FPC-Houston dismissal vote falls short

houstonFirst Presbyterian Church of Houston will not be changing denominations.

Members of the 175-year-old church narrowly voted in favor of remaining part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Sunday, Feb. 23.

FPC-Houston sought dismissal from the PCUSA by New Covenant Presbytery to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, and had followed its reconciliation and dismissal procedure leading up to the congregational vote. The session of FPC-Houston – following two years of discussion, study and prayer – voted unanimously on Jan. 14 to bring the vote for dismissal and affiliation with ECO before the congregation.

Out of approximately 3,100 members, 1,681 turned out for the vote, with 1,085 of them voting in favor of leaving the PCUSA. However, that total was 36 votes shy of the required two-thirds needed (1,121) to align with ECO, which has a membership of 114 congregations in 26 months of existence.

“It was certainly a surprise,” FPC-Houston Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield said. “On the one hand, we all knew with what we had learned about our church in the last year that there was a possibility it could be a close vote, but the leadership thought it would carry. We were disappointed and surprised when it came so close but fell short.”


fpchouston2What the future holds

What lies ahead for the congregation is a time of reconciliation, and Birchfield said there has been little discussion about the path to pursue moving forward.

“To be really candid with you, it’s a little too soon to say what direction we will go,” he said. “That would be nothing more than a whole lot of speculation right now. We’ve had no conversation beyond working through reconciliation. We’re going to honor that process.”

Birchfield explained that FPC-Houston made a covenant with New Covenant Presbytery that called for the congregation to move into a time of intentional reconciliation between the bodies if the vote to be dismissed did not carry.

“We will do what we are called to do. We need to be a people of our word and move forward with the presbytery to begin a process of seeking healing with the denomination and members of our church,” Birchfield said. “It’s time for healing and reconciliation.”

That process started Monday when the members of the congregation gathered at noon for a time of prayer. Birchfield indicated the time was going to be used to allow FPC-members an opportunity to come together for prayer, sharing Scripture and fellowship. It was open to those hurting or confused from the results of Sunday’s vote as well as those celebrating the outcome.

“We need to say, ‘OK, Lord, show us the way forward,’” Birchfield said. “We are now in a season of reconciliation. We have to begin the hard work of talking and praying with one another, seeking forgiveness from one another and giving it. Our hope is that it all starts today.”


What was needed for dismissal

The reconciliation and dismissal procedure for New Covenant Presbytery required a quorum of 30 percent of the active membership attend and cast votes at the congregational meeting, with at least two-thirds of those present voting in favor of requesting dismissal to another Reformed body for the proposal to pass.

Had that two-thirds majority voted in favor of requesting dismissal, the presbytery would agree to it, allowing the congregation to depart with its property and name intact.

If dismissed, FPC-Houston would have paid the presbytery $302,000 over a five-year period, according to a document on the church web site.

Birchfield pointed out that a perceived theological drift by the national denomination; a missional drift that led to a decline in an emphasis on global missions, church planting and sharing the Gospel; and concern regarding a “bureaucratic sclerosis” in dealing with the PCUSA were chief reasons for expressing a desire to seek dismissal to another Reformed body.

Had the measure passed, FPC-Houston would have been the fourth church from New Covenant Presbytery to align with ECO. Advent Presbyterian Church in Spring, West Isle Presbyterian Church in Galveston and First Presbyterian Church in Kingwood all have left the PCUSA and joined ECO.


Comments 18

  • FPC has decided to break its promise and is suing to take ‘their’ property back from the PCUSA. They say this isn’t preparation for leaving. Not sure why they’d do that if they plan to keep their promise and stay.

    If any particular church will lie to the PCUSA to keep its property, which is what promising to honor the vote to leave then deciding not to when they lose, what’s keeping that same church leadership from lying to their congregation to keep them paying for that property?

  • […] an earlier Layman article, Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield said that the church had made a covenant with the presbytery that if […]

  • Luke 23:34. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

  • It is truly sad what the Presbytery did to our beloved church in Houston. Be forewarned other Presbyterians…they are wolves in sheeps clothing. I understand that there are now so many gays and lesbians in the PCUSA it cannot be reversed. Pray daily for deliverance from these abominations! You may want to go to Presbyterians for Renewal and sign like our pastor Bill did not to allow gay and lesbian ministers.
    And just remember…there will be another vote and the truth will come. The Lord is not deceived.

  • Looks like the time has come for another new church plant. I just don’t see how people no matter how much they care about each other can exist together in a church congregation that is so far apart on so many essentals of the Christian faith. It’s been 20 years since the CEPC was formed. I wonder how God has blessed that movement? By blessed I would mean seeing Disciples making more Disciples. That Great Commision thing.

  • This is about real estate. Right? Nothing stands in the way of those 1000+ people following Jesus Christ into a new ministry reality – one that does not include a large building. Leave that clunker of a building behind you. It hinders you. The disciples did not hold onto the temple. The people on the Titanic did not hold onto the ship – or if they did they perished.

    If anything has been learned over the last couple of decades is that Jesus doesn’t need more square footage – he needs less square feet used more efficiently. 1000 people can start a faithful church quickly – go for it and never ever look back!

  • I fully intended to vote for dismissal on Sunday, and it strikes me that I was detained, distracted and occupied with a negative situation instead. My perspective is that the 1650 some is the true active membership, not 3100. The sobering and revealing outcome is that the mandate is that this congregation wants to affirm its alignment with historical Christianity, NOT to the modernist univerdalist drift of the PCUSA No matter what the technical outcome the mandate is with dismissal. The outcome reveals a flaw in the dismissal framework and is a warning to all the other congregations in the process. Maybe, this confusing and really bizarre outcome will ultimately result in more congregations finding safe harbor away from the PCUSA, because they have been warned—no matter how much the momunteum of your congregation is for dismissal, assume your vote profoundly matters.

  • When I attended a PCUSA seminary and spoke with liberals the message I heard from them was very clear. It was “We will either convert you to liberalism or destroy the church and we don’t care which happens”. As the people of First Pres. Church have to decide to be faithful to God’s Word or to an institution which has departed from biblical and Reformed essentials I pray that they will follow God’s leading.

    • How ridiculous. No “liberals” ever said that to you, and that is not the intent of any group I am aware of except for the IRD. If you disagree with where faithful members of the PCUSA believe the Spirit is leading the Church, then go. But no one is out to destroy the church, and the people you disagree with care as much about the future of the church as you do.

      • There is a lot of talk in the PC(USA) about “the Spirit leading the Church” Unfortunately I fear that the “spirit” leading the church is the “spirit of the age” not the Holy Spirit of the Triune God. Also, I believe that one of the marks of the true Church is that the gospel is preached there. Since the PC(USA) seems unable to define, much less proclaim the Gospel, then perhaps the PC(USA) has forfeited the right to be referred to as the “Church” Of course, the right of the PC(USA) to continue to function as a religious club for people “who are into that sort of thing” and a country club for middle-class and upper-middle-class white people who are well-educated and smell good — that right is not being contested.

  • Nathan, I appreciate the reporting. The Presbyterian Outlook also reported that this church had a previous vote to leave and join EPC (albeit 25 years earlier) that also failed. It says, “The congregation experienced a major division about 25 years ago when a group promoted moving the church from the PC(USA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a denomination formed in 1983. That vote also fell short of a two-thirds majority. Several hundred members left after that vote to form Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church, about 10 miles away from First Presbyterian.” http://pres-outlook.org/news-and-analysis/outlook/19388-first-church-houston-is-staying-in-pcusa.html I think that a split leading several hundred members to leave earlier is very germane to understanding this situation, even if it was so long ago. I am sure there are members who remember that vote and that split who are still there. Just thinking it might be helpful info for the big picture.

    • That split feels like yesterday to those involved..I believe the number forming CEPC was around 600-700 members. Ultimatedly resulted in 2 solid churches, CEPC and City of Refuge here in Houston as well as many finding a home at Christ the King, a PCA church plant.

  • @Sad Member—with that attitude, no reconciliation is probably not possible. Are you sure you read Jesus’ words about forgiveness and judging?

    • @More than interesting, given the state of the PCUSA, the description seems appropriate. Forgiveness is certainly possible, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve read words about repentance, judging, discipline, reconciliation, etc. We all long for the PCUSA, in general, and the pastors and leaders to repent. It is sad that so many of them have abandoned the gospel and the label that “Sad Member” gave is now appropriate for portions of the PCUSA. Even if that is an overstatment, given the departure from the Reformed Confessions which cannot be denied, it is certainly advisable for those who value the Reformed Tradition, its high regard for Scripture and the truth it teaches, to leave the denomination. Doctrine matters and is important.

      • Calling people “Satan” who disagree with you lacks civility.

        • @More than interesting, you must have misread my comments. I did not call any people “Satan.” In fact, there are many people that voted to stay, that I would not even need to reconcile with because I dearly love them. We disagree on a few issues, but I know them to be followers of Jesus who are sinners just like me. It’s reconciliation with the institution of the PCUSA that will be difficult, if not impossible. I firmly believe that Satan has planted roots in the PCUSA and those roots are growing deep and out of control. The general presbyter and stated clerk of our presbytery have been particulary condescending and rude to members and staff during the time of discernment. If they are leading the reconciliation process, that’s going to be a big problem as well.

  • Reconcilation will be difficult for those of us who do not wish to be reconciled with Satan.

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