Term of Office
The elders and deacons shall serve two or more years, according to local regulations, and a proportionate number shall retire each year. The place of the retiring office-bearers shall be taken by others, unless the consistory with the deacons judges that the circumstances and the benefit of the Church render it advisable to have them serve another term, or to extend their term, or to declare them immediately eligible for re-election.
If one searches the Scriptures to find out whether elders and deacons should be appointed for life or only for a certain limited period, he will be looking in vain. No rule or command has been given in this respect. The impression that we do get is that the brothers were appointed for life. In several churches which originate from the great Reformation the rule applies that elders serve for life. For practical reasons they also know periods during which the elders are relieved of all the work as an elder, during which they are “non-serving” elders, but the ordination itself is for life, unless they move to another place. It is for the same practical reasons that this article contains the provision that elders and deacons shall serve for two or more years. This means that they are elder or deacon for just two or three years.
When, at the great Reformation, the offices of both elder and deacon were restored to their rightful place in the church, the churches were also forced to ponder the question whether the appointment and ordination should be for life or not. Although it was generally accepted that the Scriptural indications pointed in the direction of a calling for life, yet the churches did not follow this course and this for more than one reason. No opportunity should be given for another “clergy” to be formed, something which would be promoted if the same brothers stayed in office and formed the consistory. Another argument was that all the gifts in the congregation should be brought to the fore and should be used. There was also the element of time and of the care needed for the office-bearers’ own families. The days of persecution and the scattering of families brought extra work for the office-bearers and demanded so much of them that their own families might suffer too much if they stayed in office all the time. Also for this reason it was decided that every year half of the number of elders and deacons should be changed.
One of the early synods declared that “insofar as elders and deacons are replaced by others, this change will deprive the ministers of any chance to use a tyranny of their own over the church.” Our Church Order follows the same course by making the provision that the elders and deacons shall serve for a specific time only. When their term of office has been concluded, they are no longer office-bearers but “common” members of the congregation.
A calling can be for life; it can also be for a specific period. In the case of elders and deacons it is for a specific period.
How long should this period be? Article 24 provides that it shall be two or more years. This leaves it up to the churches to set the actual term. In most churches three years is customary; four years is the maximum we know of. Usually the brothers are happy when their term of office is at an end, even though they have served with diligence and joy. The work of an office-bearer — which usually involves more than one evening a week, especially when the number of meetings is multiplied — is demanding and it is a relief when one is freed from the responsibility after having served three or four years.
A period of two years is actually too short, especially for those who are an office-bearer for the first time. Although the work of an elder or a deacon never becomes “routine,” nor should ever become that, yet one has to get “into” the work and one has to learn how matters are being conducted in ecclesiastical life. This takes time. Besides, a period of two years is hardly sufficient to become acquainted with even one's own section. For the families and individual members it is not beneficial either when the visiting team changes repeatedly. Thus, for practical reasons, a period of three years appears to be a desirable minimum.
There may be reasons why the term of a brother is extended. Perhaps there is an undesirably large proportion of elders and deacons that has to be replaced. Brothers whose term of office may not have come to an end may be compelled to ask to be released from the call due to illness, moving away, or other valid reasons, thus causing an extra large number of vacancies to be filled. This may render it inadvisable to have all the brothers whose term has ended leave office and may result in extending the term of one or more of them. What should be the deciding factor is “the circumstances and the benefit of the church.” The reason why one’s term of office is extended may not be that “brother A. is such an excellent deacon” or that “brother B. is so eminently suited to be an elder.” When deciding whose term shall be extended, a consistory will do well when choosing the brother(s) whom it considers most suitable, but “the circumstances and the benefit of the church” should determine whether an extension of term is necessary.
It is also possible that the circumstances make it necessary to have one of the brothers serve another term. No rules can be given for this, only possible situations described. It may be extremely difficult to find another brother able to serve; it may be that one particular elder or deacon is deeply involved in a particular “case,” the end of which cannot be expected within the foreseeable future and that the consistory considers it mandatory that he continue in office for the benefit of the member(s) or family (-ies) involved. The congregation may be vacant and this may be a reason for having a brother serve another term.
In case a brother’s term of office is extended for another year or so, no ordination is necessary. If the brother is called to serve another term, ordination is in place. His call was to serve for so many years; now he is called again to serve so many years after the previous term has ended. He is on a level
with one who was elected to become an office-bearer not being one at the moment, and should be dealt with accordingly. The Reformed Churches do not recognize anything in the vein of an “indelible character” of ordination. Approbation by the congregation will be needed if a brother is called to serve for another term; no approbation is needed if someone’s term of office is extended for another year to complete someone else’s term. A consistory may also decide to make a serving elder or deacon whose term will expire a candidate in an forthcoming election. It is clear that, if the brother is elected, he will have to be ordained at the beginning of his new term. Whichever course is chosen, the benefit of the church should be foremost in the mind of the consistory.