The session of First Presbyterian Church of Fort Collins – the second largest congregation in the Plains and Peaks Presbytery behind First Presbyterian Church of Boulder – withdrew its request for dismissal on Jan. 13, ending a 13-month journey that started out as a means of discerning where God might be leading them.
In its report to the Plains and Peaks Presbytery, the Administrative Commission (AC) indicated the vote of the Fort Collins session to withdraw its request for dismissal to be an important step in light of survey results that revealed more than 60 percent of those responding were not in favor of the decision to seek dismissal from the PCUSA.
“We said from the beginning we were looking for a high bar, about 70-95 percent of the congregation wanting to be dismissed,” Fort Collins Pastor Rich McDermott said. “At 60-40 (percent) against departure, we weren’t close to the high bar we were looking for,”
According to an August 2012 story by The Christian Post, leadership at the church with approximately 1,000 members pointed to “irreconcilable spiritual differences” as the major reason for seeking dismissal.
According to documents from the church web site, the session indicated it found itself in “deep disagreement with the direction of the PCUSA away from its traditional standards on who Jesus is, the authority of Scripture, the guidance of our confessions, and the nature of the life to which Jesus and the Scriptures call us.”
Like many churches in the denomination, Fort Collins’ leadership called into question the decision of the 219th General Assembly to allow presbyteries to decide to ordain non-celibate homosexuals to church positions. Amendment 10A deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, and now allows the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors. Also of concern was the PCUSA’s stance on the definition of marriage as well as whether or not the church should own its property rather than having it held in trust by the PCUSA.
In response to concerns regarding actions of the PCUSA, Fort Collins formed a Denominational Discernment Task Force (DDTF) in December 2011. After much fact finding, prayerful consideration and numerous meetings, the DDTF presented its recommendation for dismissal to the session in the summer of 2012.
The Fort Collins session voted – by a 14-2 majority – on July 23, 2012, to seek dismissal from the PCUSA.
The session also voted to join in a covenant relationship with the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), which it has done, and begin the process of seeking dismissal to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination.
Fort Collins’ session met with a Presbytery Response Team from Plains and Peaks Presbytery on Aug. 6, 2012. Two days later, an Administrative Commission was appointed by the presbytery to oversee the dismissal process.
In November and December, surveys from the AC and the session were distributed to members of the congregation, and those results were released Dec. 28.
Results of the survey distributed by the session (about 40 percent were returned) indicated the majority of those responding were in agreement with session about the theological issues before the church.
More than 86 percent of those responding believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, and nearly 85 percent think Jesus Christ is revealed through the Scriptures, which are to be received and obeyed as the written Word of God. Better than 82 percent of those responding believe the Holy Scriptures to be the authoritative witness to Jesus as well as the final authority in all decisions, choices and actions.
Nearly 75 percent of respondents indicated marriage should be between “a man and a woman” rather than two persons, and about the same number believe that church leadership requires high standards and ordination vows. Seventy-three percent prefer that church leaders live by the previous Book of Order requirement to live either in chastity in singleness or in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman.
Another 67 percent of those surveyed agreed that the church should own its building rather than have it held in trust for the PCUSA.
But the Administrative Commission survey showed the majority of those responding were not in favor of dismissal. Nearly 500 (about 50 percent of those distributed by the AC) were returned.
The AC survey asked for reasons people attend Fort Collins and their participation in various activities. It also asked members to respond to eight questions.
In reference to believing the session was right to seek dismissal, 49.7 percent of the respondents disagreed compared to 32.1 percent who were in agreement.
Nearly half (49.9 percent) of those responding disagreed that the presbytery should heed the session’s request to dismiss the congregation to another denomination with property, name and assets as negotiated in a dismissal agreement. Just 33.2 percent of those responding agreed.
More than 45 percent of those returning surveys indicated the presbytery should not dismiss the congregation at all, while less than 34 percent agreed with such action.
Almost 62 percent of respondents agreed that the congregation is diverse and that honest differences of theological opinion can exist among faithful and connected believers. Only 12.7 percent of those responding had a dissenting point of view.
The “state of disaffection,” as it is referred to in the AC report to the presbytery, already has caused some division in the ranks, as members have left the church over the matter.
“We’re losing people from all parts of the spectrum,” McDermott said. “We’re still in a delicate situation in the sense that we have a congregation that still is divided over the issue.”
Additional details in the AC’s report to Plains and Peaks Presbytery indicated the “stated goal of the session and pastoral leadership is to work toward healing and reconciliation within the congregation.”
“It is the belief of the AC that they should be given an opportunity and actively encouraged to move in this direction,” the report reads.
McDermott said that is what church leadership is working to achieve.
“It’s going to take some time to go through the healing and reconciliation process,” he said. “We have agreed not to discuss dismissal for the foreseeable future. We’re looking at some processes to bring people together.”