First Presbyterian Church Lemon Cove, nestled against the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Tulare County, was accepted as a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians pending dismissal from the PCUSA and San Joaquin Presbytery in May of 2013.
It took another six months for the presbytery to grant that dismissal to ECO, which welcomed the 36-member congregation and Pastor Ian Hodge into the newest Presbyterian denomination at the start of this year.
“The last year has seen significant change in our church, but rather than feel overwhelmed by it, we have been energized,” Hodge wrote in an email to The Layman. “The previous co-pastors of the church retired in February of 2013, and for nearly four months the congregation stepped in to run the church. This was a challenging time, but also a time that made evident that God not only could but would use any and every church member to accomplish His work.”
Membership has grown since the November 2013 dismissal, and the average worship attendance has increased from 30 to approximately 50 people at the church, founded in 1907.
Lemon Cove was one of three churches from San Joaquin Presbytery to join ECO in the last year along with Sierra Vista Presbyterian and Northminster Presbyterian. A fourth church from the presbytery, Woodlake Presbyterian Church, was dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
Hodge, who became the pastor at FPC-Lemon Cove in July 2013, said the process of leaving the PCUSA started in the fall of 2012.
Meetings with a San Joaquin discernment team took place late in the summer of 2013, and the congregation unanimously voted for departure in October, leading to the presbytery’s November dismissal vote.
Hodge noted that the discernment process lasted a little more than a month, but all parties agreed that the move to ECO would be in the best interest of the church.
To be dismissed, FPC-Lemon Cove agreed to pay per capita for 2014 and to a reverter clause that gives ownership of the property back to San Joaquin Presbytery and the PCUSA if the church ceases to be part of a Reformed body in the next five years.
“The terms of the dismissal were very gracious, and we are thankful to the San Joaquin Presbytery for their loving and generous spirit,” Hodge wrote. “Part of our reason for choosing ECO as our new home is a desire to maintain strong ties to the churches within the San Joaquin Presbytery.
“The dismissal process was fantastically gracious, and we are nothing but thankful to God and our brothers and sisters remaining in the PCUSA. We look forward to continued partnerships with nearby PCUSA churches as well as other former PCUSA churches in the area.”
Joining a movement
Hodge indicated that choosing to leave the PCUSA was not an easy decision for the Lemon Cove congregation but one that had to be made, referring to it as “one that we felt obligated to take in light of the theological drift we observed in the national body, as well as a general sense of feeling that the national body wasn’t in tune with our needs and values as a small rural congregation.”
“Our desire was not to leave the PCUSA, but it quickly became evident that ECO’s streamlined, yet thoroughly Presbyterian polity, as well as its firm doctrinal foundation, provide the right home and strong support we need in order to minister not only to our own congregation but also to the surrounding community,” Hodge wrote.
He added that ECO’s commitment to stand firmly on the Word of God as His authoritative revelation and the denomination’s commitment to spiritual renewal and mission in communities also were factors in aligning with ECO.
“We joined ECO because ECO is a movement as much as it is a denomination,” Hodge wrote. “The most helpful and encouraging moments we found during this time of transition was to find support from the denomination we were moving to. In our case, a representative from ECO worked with us to help us understand what each step would be, and how to accomplish it. We were encouraged and prayed for by many different people within ECO, and when we hit a roadblock we often found help from our ECO representative.”