A failed vote to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) seemed to be a discouraging blow to a faction seeking to lead Central Presbyterian Church (CPC) out of Donegal Presbytery 22 months ago. That’s not the case now.
Instead of remaining part of the Downingtown, Pa., congregation after a dismissal vote failed to meet the 75 percent super majority required by the presbytery, more than 200 former CPC members left to form their own congregation as a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).
That group, 290 at the time, had their inaugural meeting on July 1, 2012, at Lionville Fire Station for the first service as Grace Covenant Evangelical Presbyterian Church (GCEPC). The congregation, which has grown from 210 members to approximately 230, also has purchased a building to be its new church home, and was accepted as an EPC congregation in February 2013.
“When we look back that failed vote was the best thing possible for us,” said Tod Gilmore, a ruling elder at GCEPC and a former elder at CPC. “I don’t think it dawned on us until it was too late that we were not going to carry that vote, but it turned out better to separate us. Like-minded people went two different ways.”
A recommendation of the CPC session to seek dismissal from the PCUSA led to a congregational vote June 3, 2012, but achieved only 53 percent of the vote required to leave. Gilmore, and Patrick Hartsock, former pastor of Central and now the minister at Grace Covenant, indicated that a group of church members know as the Fairness Coalition worked closely with the presbytery to advocate against recommendations of the session, perhaps factoring into the failed vote for dismissal.
A few days later, session members in favor of departure from the PCUSA called a meeting to determine the future of those who no longer wished to be part of the national denomination.
“There was a group that was interested in sticking together and planting a church,” Gilmore recalled. “Most of those there were afraid of losing the building, but that’s something you have to be prepared to do if you are going to be faithful to God’s calling. We determined we were no longer focused on preserving the past and a building but moving forward to answer God’s call. So we left the building and an endowment fund behind. They (Central) kept everything, and we left with nothing.”
A painful reality
Walking away from friends, fellow church members and the building that had been their place of worship for many years proved to be difficult for quite a few of those who made the decision to depart the PCUSA and Central Presbyterian Church.
“We had a lot of things going on at Central, and the church had grown to 500 or more in worship,” said Hartsock, who spent eight of his 38 years in the PCUSA at CPC. “It was very painful to leave because we felt we had built a strong church. But when the decision was made to ordain practicing homosexuals (Amendment 10A in 2011) we had to make a move. It was hard to walk away from something I had been committed to for 38 years. It was hard to do, but it was the faithful thing to do.”
Despite leaving behind a church building and all the financial resources, a core group that included three quarters of the church staff, 12 of 15 elders, about half the deacons and nearly all the Sunday school teachers made the move to become part of the church “replant.”
“We walked away with people, and that’s the greatest asset you can have,” Hartsock said. “If we had stayed, this core of people would have been seen as a dissenting group. We are concerned with the need to share the love of God with the world, and we are a unified body.”
Gilmore said there was some resentment about leaving everything behind and starting over, but those feelings were overshadowed by the desire to follow God’s will, even by some people who had been at CPC for more than 40 years.
“It was not easy, but I’m grateful that God called us together to be His church,” he said. “It’s sort of like the Israelites leaving Egypt. They wandered around in the wilderness for 40 years looking for the Promised Land. That’s kind of the trek we have been on. I’m sure like in the Bible there may have been some who talked about returning to Egypt. But God has been faithful to us, working through our congregation in wonderful ways, bringing people into our midst.”
Procuring a facility to conduct worship services came about rather quickly. Within a month’s time, plans were made to have services at Lionville Fire Station in a large meeting room that previously had been used for the same purpose by another church.
“The Lord opened a door for us to find a fire hall that had room for us to use for our services on Sunday mornings,” Gilmore said. “It’s been great to be there. The firefighters have worked with us, and we have had a great relationship with them. We’re very thankful that door was opened by the Lord.”
But that’s not all that was opened by God. He also opened the door to a corporate office building for the GCEPC congregation as well as the pocketbooks of some members to help pay to purchase the facility and make renovations for use as its permanent church home.
In November 2013, the congregation – thanks to the generosity of some of its members – was able to purchase a building for approximately $3.2 million in a corporate business park in nearby Exton, about two miles from Downingtown, that has five suites available. Two of the suites are occupied by other businesses that will have lease agreements with Grace. One will provide ample space for the congregation, and the other two could be leased or used to provide additional space for use by the growing church.
A group of investors from Grace is backing the purchase and will be repaid by members of the church.
Members of GCEPC continued to meet at the fire station until the building was renovated to facilitate the church and its needs for services.
When Hartsock left Central, Bill Hess was called to serve as a temporary co-pastor along with designated co-pastor Emily Chudy. Hess, who spent 26 years as senior pastor at nearby First Presbyterian Church of West Chester, spoke well of those who left CPC to be part of the EPC congregation, though he indicated there still was sadness over the split in the church.
“The former pastors here who are now in the EPC congregation were respected colleagues. We wish them all the best. They are good men,” Hess wrote in an email to The Layman. “There is still a certain level of grief on the part of folks here and at Grace Covenant – good friends, loving relationships, now in two different congregations. We have maintained a spirit of wishing those who departed all of the good Lord’s blessings. Emily and I have vowed to never speak ill of them in worship or any other occasion. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ.”
Hess indicated that the past year was fruitful for Central.
“The year 2013 was a wonderful year for Central. Our membership is growing, and our income far exceeded our expenses. We are slowly fixing up the building – too long neglected during the time of discord,” he wrote. “Our outreach into the community has taken a big step forward – with our deacons providing more than $36,000 in assistance to the needy, along with great spiritual support.”
Hess pointed out that he had been aware of the strife at Central that led to the division from his time of service as the chair for the Presbytery of Donegal’s Committee on Ministry, adding that there is an air of renewal now at CPC.
“I can’t speak for the current situation at Grace Covenant, but here at Central there is a true spirit of hope and joy. People are smiling and joyful – and the fruits of the Spirit are bursting forth everywhere,” Hess wrote. “Some who had distanced themselves from the previous leadership have now stepped forward in humble, faithful service. The Good News of the risen Jesus Christ is being declared in word and deed.”
Hartsock said officials with the Presbytery of Donegal were wise in their decision to call Hess to work with Chudy in leading the congregation that remains at CPC.
“The presbytery did a smart thing, and that has helped Central thrive,” he said. “The church appears to be stable with a good attendance, and we wish them well.”
Just getting started
Sharing the works of Jesus Christ is the goal for the Grace Covenant congregation as well. Continuing its faithful journey, the congregation has adopted a 4G philosophy: Gather, Grow, Give, Go.
“We’re all about fulfilling His purpose of making disciples of all nations,” Gilmore said. “We’re finding out who God is calling us to be and what He wants us to do. We know He has called us to be together, to be His church. He has a great adventure for us, and we’re going on it with Him by our side.”
Hartsock senses a discovery of identity for the congregation as well as a renewed purpose and excitement about what the future holds for GCEPC.
“Even though it’s been painful and hard, I’ve been energized by this process, this faithful journey we have been on,” he said. “Our goal is to share the love of God to all people, especially the lost.”
And Hartsock is convinced God is just starting to work at Grace Covenant.
“God is always moving, always active in our lives. He’s not finished with us,” Hartsock said. “We’re excitedly anticipating what the Lord will do next because of all that he already has done for us. There is a great anticipation for what lies ahead. We look forward to His amazing works in the life of this church and what He has in store for us.”
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