Elected for life?

Is it in the best interest of the church for a person to remain in a leadership position for decades simply because he has avoided serious mistakes and egregious blunders?

Morris Chalfant is pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Norwood, Ohio.

Viewpoint is designed to allow readers an opportunity to express opinions regarding matters of interest to their colleagues. The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the MINISTRY staff.

You are invited to submit your ideas to Viewpoint on any topic; however, the editors reserve the right to make a final decision regarding the appropriateness or suitability for publication.—Editors.

William Wrigley of chewing-gum fame was said to have changed any method that he had used in his business for ten years or more, even if it had been paying off, because of his fear that it might otherwise become sacred. The church, of course, has always been one of the great defenders of the status quo. And there are some practices and beliefs we should never change. But many things in the church rest on nothing more solid than "we've always done it this way." One such practice is the "life tenure" many church leaders hold.

I believe that one of the major factors that has hindered church growth in many denominations stems directly from the refusal of those who hold executive positions in the church "hierarchy" to relinquish power and responsibility for any reason short of ill health or retirement. A question being asked again and again at the grass-roots level is: Should a person remain in leadership for decades simply because he has managed to avoid serious mistakes and egregious blunders?

James Madison wrote in the Federalist, "Liberty demands not only that all power should be derived from the people but that those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people by a short duration of their appointments." Yet many men who are now in church leadership have been in these positions of power for ten or twenty years, and some for more than a quarter of a century. For the most part these men have performed with distinction. But it is my strong opinion that for the best interest of the total program of the church and for the morale of those serving local congregations a method should be developed to ensure a wider participation in leadership opportunities.

The practice of limiting terms of office in the church is widely applied to laymen, but the tenure of the clergy has been assumed to be an exception to this principle. Most church groups are very reluctant to remove a leader for any cause, unless it is a case of moral or ethical failure. Incompetent administration or a lack of wisdom is seldom sufficient in itself.

In addition, the political aspect of church organization and elections gives the incumbent in office a tremendous advantage. He is known to the member ship of the church and can call many of them by name. This makes it very difficult for him to be unseated if he does not wish to be. Consequently men who do even reasonably well can expect to be perpetuated in office until retirement. I do not believe this is good either for them or the church.

Some church executives change after they have been in leadership over a period of years. Sometimes a heady sense of power in office generates these unfortunate transformations. If we want to understand this feeling, consider how many motorists change when they get behind the wheel. People who are normally courteous and decent, who would never think of pushing ahead in a bank line or bumping some other pedestrian off the curb, turn into bellicose aggressors under traffic conditions. Dr. Jekyll is transformed into Mr. Hyde fast enough to scare the wits out of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Most will agree that executives have the same human nature as the rest of us. Because the use of power runs all too naturally to the abuse of power, leaders can enter their new position with deep humility, only to lose that quality after a few years because they have not distinguished the dignity of the office from their own. Forthright opposition to their policies is sometimes called obstruction ism or even labeled going contrary to the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, groups in power for a long time develop techniques for getting work done and for speeding up the democratic process, but in doing so, they all too often tend to brush aside groups not in power, especially those that have never been in power. A few months ago 1 wrote one of the executives in my denomination of my desire to change pastorates from the one I have served the past ten years. We are both the same age, around threescore years. Here is a portion of his answer to my request: "I can understand your interest in making a move, and 1 will continue to work with you in this regard. I'm sure that there would be places where you could move, Morris. But to be honest, I'm afraid the size of the church and the salary and benefits would be much smaller than you now are receiving. * The facts of life are catching up with those of us who are getting older, and I just have to be frank with you at this point. If you are willing to accommodate to such situations, I think we could place you without any problem. This certainly does not mean that I feel that your abilities have diminished or that the contribution that you can still make to the church is compromised. I just know that the emphasis in the church more and more is on youth, and we must face these realities."

How odd! A pastor at age 60 is considered disqualified by his age from greater responsibilities, while the church executive of 60 feels his age is no impediment to continuing in the office he holds!

The question being asked by a growing number of pastors is: How can executives ethically accept all the benefits and privileges of their leadership positions until they have reached the age of retirement, but no longer can recommend a pastor, because of his age, for a place of leadership comparable to that in which he has been serving? It is my opinion that many denominations need to be honest about power games and realize that power will eventually be invested, and has been invested, in a few individuals. Why not be honest and admit it? Pastors in all denominations are becoming increasingly restless regarding the power structure of executives who remain in office for long periods, sometimes for a quarter of a century. This unrest is heightened by the double standard between executive leaders, who upon reaching their 60s have another five or ten years of service, and pastors, who upon reaching their early 50s are in many instances faced with a limited place of service.

My denomination has been blessed with outstanding executive leadership. For the most part, intelligent, capable men have served. They have been wise and godly men who have stood for truth, standards, and doctrines, and have kept our denomination on a solid footing. But experience indicates clearly that the benefits resulting from such long terms in office are unfortunately far outweighed by the losses. The benefit of continuity and administrative know-how is not nearly as important as the losses in perspective and sensitivity. The average executive, after a decade in office, loses touch with what is going on at the grass roots. More and more he turns for counsel to his peers, the denominational elite, and less influential people come to learn that they get less and less consideration.

The answer to this problem is not easy. What can be done about it? In my opinion, quite a bit: (1) prohibit the election or appointment of an executive over age 60; (2) elect executives every four years; (3) limit executives to two terms, such as is done for the President of the United States. Such a plan would give the executive leaders ample time to put their administrative programs to work, and it would also return some outstanding men to the pastorate, evangelistic field, and colleges. There are many colleges and churches that would like to have their institution graced by a former high executive of their denomination.

This plan would correct the prevalent trend of diminishing usefulness. When those serving as pastors have reached their early 50s, they could still look forward to another ten years of productive service. In my denomination, my observation is that it has been the men on the local church level in their 50s and 60s who have been the ones to give our denomination its greatest years of growth. This plan would let many executives realize that they too would have to face again the problems at the grass-roots level, where the action really is.

Some time ago when I discussed my concern about the peril that long tenure for ordained executives is having on my denomination, I was informed that my suggestions would not work because "we have never done it that way." Perhaps. But let's not canonize past methods. We don't have to elect church officials for life.


* Seventh-day Adventist pastors do not face
this financial problem. Each pastor is paid by the
local conference organization from the tithe of all
the churches in that conference. The pastor of the
largest congregation receives the same basic salary
as does the pastor of the smallest church. With
only minor variations because of allowances based
on local factors, the same is true among the
conferences—a pastor in one conference receives
the same basic salary as his counterpart in other

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Morris Chalfant is pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene in Norwood, Ohio.

May 1983

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