There is a time to stand down

In most churches there is a limit to how long anybody can be a lay leader in the church. Many English Baptist churches, for instance, have the rule that deacons may serve on their leadership team for a maximum of two three-year terms – after that they have to stand down for at least one year. In some churches an exception is made for the senior deacon and the church treasurer, who are allowed to serve as a deacon for a maximum of three terms (i.e. nine years) for the simple reason that two church officers are normally elected from the deacons, and have often already served one terms as a deacon without being a church officer.

Why this limitation? Primarily because in this way there is the possibility to introduce ‘fresh blood’ into the leadership. Without such a limitation it is felt that a leadership team could become ‘fossilised’.

However, amongst German Baptists there is no such limitation. Indeed, in March of this year I was asked to preach for a friend on the occasion of his retirement as the church’s ‘senior deacon’ after thirty-three years of service in that role. The commitment which those thirty-three years represented was quite staggering – and all the more so in that much of this time my friend had been the headmaster of an elite secondary school. Furthermore, the church of which my friend was the ‘senior deacon’ was relatively large, and so his role was more time-consuming than might have been elsewhere. Yet in spite of all the demands of time and energy, my friend had been able to remain remarkably fresh, so that throughout his time he was constantly taking the lead in terms of new initiatives and new ways of doing church. The church really had cause to thank God for him.

From a British perspective, there was another unusual feature to my friend’s service. For, as is the custom in all German Baptist churches, what in Britain we call the ‘senior deacon’ or ‘church secretary’ is in Germany called the ‘church leader’ (Gemeinde Leiter). The church I was visiting was therefore celebrating thirty-three years of lay church leadership. In that time a number of pastors had come and gone, but my friend, the church leader, had stayed – and in doing so had offered continuity, if not security, to the church. I confess that theologically I have problems with this model of leadership, for I believe that it is the pastor who is called to spearhead the mission and ministry of the church. Furthermore, I have reservations on practical grounds for I know that in some churches this model of leadership can produce tension between the minister and his ‘church leader’ – although I have to say that this was not the case with my friend, who was always very much supportive of whoever was the pastor.

This was the context in which I took as my text the words of ‘The Preacher’: “For everything there is a time” (Ecclesiastes 3), in which – amongst other things – I developed the idea that ‘There is a time for growing old and standing down’. I said:

I confess that I do not like thinking of myself as an older person. I certainly do not like the concept of retirement. And yet, we do grow older, and there comes a time when it is right to stand down. On reflection, we could re-word the text to reflect this stage of life. With your service as a ‘church leader’ in mind we could say, amongst other things:

There is a time to lead, and a time to be led
There is a time to serve, and a time to be served
There is a time to be known, and a time to be unknown
There is a time to do, and a time to be

Even when, as now, I have the vision and energy to do things, I – like you – am having to come to terms with the fact that I along with other older people am no longer a member of the ‘ruling generation’. Here is a call for humility and grace!

So that is my theme for this week’s blog: there is a time for everything – including a time to stand down!

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