New Life Community Church, formerly Covelo Presbyterian Church, is located in the eastern part of Mendocino County along the northern California coast. The 34-member congregation has been trying to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) since a unanimous congregational vote in 2011, but the Rev. Penny Proschold said the Presbytery of the Redwoods has made departure difficult.
“We haven’t been able to leave,” said Proschold, who started as the parish associate in 2002 and has been New Life’s stated supply pastor since 2006. “The presbytery won’t even recognize our new name. We’re supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ, and they don’t seem inclined to show us that respect.”
The church changed its name in April 2012 after a period of prayer, discernment and input from members to signify a new beginning with another denomination, to open the church to all members of the community and remove the stigma of being associated with the PCUSA.
Presbytery of the Redwoods is comprised of 52 congregations and located along the northern coast of California, stretching north of San Francisco to the Oregon border. The web site still has New Life listed as Covelo on its page showing congregations in the presbytery. There also is not a dismissal policy listed on the site, and that apparently is where the issue for Proschold and her small congregation lies.
“We were the first church in the presbytery to request dismissal (two years ago), and there was no policy in place,” Proschold explained. “The presbytery started considering a policy in the fall (of 2012), but there’s still nothing in place.”
Proschold said there have been two readings (at February and May stated meetings this year) of a policy that has been used in consideration for New Life’s request, but she is not sure if it is designed for all churches or just New Life.
“There were no votes taken, and we don’t expect a vote to adopt (a policy) during the Sept. 20 meeting,” Proschold said, noting that the November stated meeting is the presbytery retreat with no business scheduled. That means it could be February before the policy is considered for approval, leaving New Life’s congregation in limbo even longer.
“If a policy had been developed before anyone asked to be dismissed, it would have taken out all this drama,” Proschold continued. “They keep telling us we’re unique. I guess they’re making an example out of us, but we can’t figure out why.”
Calls and emails to the Presbytery of the Redwoods by The Layman were not returned.
Proschold said the presbytery presented an offer to allow the New Life congregation to leave, but the terms and conditions were so steep that they would have left the small church bankrupt.
Initially, a proposal was made in February 2012 to allow the congregation to pay 10 percent of the value of its property, including the church building and manse. With a value of $250,000, the church would have paid $25,000.
“We said, ‘Great, we’ll do it. Who do we make the check out to?’” Proschold recalled. “But when (the proposal) went to the presbytery in May (2012), it was not accepted.”
Then came another offer from the presbytery. This one, Proschold said, would allow the congregation to lease the property for 20 years – paying for all expenses during that time – as well as its per capita based on membership. An increase in membership during the 20-year period would raise the per-capita payment, but it would remain the same as its starting point even if the church lost members.
At the end of the 20 years the congregation could buy the property for 50 percent of its value and would be granted dismissal from the PCUSA at that time. If the value held true for 20 years, that still would be $125,000 along with all expenses paid for the maintenance and upkeep of property held in trust for the PCUSA.
“We did not like the terms offered with a 50 percent buyout. That would bankrupt our church. There was nothing gracious about it all,” Proschold said. “This would put us in a financial hardship. If we’re a bankrupt church, what’s the point? Our members wrote 92 letters to pastors and sessions in the presbytery asking them to release us under the initial offer made.
“It seems the presbytery is not looking out for the church but the denomination. All they see is dollar signs. We don’t feel like the presbytery cares about our ministry. All they seem to care about is what they can get.”
Proschold indicated that New Life was granted transitional membership into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in May 2012 and full membership in October 2012, pending its release from the PCUSA.
“We love the EPC, and it feels like home to us,” Proschold said. “It’s incredible to go to an EPC presbytery meeting and hear people say they are there because they love Jesus and want His name proclaimed.”
More than three-fourths of New Life’s members are 65 or older, and wanting to leave the PCUSA is not new to the congregation. The session has been talking seriously of leaving since at least 2007, basing its reasons on the PCUSA’s view on authority of Scripture, lordship of Jesus Christ, ordination standards and the adoption of the new Form of Government (nFOG).
There has been thought given to simply walking away from the property and even pursuing civil action. But Proschold said there is a split reaction to walking away from historic property dating back to 1884 that many feel belongs to the congregation anyway, and church leaders have been advised they have little legal recourse and would not prevail against the trust clause in California.
“The presbytery is just trying to wear us down, force us to walk away from our property or give up and stay,” Proschold said. “We just want to move on in our ministry. Right now we feel stuck, and it is very frustrating.”
Proschold is planning to retire effective Sept. 1, and the congregation cannot call an EPC pastor until it has been released from the PCUSA.
“We’re trying to get some movement here,” she said. “We want them to understand we just want out.”
Redwoods is the presbytery that in a 74-18 vote at a May 15, 2012, meeting, declared its opposition to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision to “rebuke” the Rev. Janie Adams Spahr, who had been convicted of performing same-gender weddings. During a five-month period in 2008 when same-gender marriages were legally recognized by the State of California, Spahr celebrated 16 weddings for same-gendered couples. In August of 2010, she was charged and convicted by the Redwoods Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) for violating the PCUSA’s constitutional prohibition of such services.