Jack Spender

When Should an Aged Elder Step Back?

How old is too old? The issue is not age, but effectiveness. There comes a time when an elder should consider resigning because of advancing age. Physical limitations, reduced drive for doing things well, living in the past, resistance to positive change, memory loss, and declining health can all play a role in leading a man to consider stepping down as a shepherd of God’s people.

A realistic self-view

This can be a very difficult subject to address among elders. But an aging brother is often not aware of his diminished capacity and can become defensive or hurt at any suggestion hinting in that direction.

After years of being in the role of decision maker, influencer and shepherd of God’s people, an elder with a humble honesty and realistic self-view will demonstrate the grace of voluntarily stepping down as an elder—for the good of the local church.

Romans 12:3 says “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.”

In my files, I have found notes of unknown origin addressing how one would step down gracefully. (If anyone recognizes the source of some of these ideas, please contact us so proper credit can given.) The writer gives excellent wisdom for making the transition go smoothly:

How to “let go”

  • If you are carrying major responsibilities, begin transferring them to other elders.
  • Inform the other elders of your intent to resign at least a year in advance.
  • Look for replacement among younger men.
  • Begin training a potential elder by inviting him to meetings, taking him on visitation, and encouraging him in personal study.
  • When the new elder has been presented and endorsed by the church, consider resigning.
  • If, in the opinion of the other elders, the leadership would be seriously weakened by your resignation, consider continuing for a limited period.

Effects of resigning

  • “Passing the baton” is not a radical change when several leaders have shared the leadership equally.
  • The resigning elder must not spiritually retire.
  • The resigning elder must avoid a critical spirit regarding the subsequent leadership.

Effects of not resigning

  • Tends to limit development of younger men into elders.
  • Tends to stifle the vision and enthusiasm of younger men.
  • Tends to stifle constructive changes.

What is the threshold of effectiveness? Who sets the criterion? These are all difficult questions to answer. Passages in life are always difficult and seldom come with easy answers.

Just as rounding out the 12 disciples by selecting a replacement for Judas required utmost dependence upon God, so also with an aging elder, a wisdom greater than that of Solomon is needed—the very wisdom of God Himself. As it should be.

Indeed, seeking that wisdom is second nature to the godly elder accustomed to his own limitation and God’s infinite wisdom.

Editorial note. This article was first posted in Elder’s Shopnotes in May 2003. It is re-posted with permission from the author.

Jack Spender

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