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.”
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.