The Election of Elders During Covid-19 Restrictions

The election of elders is an important aspect of our congregational life, and is one we don’t want to put on hold until we can return fully to our church buildings. As the pandemic has continued from weeks to months a number of people have asked me how they might undertake the election of elders in these times. It is helpful to know that the process of holding an election is relatively easy to adapt, however the actual act of ordination becomes a little more complicated.

As Presbyterians, we have two options for electing elders. The first is to invite members of the congregation to nominate potential elders (ballot of nominees). The second is to invite the congregation to choose new elders on the basis of the membership roll of the congregation (ballot of members). Then, later in the process, the congregation would be asked to vote based on these nominations. Either option is viable during this pandemic and neither method requires a congregational meeting.

In either model, the Book of Forms allows for a committee to be formed to deal with the election of elders. I would advise this whether we electing elders in these days or not. (Please note that I have included the relevant sections regarding the election of elders from the 2019 Book of Forms at the end of this article).

In many ways, the real issue with either model is administering it.

  1. With the Ballot of Nominees model (132.2.1), receiving nominations should not be difficult.
    • With this model the call for nominations would need to be adequately promoted. This could include the use of mailings, and/or phone calls, and/or emails. Note too, that the nominations should come in writing. Please remember that only members of the congregation can serve as elders.
    • Once the nominees are received and the list compiled, it would need to be vetted by the Session and then the nominations sent out.
    • The sending and receiving of ballots (presumably with self-addressed stamped envelopes) would have some cost and there would need to be a time limit established to receive ballots.
  2. The Ballot of Members option (132.2.2), requires the mailing of congregational lists to all members of the congregation with their returning their responses. You can either mail or email these lists to members, but for ease and transparency, I would suggest you choose only one means of delivery. I suggest that mailing would be more desirable as not everyone has access to the internet. Once their ballots have been returned, it would be a matter of counting them and then approaching the nominees.
  3. Once the elders have been elected and approved by either nomination model, what follows is a 2 part process.
    • If the elected elders are already ordained, the session could induct them either virtually or at an in-person worship service. If the induction is to conducted during in-person worship, I suggest that candidates be invited to stand in their place within the congregation for the induction and either nod their assent or speak quietly into their masks rather than coming forward.
    • If candidates are not yet ordained, they should be invited to sit and correspond at session meetings until such time as they can be ordained by the laying on of hands.  In this way the work of the church can continue and these newly elected elders can begin to serve the church.

The Calling of elders is a holy act by which God calls individuals to service through the church. Over and over, scripture reminds us that ordinary people are called to lead in extraordinary times. We also see from their testimony that certain people are called in certain situations. One of the most profound stories of Calling we find in scripture comes to Esther when her cousin Mordecai says “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14b).

One question worth asking is who has come for such a time as this? It may be that you seek individuals with certain leadership abilities or stature within the congregation. This might be a time to expect a certain level of technological expertise in order to work together effectively online. It may involve seeking individuals who have the time and energy to devote to the task of ministry leadership and extended pastoral care. However you decide to proceed, it is worth spending time as a session prayerfully considering the type of elder God is calling into leadership during these days.

Blessings in your search, and please, do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions or concerns.

John-Peter Smit


From the Book of Forms 2019


132. Election to the eldership is the call of God, through the congregation, for service in Christ’s Church. Since the eldership is a spiritual office concerned with the rule and pastoral oversight of the congregation, only suitable men and women should be considered. They should be committed Christians, in regular attendance at public worship, persons of sound judgment and upright character, and either knowledgeable or prepared to learn of the government of the church. (see sections 106–106.2 and 449–449.4)

132.1 The right of electing elders is vested in the professing members of the congregation.

132.2 When the session has resolved to add to the number of elders, it gives notice to the congregation. A ballot is prepared using one of two procedures:

132.2.1 Ballot of nominees

a) The session, or a nominating committee of the session, as well as professing members of the congregation, nominate members. Nominations from members must be in writing and made by at least two persons, either separately or together.

b) The nominating period must be spread over at least three successive Sundays.

c) The session approves the nominees as to their suitability for eldership (see section 132) and their willingness to serve as an elder if elected.

d) The names of all those deemed suitable and willing to serve are placed on the ballot.

132.2.2 Ballot of members

The session prepares a ballot that consists of the names of all professing members of the congregation including elders whose term of service is complete and are eligible for re-election. (see section 108)

132.3 Ballots are distributed to all professing members for voting or a congregational meeting is called, with at least two Sundays notice, for the distribution of ballots and the election of elders. A ballot must be given to any member who is unable to attend this meeting but who requests a ballot from a member of session. Such ballots are to be returned and counted with those distributed at the congregational meeting called for the election of elders.

132.4 Members shall vote for the names of those they believe should be called to the eldership. The ballot is then enclosed in a sealed envelope and the envelope is signed by the member.

132.5 Ballots shall be returned within a period determined by the session.

132.6 The session, or a committee of elders appointed by the session, shall open the envelopes and set aside the unexamined ballots. They shall destroy the envelopes and examine and count the ballots.

132.7 When a ballot of nominees is used, the session shall determine the candidates who have been elected based on the strength of congregational support demonstrated by the number of votes each one receives and the number of additional elders required.

132.8 When a ballot of members is used, the session shall determine which candidates to approach about their willingness to serve as an elder based on their suitability for the eldership (see section 132), the number of votes each one receives and the number of additional elders required. The session will cease approaching candidates once the required number of elders is reached or the list of approved candidates to be approached is exhausted. The candidates will be deemed elected as elders upon confirming their willingness to serve.

132.9 After the election the session appoints the edict of ordination and/or admission to be read before the congregation at least ten days prior to the ordination. (see Appendix A–11)

132.10 On the day appointed for ordination, the session is constituted. If no valid objection has been made, the moderator, after the sermon, calls forward the elders-elect and puts to them the prescribed questions (see section 449). On receiving satisfactory answers, the moderator proceeds by prayer to ordain the candidates to the office of ruling elder, commending them to the grace of God for comfort, aid and countenance in the exercise of their office. The right hand of fellowship is then given to them by the minister(s), member(s) of the Order of Diaconal Ministries, and elders in token of their taking part with their brothers and sisters in the oversight of the congregation. The newly-ordained elders and the people are suitably addressed by the moderator, and the names of the elders are added to the roll of session.

132.11 Elders previously ordained are not re-ordained but are admitted to the session. They shall reaffirm their commitment by answering the prescribed questions. (see section 449)

132.12 Elders must be ordained and/or admitted in presence of the congregation and preferably during Sunday worship.

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