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Term Limits – What Are They and Why Would We Want Them?

At their March meeting, your Session decided to try something new. Session has mandated term limit requirements for Southminster teams.[i]  

What do you know about term limits? Why would a church want to put limits on committee service?  Why would a congregation require regular and continual turnover on teams? Aren’t we going to lose expertise and have to reinvent the wheel over and over again?

Healthy congregations gain a number of things from committee term limits, including: leadership development, breadth of experience and shared knowledge, openness and transparency.[ii]

Leadership Development

If you want someone to feel a part of something, give them a job to do. Mandated transition on committees will require us to invite new members to be involved. It prompts us to usher those on the periphery of our common life into the center.

Breadth of Experience and Shared Knowledge

Term limits for committees is a best practice that encourages shared leadership. Training new volunteers for committees may feel like more work, initially, but the more people trained in various tasks of our congregation, the deeper our bench becomes (to use a sports analogy). Shared leadership is a great way to invite new ideas and innovation. New committee members bring new energies, new perspectives and new ways of thinking. New people have the potential to refresh our common life. Together we can accomplish more than we could individually. Shared leadership provides adaptability and prevents unhealthy dependence or reliance upon any one individual or small group of people.

Openness and Transparency

Finally, as congregation members rotate on and off of our various committees, we share the knowledge and experience of these committees. More of our members begin to understand how these committees work and have access to how they make decisions. This openness and transparency builds trust and confidence in congregational leadership and a feeling of ownership in its decisions and practices.  Rotating committee members makes space for newer members to serve, inviting them into leadership and giving them quick access to involvement and decision making.  Term limits provides a mechanism to balance diversity on our committees so that: newer folks can serve alongside long-term members; the energy and idealism of youth can be balanced with the experience and wisdom of age; and, we can avoid the impression that have wheeler-dealers and decisions are made mysteriously behind closed doors.

Challenges & Pitfalls

But what about those who have given many years to Southminster committees?  Won’t they be displaced?  We value those who have served faithfully on our committees and want to honor their passion and their efforts. God has been faithful to us through them and we are forever grateful. No disparagement is intended. We celebrate their gifts and contributions and honor them. Term-limits is simply a means to regularly turn over and cultivate new ground.

Some anxiety may exist around potential loss of expertise, knowledge or institutional memory. Loss of memory and knowledge is always a danger, but only if those who possess that information do not communicate what they know and pass on what they have learned. In an ideal world, term limits would allow someone who has done the same volunteer job forever an opportunity to take a break or even to try their hand at something else in the church. Rotating leadership roles gives members a broader picture of Southminster. Rotating new people into roles shares the knowledge base about various responsibilities in the church, knowledge about process, information and institutional memory.

Yes, it takes more work to train someone new in a role. It takes more energy to communicate and share information. The easiest thing is to keep letting the same individuals, those who ‘know,’ keep doing the same jobs. Just like it is easiest to plop all my mail on the counter when I come home and plan to sort through it later (sometime), only to find after a month, that I have a huge task before me, sorting through old mail, throwing most of it out and discerning what needs to be kept and tended. If I sort my mail as a maintenance task, as I get it, the task remains manageable. If I wait, the task only grows. Short-term gain at the expense of long-term pain. We want training of new leadership and sharing of knowledge within the church to be something we are continually working on so that we aren’t stuck in a hard transition when someone indispensable is suddenly unavailable.

What’s Next

Session recognizes that there are challenges and anxieties surrounding the implementation of term limits. That’s why we plan to move slowly, but steadily, in this direction. Session has implemented term limits of six years for any committee. It is our hope that someone who has served a full term on a committee might try their hand at some other service within the congregation or take a break for revitalization. This may force some outside their comfort zone. Ideally this would encourage growth and new learning. After a three-year hiatus, an individual can return to a team on which they had previously served a full term.

We’ll go slow – only one long-term member will rotate off of any given team each year. It is our hope that those who have deep experience and knowledge of the workings of any committee will continue to offer their depth and wisdom as advisors and consultants when asked. Because someone is no longer on a committee, hopefully that will not mean that their knowledge is no longer available. If a currently serving session member is the longest tenured member of a committee, they will be exempted from the condition of committee term limits until the end of their current session term.

Despite the challenges, our hope is that this will be a good and energizing thing for Southminster. Let’s give it a vigorous effort and see how term limits could work for and benefit us as a congregation.

God says, “See, I am doing a new thing.” (Isa. 43:19) Whatever comes, we can know that we have enough. God provides. God has provided and God will provide in the future.  God will continue to be present to us and use this congregation, Southminster Presbyterian Church, which God has created, equipped and blessed.

[i] This is the language of the motion that session approved:
To encourage diversity and turnover, no session team member shall serve more than six consecutive years on the same team. After three years they may return to the same team for subsequent terms.”
Beginning in the team recruitment process for 2020 the most senior member of session teams meeting this condition will be rotated out, continuing to do so on an annual basis until we are in compliance. Current session members being excepted until their term on session ends.

[ii] Westminster Presbyterian Church, in our Presbytery, has had term-limits for years already.