Questions about Denominational Discernment

We appreciate your interest in the Denominational Discernment vote coming up in in September. In order to help you make an informed decision, we have assembled the following questions and answers. To see the answer to a particular question, simply click on the question, and the answer will drop down.  To view or print the entire FAQ document, please click the following pdf:  First Presbyterian-FAQ

The word “Presbyterian” refers to “rule by elders.”  Presbyterian churches are based on a representative form of government and a connectional approach to relating churches to one another.  Each congregation elects elders (ruling elders) to serve with pastors (teaching elders) on a Session, and together they provide spiritual oversight and govern their particular church.  Each church belongs to a Presbytery, a regional body designed to provide spiritual oversight and serve the local churches in its area.  Representatives from each Presbytery come together every other year at General Assembly, a national gathering of commissioners from all the presbyteries, where denomination-wide policies are created or modified by vote.

The theology and form of government of Presbyterianism are rooted in the theology and polity (or church government) of John Calvin, the great reformer in Geneva, Switzerland, in the 1500s, along with his disciple John Knox of Scotland, who at this same time.  Presbyterian theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the centrality of Christ, and the authority of Scripture.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA, was formed in 1983 when two Presbyterian denominations merged. The PCUSA is one of thirteen Presbyterian denominations in the United States.  The PCUSA is governed by the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. First Presbyterian Church became a part of the PCUSA by means of the 1983 merger.  Prior to that time we were part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), sometimes referred to as the former Southern Presbyterian Church.

The PCUSA influences our church both in its form of government and in its theology.  The Book of Order and the Book of Confessions provide the rules by which the churches of the PCUSA must adhere, and they provide the theology which is supposed to guide all the churches in our denomination. The continuing tension we live under in the PCUSA is that the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions have been changed in recent years in ways we believe are inconsistent with the faith and witness of First Presbyterian Church.

Changes in the PCUSA have taken place in recent years which prompted our Session to ask two questions.  First, is First Presbyterian Church still aligned with this denomination?  And second, is the PCUSA the best context in which our church can fulfill God’s call to mission and ministry?  For the past two years, the Session has been engaged in a focused time of discernment, especially concerning the theology, practice and structure of the PCUSA.  Specifically, we have focused on the questions of: “How can we best live out our Reformed faith and continue to be Presbyterian?” and “What would Christ have us do as we seek to fulfill our mission?”  See the next section for the results of our study that led us to consider dismissal.

Reasons to request to be dismissed from the PCUSA

There is a growing segment of the PCUSA whose understanding of the authority of Scripture and the uniqueness of the Person and work of Jesus Christ differ significantly from our own.  The PCUSA has adopted policies regarding or raised questions about the authority of Scripture, the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and other matters that are in opposition to the principles and beliefs of the vast majority of members at First Presbyterian Church.  Recent votes at General Assembly and in our Presbytery suggest that the direction of the PCUSA will continue to diverge from our own, and our differences will only deepen over time.

We believe the main problem in our denomination today is theological, and it has to do with the Person and work of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture.  Many church leaders in the PCUSA do not hold to a traditional Reformed understanding of Jesus as the way of salvation.  For example:

  1. Only 42% of PCUSA members, 45% of ruling elders, 41% of pastors, and 27% of specialized clergy strongly agree or agree that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”  (See Presbyterian Panel Survey: www.pcusa.org/research/panel).  Contrast this with the survey of our congregation conducted three years ago, when we were looking for a new senior pastor, which revealed 98% of our members believe, “There is no other way to salvation but through Jesus Christ.”
  2. 37% of PCUSA members, 30% of ruling elders, 11% of pastors and 27% of specialized clergy in the PCUSA strongly agree or agree that all the world’s religions are equally good ways of helping a person find ultimate truth. (See Presbyterian Panel Survey: www.pcusa.org/research/panel).  Again, compare this with what our members believe regarding salvation through Christ in #1 above.
  3. At the General Assembly in 2008, a proposal was made that said “Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship a common God.”  Fortunately, that language was amended before the final overture was approved.  But this reveals there are many leaders in the denomination who do not believe Jesus is the unique and only Savior.

An increasing number of pastors in the PCUSA interpret the Bible in ways that are not faithful to positions the Reformed tradition has historically taken, and some try to explain away the miracles of Jesus and the resurrection in human terms, negating the power of God’s Kingdom.  (E.g., “The resurrection is a metaphor.”)  Examples of this weakness in our denomination’s commitment to biblical authority include:

  1. In 2010, ordination standards were changed from “must live in obedience to scripture” (in former FOG, G-6.0106b) to “must be guided by scripture” (nFOG, G-2,1014b).  When there was an overture proposed in 2012 to add back into the Book of Order the words “under the authority of scripture” as it relates to ordination standards, it failed by a ratio of 4 to 1 in voting by the commissioners at the General Assembly.  Contrast this with the results of our congregational survey, where 90% of the responders said the Bible is the literal or authoritative Word of God.
  2. The debate at the February 2013 meeting of Presbytery on an amendment to the Book of Order was troubling to our elder commissioners.  The proposal was to include the words “repentance and the means of grace” to national ordination requirements for church officers.  In the debate, one speaker in our presbytery said, “Repentance is such an archaic word.  It isn’t full of grace.  We don’t need to go back in time and talk about repentance.”  However, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth when He began His public ministry were, “Repent and believe the Good News!” (Mk. 1:15).  The proposed amendment to the Book of Order to add the word “repentance” was defeated by our presbytery.

The Creeds and Confessions of the PCUSA remain an accurate witness to the revelation of God in Scripture.  However, they are often either ignored or openly violated with no consequence.  Over time an increasing number of ministers in the PCUSA have taken positions that are inconsistent with the historic tenets of our faith, and many church leaders no longer draw their standards for belief and practice from the official Confessions of the PCUSA.  The Confessions are viewed by some as historical artifacts that don’t serve as the plumb line against which one’s theology and practice are measured.  Here are some examples of this:

  1. The editorial board of the new Presbyterian Hymnal recently decided not to include the hymn “In Christ Alone” because the composers weren’t willing to change the lyrics from “the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified”.  The editors reject the traditional Reformed understanding of the Atonement. (“Atonement” is a word used to describe how the death of Christ on the cross justifies a person and restores our relationship with God.)
  2. At recent presbytery meetings, candidates for ordination and transferring ministers have given questionable Statements of Faith.  For example, a candidate for ordination at the February 2013 meeting of presbytery had this in his Statement of Faith:  “God redeemed Jesus.” This implies that Jesus needed redemption and therefore He was sinful.  A correct Reformed and biblical statement is: Jesus, who was God and fully human yet without sin, redeemed the world.  The candidate was approved for ordination, though his theology appears to contradict the Confessions of the PCUSA.
  3. A number of church observers believe that a procedural ruling by the Stated Clerk at the most recent General Assembly meeting placed the Confessions at a lower level of authority than the Book of Order.  Some now believe the Book of Order has a higher authority in the PCUSA than the Book of Confessions.  Others do not agree with this observation.  Time will tell when more business comes before the next General Assembly and this question is put to the test.

In 1983 when the PCUSA was formed, our denomination had over 4 million members.  Today we have 1.8 million members.  That is a decline of 63% in just 30 years.  During this same period of time, the US population grew by 79 million people (now 313 million), which is an increase of over 33% in the population. At a time when the general population grew by 1/3, our denomination shrunk by half.  The Stated Clerk predicts that at this rate of decline, the PCUSA will have only 1.5 million members by 2016.

 

In addition, according to the Annual Statistical Report for 2012, the PCUSA performed 10,000 more funerals of its members (29,810) than it did baptisms of its children (19,862).  More members of the denomination are dying than are being born into it.  Further, over one-half of the membership of PCUSA is over 65-years-old.  The denomination is not attracting young people.  A further indicator that the PCUSA is deathly ill is the fact that 2/3 of its churches are under 150 members, and nearly 30% are under 50 members.  Twenty years ago, that last number was 19%.  These trends indicate a lack of spiritual health and serious spiritual problems.  It should be noted that a portion of this decline can be attributed to churches, with similar concerns to ours, leaving the PCUSA to join other Reformed denominations like ECO.

 

ECO is very aware of the alarming age demographic trends in the PCUSA and, in response, has a stated goal “to baptize more than we bury” by 2018.  ECO is pursuing this goal by focusing on four main priorities: lifting up the centrality of the gospel, growing with an emerging generation of leaders, prioritizing a wave of church innovation, and creating an atmosphere of relational accountability.

Almost since its inception, the denomination has allowed a steady decline of its support of and commitment to world missions, especially in the area of evangelism.  In the 1960s, the denomination had a high of 600 missionaries.  Today, the PCUSA has 170.

Sadly, Presbyterian Church partners around the globe have questioned or are questioning our General Assembly’s actions in recent years.  Presbyterian denominations in countries like Mexico, Ethiopia, Egypt, and even Brazil (where our congregation has a great legacy) have already or are considering disaffiliating from the PCUSA.  We believe we should not have to “play defense” every time a third world church leader asks us about the PCUSA.

For the past 25 years, First Presbyterian Church (FPC) has sent missionaries from our own church, and we have found it easier to work with organizations like The Outreach Foundation, Frontier Fellowship, and Antioch Partners than the World Mission division of the denomination. These other organizations represent mission models that are growing, not declining.

At a time in history when the church, outside the West, is growing exponentially, we want to align ourselves with a growing number of vibrant, theologically aligned churches who want to become truly “missional.”  The only churches that are growing are the ones immersed in local and world missions.  The same is true for denominations.

In his article, “Presbyterianism’s Democratic Captivity”, Joe Small writes, “Instead of working to achieve consensus on contested theological and moral issues, legislative agendas are designed to end debates by reducing the issue to two sides and then enacting one side into church policy and ecclesiastical law.”  We reach majority decisions (51%), not consensus, in the PCUSA, and the result is the continuing controversial conflicts that plague the denomination.  The Session of First Presbyterian prefers to be in a denomination that isn’t marked by such conflict and acrimony.

Here are some examples of the cumbersome or troubling nature of the polity of our denomination:

  1. The Gracious Dismissal Policy of our Presbytery was changed in October 2012, and another change is being proposed at a future meeting.

The October 2012 Change – Language in the policy was changed from “the Presbytery shall agree to dismissal, permitting the congregation to depart with all its property in tact” to “the Resolution team will ordinarily recommend to the Presbytery that  the church be dismissed with all its property in tact after legal and financial encumbrances are resolved”.  This sounds like a reasonable change in that the Presbytery should not be liable for any loans a church has taken out.  However, the discussion around this amendment revealed a broader reason for this change.  The key difference is a change from “shall agree” to “ordinarily recommend.”  This means the Presbytery will not automatically approve a church’s request for dismissal even after a congregation votes by the required two-thirds majority.

  1. Our elders who have been to presbytery meetings in recent years will tell you they are poorly planned and not enough time is incorporated into the docket for the various items that are scheduled.  Typically, there will be over 300 commissioners at a presbytery meeting in the morning, but very few ever stay after lunch, although meetings are generally scheduled through the afternoon.  It appears they believe it is a waste of time, or they would stay.  At the May meeting of presbytery, less than 1/3 of the commissioners that had been there in the morning stayed in the afternoon to vote on a major change to one of the confessions in our Book of Confessions (the Heidelberg Catechism).  A question was raised by a commissioner at the meeting as to whether or not we still had a quorum to be voting on such an important piece of legislation before the Church.  We are reassured a quorum was present, but with only one-third of the body still there we wondered if we should be voting on such an important matter with such a small representation of our churches present.
  2. It took our Associate Pastor Nominating Committee three weeks to get our Church Information Form listed on the PCUSA’s website after it was approved by our Session and the Committee on Ministry (COM) of Presbytery because of an inefficient and confusing system requiring passwords from multiple people in both the Presbytery and our church.    The COM then deactivated our listing on the denomination’s website before consulting with us when they learned of our Session’s decision to recommend dismissal.
  3. Many are concerned about the new Form of Government (nFOG) the denomination approved in 2011.  There is apprehension that it could lead to a more hierarchical government and Presbytery could exert more control over our church.  There is uncertainty by everyone as to what living into nFOG will actually mean.  Manuals of Operations need to be developed to establish a number of policies at the Presbytery and Session levels that used to be covered in the old Form of Government.

The nFOG is a complete rewrite of the Form of Government (a major section of the Book of Order), which comprises a major portion of the constitution that governs our church and denomination.  It was approved by the General Assembly and ratified by the presbyteries in 2010-2011.  Included in this rewrite are numerous modifications that change the way congregations within the PCUSA relate to the denomination.  While the precise impact of these changes will not be known for some time, there are concerns that the effect of the nFOG will be to move the denomination from a “connectional” model, in which congregations relate to one another, to a “hierarchical” one.  An example of a hierarchical model is the Episcopal form of church government, which is more “top-down” in its governance.  For example, previously under the old Book of Order Governing Bodies (Session, Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly) were “Separate and Independent” in their relationship.  Now they are simply defined as “Distinct” (F-3.0203 Book of Order).

Other changes in the new Form of Government include redefining “church” and church “membership” and removing the determination of a local congregation’s mission from the responsibilities of the Session.  In addition, many rules and regulations which guide how Sessions and Presbyteries order their life and function were removed in the new Form of Government, and each “council,” as they are now called, is required to write their own Manuals of Operation.  This means there will be inconsistency across the church in how church life is ordered.  Presbyteries can adopt procedures which are very different from other Presbyteries.  Some people like the missional emphasis in the new Form of Government, but no one is sure what this will really mean in practice.  Time will tell whether or not the new Form of Government was a good idea or a bad one.

Amendment 10-A is a significant change in the qualifications, or standards, for who can be ordained as pastors, elders or deacons.  Amendment 10-A was passed by our General Assembly in the summer of 2010.  Such amendments require ratification by a majority of presbyteries, and that was accomplished in May, 2011, and became part of our constitution on July 11, 2011.  Prior to passage, the Book of Order stated “those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture….among these standards is the requirement to either live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b).  This standard applied to all matters of human sexual conduct, not just homosexuality.

Amendment 10-A replaced that language with the following: “Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life” (G-2.0104b).  While “submitting joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ” sounds good on the surface, what that exactly means is unclear without specifics and without a continuing expectation that church officers will live in a manner consistent with Scripture.  In addition, two recent rulings by the PCUSA’s Permanent Judicial Commission approved the ordination and installation of a Teaching Elder, and removed the obstacles to the ordination of a candidate, both of whom were active in a gay lifestyle and refused to comply with ordination standards prior to the passage of 10-A.  When it comes to an individual’s sexual practice as it relates to ordination, each Presbytery and Session now has a “local option” to determine what the new language in the Book of Order means.

Theological pluralism is a belief that all religions are equally valid and there are many ways to God.  It rejects the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to the Father and the means by which a person can be saved.  Throughout the centuries, the Church has rejected such beliefs and labeled them as heresy because they are unbiblical.  Recent surveys of PCUSA clergy and elders reveal that an increasing number of church leaders reject historic Reformed beliefs about the Person and work of Jesus Christ and instead subscribe to theological pluralism.

Please refer back to question II B, 1-3 for specific examples.

Throughout its 150 year history, First Presbyterian Church has been deeply rooted in Scripture and boldly proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord of all.   These two concepts are foundational to who we are as a church and for the ministry we do inside and outside our walls.  In addition, what happens in the denomination impacts us, both in terms of attracting and retaining new members (some leave or never come to our church because of perceived guilt by association with the denomination), and the challenges of navigating the local governance of presbytery.  An example of the later is the fact that we must work with the presbytery to call a pastor.  In our current search for a new Associate Pastor for Mission, the Committee on Ministry of our Presbytery deactivated our Church Information Form on the denomination’s website before consulting with us when they learned of our Session’s decision to recommend dismissal.   It is unlikely a candidate will now be able to navigate the approval process required by the presbytery.  As a result, we will not be able to call a pastor in our current situation as we had planned and must now look for alternative ways to fill the position.   What happens in the denomination affects the local church, and vice versa.

Salem Presbytery voted in favor of the new Form of Government in February 2011, and it voted in favor of Amendment 10-A in April 2011.  Salem Presbytery also adopted a Gracious Dismissal Policy in July 2009.  This agreement contains the Presbytery’s framework and process for congregations that wish to be dismissed to another Reformed body. Our leaders have studied this agreement and consider it to be fair and gracious, especially when compared to some Dismissal Policies of other presbyteries.  However, Salem Presbytery’s policy was amended once in October 2012, and more changes are being proposed.

After much study and prayer, the Session feels that this is not a desirable option for several reasons.  First, the theological standards and practices of the PCUSA have created a conflicted witness to the world.  Churches like ours must continually explain that our theological standards and practices are not the same as the standards and practices of many in the PCUSA.  This makes evangelism difficult, and it prevents some committed believers from joining our fellowship.

Second, the very nature of Presbyterianism is to be connectional with other churches.  Our constitution holds that an act of one presbytery is an act of the whole.  By implication, therefore, we are being forced to violate our consciences in ordaining and installing candidates whose theology is questionable or whose manner of life we believe is inconsistent with the witness of Scripture.  Ordinations of pastors, deacons and elders are valid throughout the PCUSA, and all churches share in the identity and governance of the denomination.  Simply ignoring those with whom we are connected compromises our own self-identity.

Finally, the pastors and elders of our church have spent a great deal of time dealing with the problems in the PCUSA.  This use of their time has prevented our leaders from investing fully in the work of the mission of our church, which they have been elected and ordained to lead.  Aligning with other churches in what we believe is a more biblically-faithful denomination would free up our leadership to focus more on matters which promote the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ, rather than dealing with issues of theological disagreement.

There are at least four major reasons for staying in the PCUSA:

1. To avoid the cost of leaving in terms of money and turmoil within the church;

2. To avoid any legal dispute over ownership of the property;

3. To maintain a presence and voice in Salem Presbytery and try to work for change; and

4. To maintain the appearance of unity.

The concerns outlined in reasons #1 and # 2 have been largely resolved by the Gracious Dismissal Policy.  With respect to # 3, the internal conflict in the PCUSA has continued to grow to the point that the Session has lost hope that any real change can be effected in the PCUSA, and we now believe that the denomination will continue in a state of rapid numerical and theological decline.  With respect to #4, the organic unity of the Body of Christ and the Church universal does not require institutional unity and staying in one denomination.  Presbyterians have long believed that the PCUSA is not the only expression of the Church, and in fact, there are currently 13 Reformed denominations in the U.S.  This is one reason a Gracious Dismissal Policy was put in place – to provide for an orderly dismissal of a congregation from one Reformed body to another when it is warranted.  If unity was our highest value and goal, we would all be Roman Catholic and the Presbyterian Church would never have separated from the mother church during the Reformation.

Process of Change

After spending much time in prayer and study of all the Reformed denominations, the Session is recommending that we be dismissed from the PCUSA to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (also known as ECO).  ECO is partnered with the Fellowship of Presbyterians, with which our church affiliated in February 2012.  ECO is very closely aligned with our own church, both theologically and missionally.  ECO agrees with and embraces all of the beliefs and traditions of our church.  The Session unanimously believes that ECO would be an excellent fit for our congregation.  In addition, like the PCUSA, ECO is a member of the World Council of Reformed Churches, an international interdenominational organization of churches who trace their origins to John Calvin.

The Session believes that our church is more aligned theologically and missionally with ECO than it is with the PCUSA.  Many of the elders and lay members of our church have attended several conferences with ECO and the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) during the past couple of years.  At these gatherings our elders were able to see, hear and experience the vision and heart of this new denomination.  The founders of ECO have a rich history in being Presbyterian, and this new denomination offers our congregation a place to give and receive encouragement, maintain good accountability, and be better equipped to serve our community and the world as we pursue our mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ.

While ECO as a denomination is still new, our experience so far has been very rich.  Those who have attended the conferences have witnessed ECO and FOP growing into the denomination’s vision and stated purpose in a meaningful way.

“The name ECO is not an acronym. It reinforces our passion for strengthening the ecosystems of local churches. We believe the church is a living organism that needs life-giving resources to help it grow, thrive, and multiply. ECO is committed to cultivating a healthy, diverse, resource-rich ecosystem where pastors and congregations can flourish.

Our full name (ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) speaks to our core commitments:

Covenant: To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.

Order: To commit to a shared way of life as we unite around a shared theological core.

Evangelical: To advance the gospel of Jesus Christ and plant new missional communities.

Presbyterian: To stand within our Reformed heritage and celebrate the life of the mind.

It is important to note that while Session’s recommendation to leave the PCUSA may feel sudden and abrupt to some, First Presbyterian Church has been out of synch with the denomination and Salem Presbytery for many years.  As the denomination has continued to drift from the perspective of theology and governance, the Session has remained active in the regular meetings of Presbytery, and our leaders have attempted to voice our concerns regarding the issues where we differ.

We acknowledge and celebrate the fact that Presbytery, as well as the PCUSA, includes many individuals who are good and faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  However, the Session believes that the organizational disconnect between our church, the denomination and Salem Presbytery has now grown beyond what can realistically be bridged.  The recommendation of Session is the realization of a disconnect that has existed for years.  When an individual or a church experiences spiritual dissonance with what is going on in a denomination and presbytery, at some point a decision has to be made about the long-term future.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When you realize you’re on the wrong train, it makes no sense to run as fast as you can down the aisle in the opposite direction.  It’s time to get off the train.”

At this time Salem Presbytery has a Gracious Dismissal Policy in place that is fair. Other churches have already been dismissed, and the process has gone well.  However, there is concern because the policy was changed last year, and additional changes are being proposed.  In addition, there are concerns that the 2014 General Assembly is likely to pass legislation which will be troubling to our members, and we would rather go through the process of requesting dismissal in a time of relative peace in the church, rather than during a time of conflict in the denomination.  Waiting longer runs the risk of the perception that our church’s decision is in reaction to a recent action of the General Assembly.

Members of Session have taken note as other churches have been dismissed graciously from our Presbytery, and we have spoken with leaders in some of these churches to learn from their experiences.  Churches with which we have partnered through the Fellowship of Presbyterians are also aware of our discernment process, and they will be in prayer with us for God’s wisdom.  One of the churches in our Mission Affinity Group (Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlotte) voted overwhelmingly (95%) in May to request dismissal from the PCUSA to ECO.  In addition, we have also reached out to our church partners at El Buen Pastor and Lloyd Presbyterian to assure them of our continuing support regardless of what our congregation decides about denominational affiliation.

The Session has spent many hours studying our relationship with the denomination.  Now begins the process for the congregation of First Presbyterian to do the same.   Salem Presbytery will appoint a Conciliation Team which will meet with Session.  After meeting with the Session, if the elders still want to pursue dismissal, a Resolution Team will be appointed by the Presbytery.  Oftentimes the Resolution Team is comprised of the same people as the Conciliation Team.

According to the Presbytery’s dismissal policy, the Resolution Team is to work with Session carefully and prayerfully to help the congregation consider the recommendation to be dismissed to ECO.  The Session will lead the congregation in this process.  Our congregation is large, so good communication is essential.  We have already held town hall meetings to provide the opportunity for the congregation to hear how the Session came to its unanimous decision to recommend dismissal, and to also allow representatives from Salem Presbytery to respond.  Presbytery will be involved throughout the process, and we want to be fair and honor God in all we do and say.

In the fall we plan to hold Dessert and Discernment gatherings to provide more intimate opportunities for learning and discussion.  Look for details about these and other gatherings in the bulletin, church newsletter, and on the church website.  In the meantime, members of Session are available to meet with members of the congregation during the summer and throughout the process.

Later this year, after the congregation has had an opportunity for education and discussion, we will have two congregational meetings as specified in the Gracious Dismissal Policy, one to vote on the recommendation for dismissal, and the other to vote on the terms of dismissal.  These congregational meetings will be duly called and ample notice will be given to provide an opportunity for every member to be involved in making this important decision.

  1. We want our congregation to think carefully and pray earnestly about our actions and words.  As Christians, the world watches and sees what we do.  Are we being the light of Christ?  Do we seek hope for the lost by sharing the gospel?  Do we care for those who hurt and those on the margins of society?  Do we stand for grace and truth?  We want to honor God as we ask for a gracious dismissal from the PCUSA.

We are also concerned that some will perceive our decision to be a reaction to the growing debate about homosexuality.  While most in our congregation hold to a traditional view of marriage and human sexuality, there are some in our church who see the issue differently.  We want to respect everyone in this discussion.  Human sexuality and other social issues are prevalent in our society today, and we, as the church, need to be willing to play a role in the conversation with grace and humility.  However, we believe that the best context in which to wrestle with these important matters is in a denomination where Jesus is unquestionably Lord and the authority of the Scriptures is not debated.  We believe ECO provides a better context for us to do this than the PCUSA.

The Process of Dismissal

The Session’s process of discernment started in the fall of 2011 after the initial Fellowship of Presbyterian’s Conference in Minneapolis, which was followed by a series of Town Hall meetings with the congregation.  Through the fall of 2011, Harry Daniel, our Interim Senior Pastor, led the Session in a review of the essential tenets of Reformed theology.  The Session began the new year of 2012 by visiting Sunday School classes to foster discussion with the congregation regarding the discernment process.  Following a January 2012 FOP Conference, the Session was briefed by attendees and again met with the congregation via Town Hall meetings prior to its vote in February 2012 to affiliate with the FOP.  Our pastors met with Sam Marshall of the Presbytery staff to notify him of all these developments and ask for his advice and prayers.

In March 2012 the Session appointed a Denominational Discernment Committee which it tasked with continuing to monitor and study the landscape of the PCUSA and to aid the Session in becoming fully engaged as an FOP affiliate congregation.  The committee met twice a month for the balance of 2012, compiling a substantial catalog of articles and studies in order to increase their knowledge of the evolving trends and actions taking place within the PCUSA.  The Session also sent teams to subsequent gatherings of the FOP, and later met with Jim Singleton, President of the FOP, in January of 2013.  In February, at the officer/staff retreat the elders, deacons, and program staff spent time reviewing the history of Presbyterianism in this country, and how the PCUSA came into being.  In addition, the elders were given an anthology of readings, links and videos that the Denominational Discernment Committee complied to help all of them become more aware of problems within our denomination.  During this time, the Session of First Presbyterian Church continued to send its full complement of commissioners to all meetings of the Presbytery. The Session also began a period of small group discussions regarding Presbyterian history, what led to our denomination’s theological drift, and the benefits and liabilities of our denominational affiliation.  In addition to all of this, the elders entered into a season of prayer and fasting and were encouraged to read a book of spiritual discernment.  Dr. Barnes met with both Sam Marshall and Mack Dagenhart of the presbytery staff to make them aware of these developments and to ask for their advice and prayers.

On May 20, 2013, the elders voted unanimously to recommend to the congregation that we request dismissal from the PCUSA to ECO.

It is very important to understand that it is the congregation, not the Session, which will ultimately determine the outcome of this process.  Just as the Session has engaged in considerable prayer and discernment, now our congregation will need to begin a similar process.

Salem Presbytery has a defined process for churches considering dismissal from the PCUSA.  The process began with the Session notifying Presbytery of the Session’s vote to ask the congregation to consider dismissal.  The Presbytery will now appoint a Conciliation team that will meet with Session.  If the dialogue does not produce conciliation, a Resolution Team will be appointed by the Presbytery.  The Resolution Team will work with the elders as the Session designs a process for education, prayer and discernment.  When a congregational meeting is called to vote on dismissal from the PCUSA, representatives from Presbytery will be given an opportunity to speak at the meeting.

If the congregation votes overwhelmingly to request dismissal, then we move to a second phase of the dismissal process which involves negotiating the Terms of Dismissal.  This requires a second vote of the congregation to approve the terms.  The other churches in our presbytery which have been dismissed have all had large majorities of their congregations vote in favor of the motion (90% or higher).  In each case, the presbytery dismissed these churches with their property without any requirement for financial compensation, and it was up to the churches to determine an appropriate financial contribution to the Presbytery as a token of mutual support and blessing going forward.  However, if the percentage of our vote is less than 90 percent, the Presbytery will likely require a corresponding percentage of the church’s financial assets (such as the value of our property and our endowment, etc.).  If our congregation votes to request dismissal, it is in the best interest of our church to have a large percentage vote to do so.  Otherwise, it could severely restrict what our church is able to do financially in mission and ministry in the future, and the terms the Presbytery recommends may be unacceptable which would leave us in the awkward position of wanting to leave but not being able to afford to do so.

Again, the outcome of this process is determined by the congregation, and each member is invited to take part of this discernment process.

Voting Procedure

All active members present at the congregational meeting may vote.  There are no proxy voting provisions.  The Stated Clerk of our Presbytery is exploring whether or not a letter ballot is permitted, but this is not typically allowed at other congregational meetings.  We will need to wait on a ruling by the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly regarding this.

All active members are entitled to vote, including our youth who have been confirmed as members.  They, too, will have a time of education and discussion before the congregational meeting, and we will encourage their participation.

Under the terms of the Salem Presbytery Gracious Dismissal Policy, two-thirds of the active membership of our church (over 900 members) must be present for the congregational meeting.  Of those present and voting, two-thirds must vote for dismissal for the motion to pass.  However, even if the motion passes by a two-thirds majority, the actual percentage of those present who vote in favor of the motion is critically important in determining the portion of the church’s assets for which the Presbytery would like compensation.  The higher the percentage of the vote, the more secure our church will be to enable us to leave with our property and assets intact.

This vote is one of the most important events in First Presbyterian’s 150 year history.  Every effort will be made to inform the congregation of its importance and provide a way for all active members to attend.  However, if not enough people turn out to vote, the requirements for dismissal will not be met.

The Session has a deep desire for all of us to remain together, and members who do not vote in favor of dismissal from the PCUSA will be fully welcomed to continue to be a part of the First Presbyterian family.  Those desiring not to remain in membership in First Presbyterian and who wish to continue to be part of the PCUSA will be welcomed into another PCUSA congregation through a transfer of church letter of membership upon their request.

Financial Issues and Negotiation

For most of its history, when First Presbyterian Church was a part of the former Southern Presbyterian denomination (PCUS), our church owned all of its property.  In reunion with the former Northern Church, a property clause was added to the Book of Order which said churches hold their deeds of property in trust for the presbytery.  The Articles of Reunion of the two denominations in 1983 allowed for former Southern churches like ours to request dismissal with their property during an eight year window after Reunion.  If during this time a congregation decided it didn’t want to be a part of the new denomination, they could request the presbytery to dismiss them with their property.  If a super-majority of the church (two-thirds of the voting members at a duly called congregational meeting) voted to be dismissed, the presbytery would do so.  Although this “window” closed in 1991, presbyteries can still dismiss churches, but now it is on a case-by-case and presbytery-by-presbytery basis, and each presbytery has been encouraged to develop their own process for dismissal.

Chapter four of the Book of Order provides that congregations may leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) in possession of their property.  While First Presbyterian Church holds the deed to our property, the church technically holds all church properties in trust for the presbytery.  As such, the denomination has now asked presbyteries to seek some offsetting compensation when dismissing a church.  Our Presbytery (Salem) suggests in its “Dismissal Policy” several options which might compensate the Presbytery for its “historic and on-going work,” and enable support for those members who might not elect to leave the PCUSA.  If the congregational vote for dismissal carries and the Session feels the process with Presbytery has indeed been gracious and not adversarial, the elders have indicated that it is Session’s intent to continue supporting Salem Presbytery for a number of years, much like we do now, in a graduated way.  In any event, terms for dismissal will require a congregational vote.

First Presbyterian has no outstanding loans through the PCUSA , nor any financial dependence upon the PCUSA.  We do have a loan with BB&T which was taken out to help us build the Worship Center and correct problems with the roof of the sanctuary.  The total amount of our outstanding debt is around $800,000.

ECO would allow us to hold sole ownership of our building, properties and assets.  First Presbyterian would not be forced to negotiate property issues with its denomination.

We hope that any negotiation with Salem Presbytery will be amicable and fair to all parties.  The Session believes that Scriptural faithfulness is the church’s primary obligation, and we can trust God for the financial resources needed to remain faithful to Jesus Christ.

We will continue to support those mission partners in our Presbytery who now rely on our financial contributions and mission support.

The final step is called the transition of land, pastors and congregation. This will take place after all negotiations have been finalized and terms for dismissal approved by our congregation and the Presbytery.  During this step the PCUSA releases any claim on First Presbyterian property, the PCUSA releases our pastors from their PCUSA ordination vows if the pastors so choose (see next section), and finally, the PCUSA dismisses the congregation from the PCUSA.  At this point First Presbyterian would become an ECO congregation.

Considerations about our Pastoral Staff

Each pastor must decide individually where the Lord would have them serve—whether with our congregation in the new denomination, another denomination, or remain in the PCUSA.  However, our pastors have all indicated they feel called to FPC and will support the congregation in whatever decision we make.

It may surprise you to learn that our pastors, called Teaching Elders in the PCUSA, are not actually members of FPC.  In fact, they are members of Salem Presbytery.  This dynamic is the standard practice in all Presbyterian denominations (including Presbyterian denominations outside the PCUSA).  It is important to keep in mind that they will go through a similar, but independent, process of discernment as to whether it is God’s will for them (as individuals) to seek dismissal to another Reformed body.  Their process of discernment will take place after the congregation has completed its process.

Our pastors have said they are sympathetic to the concerns the elders have raised about the PCUSA and they are supportive of the Session’s recommendation for this church.  At the same time, the pastors will ensure that all the voices of the congregation, majority and minority voices, are heard and considered.

If the pastors decide to go to ECO along with our church, they will not lose any of their retirement or medical benefits, and they are vested in the retirement program in the PCUSA. However, as ECO pastors they will no longer be able to contribute to the PCUSA retirement plan, and they will no longer be covered under its medical insurance plan. ECO has its own retirement and medical plans which our pastors would join. However, pastors who no longer serve in the PCUSA will continue to retain their pension funds with the PCUSA’s Board of Pensions.
No. The salaries of our pastors are determined by the FPC congregation, at the recommendation of the Personnel Committee, and are not a function of the denomination with which we are affiliated.
In our current search for a new Associate Pastor for Mission, the Committee on Ministry of our Presbytery deactivated our Church Information Form on the denomination’s website before consulting with us when they learned of our Session’s decision to recommend dismissal. It is unlikely a candidate will now be able to navigate the approval process required by the presbytery. As a result, we will not be able to call a pastor in our current situation as we had planned and must now look for alternative ways to fill the position.

Reasons to Affiliate with Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)

If the pastors decide to go to ECO along with our church, they will not lose any of their retirement or medical benefits, and they are vested in the retirement program in the PCUSA.  However, as ECO pastors they will no longer be able to contribute to the PCUSA retirement plan, and they will no longer be covered under its medical insurance plan.  ECO has its own retirement and medical plans which our pastors would join.  However, pastors who no longer serve in the PCUSA will continue to retain their pension funds with the PCUSA’s Board of Pensions.

No.  The salaries of our pastors are determined by the FPC congregation, at the recommendation of the Personnel Committee, and are not a function of the denomination with which we are affiliated

In our current search for a new Associate Pastor for Mission, the Committee on Ministry of our Presbytery deactivated our Church Information Form on the denomination’s website before consulting with us when they learned of our Session’s decision to recommend dismissal.   It is unlikely a candidate will now be able to navigate the approval process required by the presbytery.  As a result, we will not be able to call a pastor in our current situation as we had planned and must now look for alternative ways to fill the position.

Questions about the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)

The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) is a new Presbyterian denomination that was formed in January, 2012, by pastors and congregations who felt called to leave the PCUSA.  ECO is part of a larger group called The Fellowship of Presbyterians, but unlike the FOP, ECO is distinct from the PCUSA.  The ECO website states that the full name (ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) reveals these four core commitments:  Covenant (connect leaders and congregations in relationship and collaboration), Order (commit to a shared way of life united around a shared theology), Evangelical (go out in the world to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and plant new missional communities) and Presbyterian (stand within our Reformed heritage and celebrate the life of the mind).  The website also lists four priorities: 1) Lift up the centrality of the gospel 2) Grow with an emerging generation of leaders; 3) Prioritize a wave of church innovation; and 4) Create an atmosphere of relational accountability. (See www.eco-pres.org for more information.)

ECO is part of the umbrella group, The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), but unlike the FOP, ECO is separate from the PCUSA.  It is a new Reformed Presbyterian body.  The FOP and ECO share the same statement of theology, but ECO has a separate structure.  For more information, visit the ECO website (www.eco-pres.org).  A one-page summary of ECO can also be found on the church’s website under Denominational Discernment.

Historian David Bebbington contends there are four primary features of the Evangelical faith expression:

  • A high regard for the authority of Scripture in the life of the church;
  • A focus on the cross as central to the atoning work of Christ;
  • A belief in conversion, that women and men, boys and girls, must place their faith in Jesus Christ; and
  • A commitment to actively expressing the Good News of God’s love in Christ in word and deed.

The Session of First Presbyterian Church has considered other Presbyterian denominations, particularly the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).  The PCA does not ordain women as ministers or elders, and First Presbyterian is committed to women being in leadership in our church.  It is also a more narrow expression of the Reformed faith than most of our members would be comfortable in.  The EPC does occasionally ordain women.  However, the ordination of women is relatively rare in the EPC.  In addition, we believe the structure of the EPC is more hierarchical and cumbersome than the structure of ECO, which is more minimalist in its approach to polity.  Finally, we like the missional emphasis and entrepreneurial spirit we see in ECO.  It is for these and other reasons the Session of First Presbyterian feels that ECO is a better fit for our church.

The structure of ECO is more flexible and minimal than the structure of the PCUSA.  Currently, there are two Presbyteries in ECO, one east of the Mississippi River and one west of it.  As the number of member churches grows, more presbyteries will be formed.  The structural guiding principles of the ECO Presbyteries are: 1) autonomy and flexibility for congregations; and 2) sustainability and support for each Presbytery.  The goal of ECO is to have high trust and low control between churches and the Presbyteries.  In addition, churches in ECO retain their property rights.

ECO uses the same book of Confessions as the PCUSA does.  However, in addition to these confessions ECO has a document called “The Essential Tenets and Confessional Standards,” which can be found on the website (www.eco-pres.org).  The Essential Tenets are a summary of the main beliefs in our Confessions.  As stated on the website:  “As a covenant community, our unity derives from a clearly articulated theology that is Christ-centered, Reformed, and Evangelical….  We believe Jesus Christ must be at the center of our lives and making disciples of Jesus at the center of our ministry.”

ECO is much smaller than the PCUSA, making the structure more flexible.  ECO emphasizes relationships between congregations by creating Missional Affinity Groups within the presbyteries and with other FOP churches.  Also, the core theology of ECO is more defined than the theology of the PCUSA.  Whereas the PCUSA talks about the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, it refuses to list what these specific tenets are.  ECO has a published set of tenets church leaders are expected to endorse.  Both denominations support the ordination of women.   PCUSA allows for the ordination of people engaged in alternative lifestyles; ECO does not.  However, all are welcome in ECO, and at First Presbyterian Church, regardless of one’s sexual orientation or practice.

The Session of First Presbyterian Church believes that there is risk no matter what we do.  There are risks associated with staying in a dying and divided denomination, and there are risks associated with joining a new denomination.  ECO becomes less risky as more churches join it.  As of July 1, 2013 the membership of ECO includes 57 churches, and it is anticipated that another 50 or so will join this year.  It is exciting to be a part of something new God is doing, and we will have an opportunity to shape the future of this new denomination by joining at this early stage.

While it is easy to focus on the issues of today and how they impact our current membership, the Session has also reflected on the church legacy we will leave to our children and future generations of members, leaders and pastors.  Do we want them to be challenged by the continued conflict and tension of the PCUSA, which has consumed so much of our time and energy?  Or, do we instead want to forge a path into a new denomination that is vibrant, missional, focused on equipping and holds fast to the same essentials that have been central to First Presbyterian for the last 150 years.  With these future generations in mind, the Session feels there is a greater risk in staying in the PCUSA.

Research and Questions

The Session will recommend to the congregation that First Presbyterian Church request that Salem Presbytery dismiss our church to the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO) from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in accordance with the Gracious Dismissal Policy of the presbytery.

We hope that you will pursue independent research.  To help you begin your own exploration of the issues, please visit the church website where many of the documents from the Session’s anthology of readings are available.  The Session is also in the process of developing a “file cabinet” of readings which will be available on the website.  Look at the PCUSA website, too, and review the materials the representatives from Presbytery will provide.  Do careful research and come to your own conclusions.  Ask God, “Where can FPC best serve God and the needs of the world, and where can we best fulfill our mission before the Lord?”

The members of Session, and especially members of the Denominational Discernment Committee (DDC), are well-versed in these matters as are the Pastors.  All would be happy to answer your questions and hear your concerns.  The members of Session and the DDC are listed below.  You will also have the opportunity to visit and speak with members of any team appointed to our church by Salem Presbytery.

The Session would like each member of the congregation to discern the same question they did leading up to the vote on May 20th :

“With all of the information I have heard and through all of my reflection and prayer, do I sense that God is leading our church in this direction as a body?”

Class of 2013         Class of 2014         Class of 2015

Ron Britt                    Elms Allen                 Rob Boone

Betsy Brown              Hardt Bing*              Amber Bryant

Jackie Cooke             Scott Herman*         Lynn Castaneda

Todd Rabold             Laura McNair           Bill Hinman

Karen Rice*               Lynn Nycum            Charlene Johnson

Tim Sechrest             Scott Sewell              Rick Wesley*

* Member of the Denominational Discernment Committee.  Elder Katie Satterwhite is also a member of the committee.