The church of more than 700 members in Seminole, Fla., (located in Pinellas County between Clearwater and St. Petersburg) was given its release from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during the May 8 meeting of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay.
Faith, established in 1960, has affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and now is known as Faith Community Church: An EPC Congregation. It is the first church to be dismissed by the Presbytery of Tamp Bay.
“We bathed this with prayer, and it was done with a great appreciation for the ability of all to speak what they felt about the matter,” Faith Pastor David Miller said. “There has been such wonderful unity in our church this entire process.”
The Rev. Dr. Nancy Kahaian, transitional presbyter for Tampa Bay, expressed a desire to see the congregation and presbytery continue being faithful in service to Christ.
“I am saddened by the departure of a congregation from the community of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in this area,” Kahaian wrote in an email to The Layman. “It is my prayer for both the congregation and presbytery that we will continue to worship, obey and follow Jesus Christ. With our mutual love and desire to pursue Jesus Christ, I hope that we will both continue to be faithful to the ministry and mission God places before us.”
Miller, who has been at Faith for 22 years after founding pastor Paul Auginbaugh led the congregation for 32 years, indicated that Faith had been involved in the dismissal process for nearly two years before being granted its exit from the PCUSA.
The church entered the discernment process with the presbytery in June 2012, and session voted unanimously (18-0) in August that year to leave the denomination.
Because it was the first church seeking dismissal from the presbytery, which adopted its separation policy in May 2012, some of the procedures were figured out as the sides moved along and worked together.
Kahaian met with the Faith session several times in the early stages of the process regarding its denominational concerns and why the church was seeking dismissal, coming to the conclusion with the presbytery that the congregation no longer was compatible with the PCUSA.
A congregational meeting on Nov. 3, 2013, required half of Faith’s membership be present for a vote on dismissal. Four hundred sixty-five members showed up for the vote, which yielded a 443-10 (12 abstentions) result in favor of leaving the PCUSA to join the EPC.
“That was a big moment for me, to see that kind of commitment,” Miller said. “Our process had slowed down, but people still turned out for the vote and made their positions known.”
A negotiation team from Faith started working with an Administrative Commission (AC) from the presbytery to hammer out a financial agreement. Three sessions later, terms were reached.
“We truly wanted to honor each other,” Miller said of the work between his church and the presbytery. “We may be moving in different directions, but we’re still standing together in work for the kingdom. I’m grateful the presbytery was willing to listen to our concerns and we were willing to meet their needs.”
Faith agreed to make a payment of $185,000 to retain property, satisfy per capita and mission giving, and pay for a portion of the appraised value of the property.
Miller noted that the AC took the difference between the historical cost of the property and its $3.64 million appraised value, and allowed the church to pay a tithe on the difference.
Session members each gave to help reduce the payment to the presbytery, raising $35,000. Members were given an opportunity to make a one-time gift to help reduce the cost as well, and more than $136,000 was raised by the end of June.
The presbytery voted 132-36 to grant dismissal on May 8, and two days later the congregation was received as a member of the EPC’s Presbytery of Florida. On May 18, by unanimous vote, the congregation agreed to the terms to leave for the EPC. A 30-day period allowing a stay on the dismissal elapsed on June 7, effectively ending Faith’s relationship with the PCUSA.
Miller said the theology and practice of the PCUSA were the primary tipping points he outlined in a five-sermon series called “Crisis in the Church.”
“We found that we believed as a congregation was not congruent with the larger church,” he said.
Faith cited three major issues as reasons to seek its exit from the national denomination:
1-The PCUSA no longer functionally affirms the universal Lordship of Jesus Christ as the only savior in the world;
2-The PCUSA no longer functionally treats Scripture as the infallible Word of God; and
3-The PCUSA no longer functionally affirms the Biblical call to holy living.
“We found a clear path that we could follow to leave the denomination that would bless us and would bless the presbytery, and determined it was a path that was worth going down if we just let the Lord lead us,” Miller said, admitting there were a few occasions when he thought the process was about to be derailed. “Each time that happened, God answered in a way that proved we were on the right track.”
Entering the EPC
The decision to align with the EPC was reached because of there were not many Florida churches in ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians when Faith entered the dismissal process. It still was a relatively new denomination in its formative stages.
Beyond that, there was a strong liking for the seven essential tenets spelled out by the EPC.
“The life and health of the PCUSA could have been much better had it adopted similar essentials,” Miller said. “These (essentials) bring people together in unity.”
Led by the Holy Spirit
Miller pointed out that the process to leave the PCUSA was an amicable one with the presbytery, noting both sides worked together for the best end result.
“We made a commitment early on to give a good witness in our faith in Christ and loving others,” Miller explained. “It’s what Christ called us to do. We felt the AC responded in kind.”
He added that there was a genuine feeling of the Holy Spirit taking control and leading the process as negotiations took place.
“We established a good relationship with the AC right away and that led to a positive outcome,” he said. “We continually sought to mutually bless one another – even in the midst of tense negotiations. You could sense the Lord and the Holy Spirit leading us together, and that never abated, even in moments when we were not close (on negotiations). The Spirit always led us to a common ground.”
Following the path
Miller called the final outcome of the dismissal process one of the “high moments of my 22 years here,” referencing the highs and lows associated with the various steps along the way as moments “you never forget.”
He also noted that, “Our experience may not be the path for some evangelicals in the PCUSA. For starters, there are some who serve churches that do not wish to leave the PCUSA for a variety of reasons. Pastors who feel a call to serve such congregations may continue to serve faithfully in their call.”
In the end, it was clear that God was indeed calling Faith Presbyterian Church to pursue gracious dismissal.
“We stepped out into a world of unknowns but knew the Lord was leading us to participate in this,” Miller said. “I’m blessed to be at a church where people loved me, supported me and led me in my moments of fear. We called for prayer many times during this process, and each time the Lord strengthened us to continue through the steps of dismissal. That always served as an encouragement to me and let us know we were following His path for us.”