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A story of genuinely gracious dismissal

From the PCUSA to ECO

A story of genuinely gracious dismissal

By Jeff Wildrick, Special to The Layman, Posted Thursday, January 10, 2013

June 26, 2012, First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen, N.J., left the Presbyterian Church (USA) and became the 12th member of ECO (A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians). At that time, I had been pastoring there for over 12 years. Fifteen days following this momentous occasion, I celebrated 30 years as a pastor. It was a bitter-sweet experience for me, as I was leaving the denomination that had nurtured my faith and embarking on a new chapter in life, along with a small but growing handful of other pastors and churches committed to innovative, Reformed and evangelical ministry.

 

Our church had been talking about separation from the PCUSA for years. If anything, I was one of the roadblocks to departure. How many letters to the congregation had I written following General Assemblies explaining that even though what had happened was bad—even really bad—it was still worth staying, worth fighting? I taught and believed that God was still calling us to be a voice in the wilderness—crying, praying and actively working for denominational renewal. I lived this out in my own ministry. An active participant in the life of our presbytery, I had formed many friendships with pastors and elders across the theological spectrum. I’d served as chair of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, and at the time that we began our dismissal process, I was chair of Presbytery Council.

 

In 2010 the General Assembly removed all authoritative interpretations regarding the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals, and sent Amendment 10A to the presbyteries to explicitly remove the standards of fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness as requirements for ordination.  In May 2011, when a majority of presbyteries (including our own) voted to approve this overture, our session unanimously decided that we could no longer in good conscience provide any financial support to the PCUSA at any level. While many in our presbytery insisted on seeing this as a form of protest, we steadfastly affirmed that our decision was a matter of stewardship. The members of our congregation entrust our session to use the money that they give to God through our church in ways that promote the Biblical advancement of God’s work.

 

This, of course, raised the immediate attention of our presbytery, and put me in a rather awkward position as chair of Presbytery Council! The action of our session triggered two significant processes:

 

1)      The presbytery sent a “listening team” to meet with our session. (This would be the first of several candid meetings between leaders from the presbytery and our church.) The team, led by the presbytery moderator (and now moderator of General Assembly) Neal Presa spent hours with us that first night, listening to our elders and Denominational Relations Team as we read Scripture, shared stories, sometimes got a little angry, and expressed our profound grief over the direction that the denomination had taken in the past 20-plus years. One thing that our elders wanted to make clear was that the ordination of homosexual elders and pastors was, in our opinion, only the tip of the iceberg of possible heretical teachings that were taking root in the PCUSA.

 

At another meeting, the presbytery team took an equal amount of time to share their perspectives on the issues that were dividing us. They shared how hurt many members of the presbytery were at our use of the word heresy, and they argued that the term should only apply to theological disputes over the very nature of the Trinity. They also read Scripture, suggesting alternative ways of interpreting the passages that we had shared earlier and lifting up other passages that they felt were relevant to our concerns. They suggested means other than withholding per capita that we might use to express our concerns.

 

The most important thing that happened in both of these meetings is that we listened to each other and prayed together. We prayed for one another and for the Kingdom. We saw and treated one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. While no minds were changed, and our session upheld its previous decision to withhold per capita, a genuine dialogue had begun. This marked the first major step in the process.

 

2)      The Presbytery of Elizabeth, led by our Interim Presbytery Executive Greg Albert, Moderator Neal Presa, and Stated Clerk Paul Rack, began work on developing a clear process for “gracious dismissal” of churches within the presbytery. Their efforts took several months, and I made it a point to take a back seat whenever this process was being discussed at council. By now it was an “open secret” that our church would probably seek dismissal from the PCUSA if the decisions of the General Assembly were codified by the presbyteries in adopting Amendment 10A (which removed the fidelity/chastity requirement for ordained ministry). The document outlining the process for gracious dismissal was written with the stated premise that Christians should not take one another to court, and that if we did so it was the Kingdom of God that would ultimately lose. The  gracious dismissal policy was passed by the presbytery in November 2011.

 

Meanwhile, as our discussions with the presbytery about per capita wound down, our Denominational Relations Team began actively exploring the possibility of seeking dismissal from the PCUSA. One of the most important principles guiding our internal discussion was that we should move no faster and no slower than God. The passage of 10A convinced us that it was time to leave, and the passage of the presbytery gracious dismissal policy provided a way out. But we did not believe that we could seek dismissal from the PCUSA unless and until we felt God’s clear call to a new denominational home.

 

Specifically, we were seeking a denomination that would:

 

•      be radically committed to the Lord Jesus Christ;

•      be Reformed (Presbyterian) in its theology and polity (a requirement for dismissal);

•      be evangelical, with a clear set of theological standards or core beliefs shared by all ordained leaders;

•      celebrate the ministry of women in ordained ministry;

•      be outwardly focused and passionately committed to evangelism;

•      be committed to serving those on the margins of society;

•      have a limited, flexible structure that encourages and enables congregations to be innovative in ministry;

•      be accountable to one another and encourage one another in fulfilling the Great Commission, with minimal bureaucratic overhead;

•      provide comprehensive and affordable health care and retirement plans for our pastors and staff;

•      provide a healthy environment in which trust abounds and churches can flourish as they share the ministry of Jesus Christ;

•      uphold the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman;

•      uphold the sanctity of human life from conception until natural death.

 

Our Denominational Relations Team began to study several denominations and quickly focused in on two possibilities: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and something that was then known simply as the “New Reformed Body” being formed by The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP).

 

As we continued our own internal discernment process, the session authorized a series of four congregational forums on denominational issues. We felt that it was important to educate the congregation on the fundamental theological and practical issues that were creating a theological divide between us and the PCUSA. While everyone in the church had heard about 10A and the ordination of non-repentant homosexuals, the session wanted to be clear that these particular issues were only the presenting symptoms of much deeper theological and practical issues that concerned us. Once each month the Sunday sermon focused on a core theological or ecclesiastical issue, with no reference to denominational concerns. Following the service, the congregation was invited to attend a presentation and open forum during which we would discuss how that issue was impacting our relationship with the PCUSA. Our first monthly forum was held in January 2012 on the subject of Biblical Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation. Additional monthly forums focused on the Trinity, Church Discipline and Current Events.

 

After the “New Reformed Body” gave birth to the new denomination called “A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians” (ECO) in January 2012, our Denominational Relations Team came to believe that this was a denomination where we could flourish in our service for Jesus Christ. Not only did ECO meet all of the criteria we had listed, but also, having attended the covenanting meeting in Orlando with one of our session members, she and I believed that ECO simply felt like home. We felt both peace and excitement about our church joining ECO, and at our January session meeting, the Denominational Relations team brought a motion to session recommending that we seek dismissal from the PCUSA and to ECO. The session actually tabled the motion in order to have a season of study, prayer and fasting. The proposal was brought back to the session in February, and with a combination of joy and trepidation, was passed unanimously by 100 percent of the session!

 

Then we began praying that God would work both in us and in the presbytery to allow for a truly gracious dismissal. I believe that one of the most important decisions made by our session that facilitated a gracious dismissal process took place a few months before that February session meeting. A proposal had been brought to session that we hire an attorney to draw up legal papers that we could file against the presbytery in the event that negotiations over dismissal and/or property became hostile. The idea was that if we came to the place where we needed to go to court, we should be ready to strike first and strike fast in filing a lawsuit. After all, we had heard horror stories of churches that were engaged in negotiations with a presbytery team for dismissal, when without warning the presbytery as a whole formed an administrative commission to dismiss the pastor and session and seize the property. Perhaps spending $15,000 up front would allow us to preempt any such action, should it be necessary.

 

But the presbytery’s dismissal policy called for mutual transparency between the church and presbytery. How could we go into good-faith discussions with the presbytery if we were “hiding a nuclear weapon in our back pocket?” And how could we ask for transparency on the presbytery’s part if we were not transparent about having a Plan B? After much discussion, the session voted not to pursue this kind of legal “insurance.” We would trust God, and trust our fellow presbyters.

 

The Presbytery’s “Resolution Team” (RT) was chaired by then-moderator of Elizabeth Presbytery Neal Presa. Before the formal dismissal process began, I had invited Neal out to lunch at a local Thai restaurant. We’d been friendly acquaintances for years, covering for each other when the other was out of town and working together in leadership in the presbytery. While we share many beliefs in common, Neal didn’t think that the passage of 10A was sufficient reason to leave the denomination. He also understood, however, that our decision was not made in haste and was based on deeply held core beliefs. Over that Thai food, Neal and I reaffirmed our friendship, and more importantly our relationship as brothers in Christ. We agreed to do everything in our power to lead the church and presbytery through this discernment and dismissal process with integrity and grace.

 

Over the next three months we had many meetings with the RT. At the first meeting, with the session, the RT patiently and graciously listened as each member of session individually shared why he or she believed God was calling us away from the PCUSA and into ECO. We also gave each member of the RT a thick binder that included recordings of all of our Congregational Forums, as well as all PowerPoint files and handouts. We also gave them complete information about ECO so that they could make an informed decision about dismissing us to this nascent denomination, as well as a complete list of our members. We provided all of this information voluntarily and before being asked. Indeed, it was our goal to always be one step ahead of the curve in providing resources to the RT as part of our commitment to transparency.

 

After our first meeting, the RT established an e-mail address that any church member could use to give them feedback. They also sent a first-class letter to our entire membership list inviting their input into the discernment process. At a second meeting, the RT responded to the session, sharing areas where they felt the session might be mistaken or misinformed, and making a case for staying within the PCUSA. Passionate and thoughtful, the RT was consistently polite and respectful in our discussions, but they had a serious concern:  the impression of some members of the team (and by extension the presbytery) that our church was saying that they were not Christian—an impression that we never intended to give. Naturally, this was perceived as hurtful, and perhaps even hostile on our part. The underlying question was: “If you agree that we are Christians, why do you want to leave us?”

 

A simple analogy helped us overcome this hurdle. “Imagine that you are the pastor of a church, and you’ve been sharing ministry with your congregation for many years,” we explained. “Over those years you have grown to know and love the people, and they have grown to know and love you—even though there have been some serious conflicts along the way. But now it has become apparent to you that your vision for ministry is becoming very different from the congregation’s. They feel passionately called by God to move in one direction. You feel passionately called in another. Your values, perhaps even your core theological beliefs, are in conflict. What can you do?” This, of course, is a situation that most pastors and elders can readily relate to.

Continuing, we said, “On the one hand, you can stay and try to persuade the congregation to go the direction you believe God wants them to go, while at the same time they try to persuade you to go in their direction. There may be multiple votes about specific programs, and endless politicking. Meanwhile, not much of any ministry gets done. On the other hand, you can passively submit to the congregation’s vision for ministry. It keeps the peace, but inside you are miserable because you are living in conflict with your own core values. Passion wanes.”

 

Then, stating the obvious, we offered: “But there is a third alternative. Even though you love the congregation and the congregation loves you, there may come a time when God calls you to use your gifts in another part of Christ’s body. Parting may be painful, but if you and the church have a healthy relationship, you can acknowledge your differing calls and bless each other as you separate to pursue your God-given visions.” We explained that we loved the people of our presbytery, but we felt great passion and excitement as we believed God was calling us to pursue a new path in our journey with Christ.

 

At the end of the meeting we agreed to write a joint statement from the RT and session expressing those sentiments, which we would present at an upcoming “Congregational Town-Hall Meeting” in May.

 

Prior to the Congregational Town Hall Meeting, our Denominational Relations Team made an all-out effort to get as many people as possible to attend. It was standing room only. At one point the RT took a straw poll of those present, asking how many wished to be dismissed from the PCUSA. Almost every hand in the room was raised.

 

Until this point in the process, there had been no overt discussion about property in the discernment process. We knew that the time was coming when negotiations would begin. The session carefully weighed our options and agreed that we would initially ask to be dismissed with property in return for payment of all back per capita. Knowing that it was not unusual for churches to have to pay as much as 10 percent of their property value or ten years of per capita, we hoped and prayed that we wouldn’t have to drain our entire treasury to secure our dismissal.

 

Meanwhile, our Denominational Relations Team, working in the background and preparing to negotiate terms for our property, made a surprising discovery. Many years before, another church in the presbytery had given us a grant of just over $9,000 with the intent that we use it in Hispanic ministry. That church had received this money as a Self-Development of People grant from the PCUSA. Now we faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, this was denominational money. On the other hand, the money had been given to us, and we certainly could use it in our Hispanic ministry. After prayerful consideration (and a certain amount of confession of our corporate greed), God made it clear to us that we couldn’t very well ask the presbytery to be generous in dismissing us with our property if we were at the same time grasping to keep money that had been earmarked for ministry within the PCUSA.

 

Much to our surprise, before we ever had opportunity to act on this decision, we received a letter from the RT saying that they were recommending that we be dismissed to ECO, with our property, with the only financial requirement being that we pay all of our per capita that we had withheld in 2011 and 2012, pending a super-majority vote of our congregation and approval by the presbytery. We were elated, and we quickly spread the news through our congregation of how God had answered our prayers. I do wish that I could have been there to see the faces of the RT members when they read our reply, stating that we would like to give them $9,000 more than they asked for!

 

The Presbytery of Elizabeth’s gracious dismissal policy required a quorum of 75 percent of our members (in our case requiring 143 members to be present) and two-thirds of those present at the meeting (96 members) to vote in favor of dismissal. Our session members hit the phones, contacting every member in the church and urging them to attend the meeting, regardless of how they planned to vote. By now we had developed great mutual trust between the RT and our session, but we knew that there might be some in the presbytery who would view our process with suspicion. Accordingly, we made sure that every member signed in at the meeting in full view of an RT member before being handed a ballot. As Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust but verify.”

 

As it turned out, our sanctuary was filled with 204 members for the congregational meeting (including some homebound members who made a herculean effort to attend). While waiting for the votes to be tallied, we sang hymns along with the RT, and before announcing the results, I reminded those present that whatever the result, we should respond with sober recognition of the weightiness of the decision and respect for all present. I requested that if the vote was in favor of dismissal, our joy should be tempered with sadness as a relationship that had continued for over 140 years would be forever altered. The final vote requesting dismissal was 196 to 8.

 

Only one more hurdle remained: the presbytery vote. Although I was having conversations with as many of my presbytery friends as possible, I knew that some members in the presbytery would be deeply hurt, even angry, at our church’s request. Some would feel that we were getting away too easily, that we should provide greater financial compensation for the perceived loss to the presbytery. On our end, all we could do was pray.

 

What I didn’t know was how actively the members of the RT were working on our behalf. I’m told that presbyters approached several of those upset at the terms of dismissal and wanting an explanation. Our Stated Clerk, Paul Rack, had several conversations in which he shared his opinion that the “property clause” was being misinterpreted in presbyteries who used it to justify taking properties long held and fully paid for by members of the local church. The clause, he argued, was meant to apply to churches that were divided against themselves (which patently was not the case with us) or being dissolved due to natural death.

 

Also, what I’ve since been told by several members of the RT is that they repeatedly told the story of our graciousness. They told the story of our offering to return money to the presbytery that was unknown to the presbytery. They repeatedly affirmed that they believed that we had a clear call to ECO and that we would continue to serve God as a Reformed and Presbyterian presence in our community.

 

On June 26, the Presbytery of Elizabeth voted overwhelmingly to dismiss First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen and its pastors, Silvio Del Campo and myself, to ECO, along with our property. Following the vote, I asked the moderator for the privilege of addressing the presbytery. With tears in my eyes (and many tears among the presbyters), I thanked them for their graciousness and for our many years of shared ministry. “While we may no longer be walking hand in hand, we will continue to walk side by side as sisters and brothers in Jesus Christ,” I said before leading the presbytery in prayer and then in singing “God Be with You till We Meet Again.”

 

What were the keys to this gracious dismissal process?

 

1)      Prayer. Lots of prayer. At several points in this process we called our entire congregation to days of prayer and fasting. And our prayer was not just for ourselves. We regularly and consistently prayed with and for the members of the presbytery’s RT, the presbytery and the PCUSA as a whole.

 

2)      Relationships. Although our church had been a clear evangelical voice in our very progressive presbytery for many years, we had always worked to build and maintain loving and respectful relationships, and we had been active participants in the life and ministries of the presbytery. One of the presbytery’s more liberal pastors told me, “When I first heard that Dunellen was seeking dismissal, I was pretty angry. But then I said to myself, ‘But that’s Jeff’s church. I need to listen a lot more before I decide.’” Of course it’s not my church, but he couldn’t help but honor the relationships that my church members and I had worked to develop over the years.

 

We’d seen many dismissal processes in other presbyteries break down because the church and presbytery were adversarial from the start. Often, these churches had effectively removed themselves from the life of their presbyteries years, even decades, before. Churches and presbyteries seem to have been dealing with caricatures of one another rather than seeing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Lawsuits were preemptively filed. Harsh words were spoken on the floors of presbyteries—by both sides of the dispute. If the only time you ever go to presbytery is when you are angry, when you want something, or when there’s a divisive issue to vote on, you’re likely to have an uphill battle when seeking a gracious dismissal. If you stand on the floor of presbytery and tell them that they are apostate, you’ve already set the tone of the discussion.

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3)      Preparation. We made sure that every member of our Denominational Relations Team and every member of our session was familiar with the Book of Order and the presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy. At one point it seemed like our process was about to stall—until we were able to show the RT a way forward by pointing out a provision in their own policy. I studied the process of negotiation and taught basic principles to our leaders. Although we hoped we would never have to resort to the secular courts, we made sure that we knew as much as we could about church property law, and we had a lawyer read every major communication between us and the presbytery.

 

4)      Education. One of the best pieces of advice we received before entering the dismissal process was “use every medium and every opportunity to educate your congregation on the theology and polity issues that are motivating your change. Make sure that your educational process for your congregation is always a couple of steps ahead of the political process of dismissal.” Just about everyone in our church could articulate why we felt called to leave the PCUSA and become part of ECO. We also educated our congregation about the need to be gracious in their interactions with the presbytery. This spoke volumes at the congregational meetings with the RT.

 

5)      Transparency. This required a lot of trust on our part—trust that was based in large part on our ongoing relationships with key presbytery leaders. By communicating clearly and regularly with the team and with the congregation, we minimized the likelihood of rumors and misunderstandings.

 

6)      Initiative. By providing the RT with things they needed before they asked for them, we made their job easier. We remembered that, just like our session members, they were volunteers, serving God in the church in addition to having jobs, other ministries and families. To love them as brothers and sisters in Christ is to do unto them as we would want them to do unto us.

 

7)      Kingdom focus. Whenever possible, we reminded ourselves and the RT that the church is bigger than any of us. With presbytery leaders highly committed to ecumenism, we emphasized that dismissal into another branch of Christ’s church was not schism; it was congruent with our mutual experience and belief that different individuals and congregations might serve God more effectively in different denominational contexts. Denominations, of course, are found nowhere in the Bible. Both our church and the presbytery team were committed to honoring Christ in the way we treated one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

As we begin a new era for our church in a new denomination, we can look back with awe and gratitude for how God guided us and our presbytery, through a truly gracious dismissal process. We strove not to get ahead of the Lord or lag behind. We were open and honest with our thoughts, feelings and finances. We were generous toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, wishing them good and not evil. God has been so good and kind to us, and we are forever grateful.  I truly hope that by sharing this story with you, that the Lord Jesus Christ, and not the First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen or myself, will be glorified, and that we can be an example for other churches considering dismissal from the PCUSA. We are available if you have any questions or comments. You can reach me at pastorjeff@dunellenpres.org or through our church’s website, www.dunellenpres.org. Copies of most of the resources mentioned in this article (including many Spanish translations) are available for download at http://bit.ly/dunellenresources.

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