One of the most endearing qualities of godly older men, especially church elders, is that gentle smile, kind word and gracious acceptance of the younger generation coming along. There is something remarkably Christ-like in one who, having served well, does not consider past accomplishments “a thing to be grasped” (see Phil 2:6), but quietly lays aside rightful honors and works instead to make younger ones successful. The church needs men like this. In seeking a suitable description for such men, let’s consider the term “elders emeritus.”
Poking around a few online dictionaries yielded some interesting results. From the Latin, the word “emeritus” means “to serve out one’s term.” It is most often used of professionals like university professors and is usually given upon retirement. However, I did discover two facts that are noteworthy. For one thing, full retirement may not be required but the individual might continue to exercise some duties; the other, that the individual so described is being honored as one “respected and distinguished.”
Think of it—older men who can still function in a limited way being honored and accorded a distinguished place in the life of the church. What a formula for blessing! That means that assembly eldership might consist both of younger men who are serving “in active duty,” and older men who are held in honor and available for consultation even though no longer able to work at full capacity as they once did!
The scenario is not uncommon, but the terminology can be a barrier. In conventional thinking, to remain an elder, a man must struggle to “keep up” when health and stamina are waning, or he must “step down” (or “aside;” all sorts of creative terms are employed!) which can be heart wrenching for one who still has a lot to offer. Why not refer to such a brother as an elder emeritus?
Of course for such an idea to work, several things would need to be in place. Older elders would need to be humbly realistic about their limitations and willing to transition to a reduced schedule, sending a gentle message to the younger men of the assembly; perhaps something like this: “I won’t be around forever, you know, and I’d love to pass on the baton of leadership and work along side you, and encourage you while I still can.”
Contrast that with the defensive and self-protecting inflexibility of a man who can no longer do the work of an elder but cherishes the title. I remember a small, struggling assembly where the younger folks proposed a schedule change that would benefit the families. One veteran elder was heard to remark: “They’ll do that over my dead body,” and so they did, but the added years of waiting until the man finished his course did not help the church.
On the other hand, the younger men need to be willing to take up the burden of leadership and relieve those who have served faithfully for years, not forgetting to honor them by asking counsel or accepting exhortations when given. Much assembly work is fairly routine, such as preaching the Word, decision making and caring for the saints by visiting them and praying for them. But in times of crisis brought about by serious moral or doctrinal challenges, it is comforting to count on the support of those who may no longer be active but can stand together and face the opposers.
Finally, the support of the whole assembly to such an idea would be important. Some people, to be sure, are suspicious of change, even the use of new or unfamiliar words. But it is no small blessing when such become satisfied that as long as biblical principles remain steadfast – in this case, a true plural leadership – the church has liberty to implement ideas that will enhance clear communication and the equipping of the saints.
The Practical Outworking
Once a healthy transition in leadership is taking place (with or without the term “emeritus” in question), working out the details can be straightforward. Two areas bear watching: personal attitudes and serving relationships.
As to the former, the Scripture is clear, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.”(Phil 2:3 NKJV). Both the older and the younger must practice this outlook. Younger men can ask them- selves, “What must it be like to give your life to build something, and then hand it over to younger people who may ‘mess up’?” Also the question, “How would I want to be treated when I am nearing the end of the race?” Older ones can be asking: “Honestly, did I make all the right moves when I was getting started?” “Was the Lord patient and forgiving with me in my learning process?”
Serving relationships can be even more of a challenge. The tendency for older, more experienced men is to “pull rank” and start commanding the younger men. It takes real grace to stand by patiently while less than ideal decisions are being made. Many blessings can come from meditating on the way the Lord Jesus worked with His disciples—His patience, His love “to the uttermost” (John 13:1), His praying for them and then at the end, He speaks about them to the Father and has only good things to say (John 17)! We must remember that the growth of the servant is usually more important to God than the task being undertaken.
Why is this matter of passing the baton so difficult? How can good men spend the better part of a lifetime in leadership and not be able to let go? These are searching questions without simple answers. Here are some suggestions that may be useful in discussion.
Don’t wait for a situation to become an embarrassment. Begin years in advance to prepare for a reduced schedule for older elders and for the bringing in of younger men. Holding open discussions about the age and responsibilities for the “elder emeritus” can make transitioning a time of rejoicing and continuing fruitfulness. Even elders must be reminded from the Word that they are to find their security in the Lord so that handing over the reins to others is not viewed as a denial of personal worth.
Various practical measures can support the process. It’s a blessing when younger men are invited to sit in on an elders’ meeting and even discuss their feelings about one day being recognized as elders. Planning times of special honor for those who are distinguished as elders emeritus along with their wives is in keeping with biblical instructions about honoring the older members of any society.
Many assemblies are resistant to the idea of “congregational review” of leaders, thinking that God put them in place, so He alone can make changes. But how can elders teach accountability to younger men (a critical aspect of discipleship!) if they themselves are not open to change and correction? There are many examples in Scripture of how God leads either to confirm or to rebuke leaders through people who are simply “speaking the truth in love.” No elder should be afraid of constructive criticism. Done in the right spirit, an annual time for listening to the flock on subjects like “Who qualifies?” “Who is doing the work?” etc. can be a true blessing to the church.
There are many ways to make the whole subject of leadership in the church a thing of beauty and of blessing. But if we hear younger men saying, “I’m glad to serve but I don’t want the title” or “I don’t want to meet with those men,” we know that leadership is not healthy and the future of that assembly may be in jeopardy. Yet in the Lord, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Dealing with the question of aging elders is just one way to bring hope, but it’s a crucial one.