblicaly from the elders?

  3. Very good post. THank you for your thoughts on this issue. If a very young PCA church (12 yrs old) only has 2-3 REs, does it make sense to have a rotation system? You say that "if there are no fit candidates to be newly-ordained and installed, then it is likely that at least some of the elders whose term is “up” can remain active for a second term." But what about a 3rd or 4th term if there are not sufficient resources? I realize that in an ideal world there would be men to serve as new Elders but this is not always the case. You then end up with elders that have to keep being elected every 3 years. ALternatively, do you make them rotate off for at least a year at the expense of having an under "staffed" session?