St. Luke JOY Presbyterian Church in northern Kansas City has been a transitional member of the EPC since Jan. 24 following its disaffiliation from the PCUSA in November 2013. The congregation is expected to become a full member of the EPC during the April meeting of the Presbytery of Mid-America.
The 160-member congregation at St. Luke, founded in 1957, chose to disaffiliate rather than seek dismissal, voting by a 96-percent margin on Nov. 24, 2013, to walk away from the PCUSA. A 97 percent vote to align with the EPC finalized the decision, which was made to avoid any potential conflicts in dealing with Heartland Presbytery.
St. Luke Pastor Mark Hughes noted that the presbytery does not have a gracious dismissal policy but has a standing Administrative Commission (AC) that works with churches seeking to leave. That AC has the power to remove sessions and pastors, taking control of the operation of a church if it sees fit to do so.
“That was not a situation our session wanted to get involved with,” said Hughes, noting the disaffiliations of Gashland Presbyterian Church and Colonial Presbyterian Church that ended up in litigation. “When a presbytery has a standing Administrative Commission with the powers of original jurisdiction, that is not a welcoming conversation to go into. We witnessed what happened with Gashland and Colonial, and the defense of their property. Those cases opened the door for us, but we were not interested in getting involved in anything like that. We did not have the resources to fight a court battle. It was also very important for us to honor Christ by avoiding a legal battle if at all possible.”
The cases of Gashland and Colonial, with rulings in favor of the churches at all levels, led to clear interpretations by the courts in Missouri that the state applies neutral principles of law in property disputes, ruling on the contents of deeds rather than by hierarchical deference, as the PCUSA’s trust clause indicates.
Brookdale Presbyterian Church, located in St. Joseph, Mo., also took the path to disaffiliation in August 2013, without any legal repercussions.
“The church has a solid claim to its property,” Hughes said. “If a dismissal policy had been in place, I’m sure the church would have abided by it. If the presbytery had wanted a gift of mission giving we probably would have provided it. But we felt the presbytery would want hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was no way to know for sure, but the past actions of Heartland Presbytery had not made it easy to leave. Look at the track record.
“We did not want to take a chance that the AC would attempt to take over operation of our church. This was an opportunity available to us, and we feel that Christ was honored by keeping the matter out of court.”
Tackling the issues
Hughes, who has been at St. Luke for nearly five years, said the congregation elected a Denominational Task Force in January 2012 charged with determining what was happening in the PCUSA, especially with the loss of a large number of members because of issues within the denomination. The group examined why there is fighting and malice within the denomination and why so many churches have been departing at such a rapid clip.
“We asked this task force to determine if the PCUSA was still a good fit for St. Luke JOY, if we should stay and be part of a prophetic witness or consider going to another Reformed body that would be a better theological fit,” he said. “When they started, the members were not of one mind, but they came to the point where they unanimously recommended St. Luke disaffiliate from the PCUSA.”
A series of town hall meetings took place, allowing the task force members to explain in detail how they reached their decision for recommending disaffiliation, leading to the vote that led St. Luke out of the PCUSA.
While some may point to the 2011 passage of Amendment 10A (which changed ordination standards for pastors, elders and deacons) and its reference to sexuality as a primary concern, Hughes indicated that was not the greatest issue before the congregation.
“In our meetings, sexuality rarely came up. It was a more a matter of who Jesus is and what Scripture is and means,” Hughes said. “The part that really bothered people was that Scripture and the confessions were to be used as a guide rather than as authoritative, and our people found that to be troubling.”
Also troubling was the trust clause the PCUSA considers binding in allowing church property to be used for the benefit of the national denomination.
“That’s not what binds us together in theological unity,” Hughes said. “The confessions and Scripture bind us together.”
Dealings with Heartland
Hughes pointed out that Heartland did not have any representatives at the town hall meetings, but members of the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry (COM) showed up the day of the vote to disaffiliate. The pastor indicated the representatives were welcomed but given no voice or vote on the matter at hand.
Once the results of the vote were tabulated and disaffiliation was the route chosen, the session drafted a letter and sent it to Heartland Executive Presbyter Charles Spencer and Stated Clerk Sally Henchman.
In response, the presbytery sent two letters to the St. Luke congregation inviting members to attend meetings at a nearby PCUSA church, but Hughes said there was no interest in that idea. He said the church has not lost any members in the transition from the PCUSA to the EPC.
Hughes had his own issue with the presbytery, though. He was contacted about a meeting he needed to attend with the AC but responded that he could not attend on the date given.
Two weeks later he was notified by certified letter from the AC that by his actions he had renounced jurisdiction of the PCUSA, therefore nullifying his ordination.
“I was expecting the COM to bring ecclesial charges against me because I allowed the vote (to disaffiliate) to take place, but instead I got a letter that I had renounced jurisdiction. It was just a spiteful thing. They really made it easier for me, I guess, in a matter of speaking.”
Hughes said the EPC did not recognize the alleged renunciation of jurisdiction and allowed him to transfer his ordination credentials.
Moving forward in the EPC
The St. Luke JOY congregation settled on the EPC because of clearly defined essentials of faith, something it felt was lacking in the PCUSA.
“It was important for us to have churches of similar beliefs near us,” Hughes said. “That provides mutual accountability mission opportunities and worship together. The EPC provides that for us.”
ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians also was considered as a possible denominational home, but there are no ECO churches in Missouri. There also are no ECO churches in Kansas or Arkansas and just one each in Iowa and Illinois, neighboring states to Missouri.
By contrast, there are 16 other EPC churches in Missouri alone.
Hughes pointed out that elders and deacons from St. Luke are finishing up their officer training with the EPC in anticipation of full acceptance into the denomination soon.
“We are very anxious and excited about this new chapter in the life of our church,” Hughes said. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”