The session of one of the largest congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA), First Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas, has called for a special congregational meeting on Feb. 23 to vote on seeking dismissal and affiliating with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The session’s unanimous vote, cast on Jan. 14, followed two years of discussion, study and prayer, according to a letter the session sent to members of the congregation. “Based on these many months of discernment, the session recommends that we as a church vote to accept what we believe is God’s clear call to seek dismissal from PCUSA and to seek membership in ECO,” it stated.
“For 175 years, FPC has been called to be a Christ-centered church with a Reformed theology based on a historic interpretation of Scripture. In recent years, the PCUSA – our denominational home since 1983 – has drifted from that course in ways that often divert attention, foster division and weaken our message. We believe the theology and core values of ECO are more in line with those of FPC and will serve to enhance our ministry,” the letter continued.
The session’s letter was clear on what was “not changing” at FPC-Houston:
- “Our commitment to be a Christ-centered church
- “Our commitment to Biblical integrity
- “Our name and our commitment to being a connected congregation with Presbyterian governance and Reformed theology
- “Our commitment to grow disciples in community
- “Our commitment to being a loving and respectful congregation that invites everyone into relationship with Jesus Christ
- “Our commitment to mission and Christ-centered social activism
- “Our commitment to be in relationship with churches and ministry partners in Houston and throughout the world
- “Our commitment to inclusive leadership, utilizing the gifts of men, women and all ethnic groups.”
In a 53-minute video of presentations by the church’s ruling elders, Clerk of Session Jan Costello was the first to speak. She called the session’s vote to call the congregational meeting the “first step from a season of discernment to a time of decision.”
She said the 23-member session – made up of 18 ruling elders and five teaching elders – voted by secret ballot.
“For me, personally, in this journey, as we have walked through this discernment season, there is a verse that has been really dear to my heart,” she said, quoting Jeremiah 29:14:
“Yes, when you get serious about finding Me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (The Message)
“I have prayed that prayer for over a year for our entire flock,” she said. “I pray that the deepest desire of our heart would be the Lord above all else.”
According to the Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure of New Covenant Presbytery, a quorum of 30 percent of active members must attend the congregational meeting with two-thirds of those voting in favor of dismissal for the motion to pass.
“If at least two-thirds of those voting request dismissal, the presbytery shall agree to the dismissal, permitting the congregation to depart with all of its property intact,” it read.
It continued “A dismissed congregation shall contribute to the presbytery the greater of: the per-member share of the current presbytery budget or the average of the congregation’s past three years’ presbytery contributions.”
That amount would total approximately $302,000 spread out over five years, according to the document on the church’s web site.
In the PCUSA’s 2012 Comparative Statistics, the 3,567-member church was ranked 11th in the top 15 largest congregations in the denomination.
According to an Oct. 28, 2013 article by Presbyterian Lay Committee President Carmen Fowler LaBerge, three other churches in the top 15 are in active realignment:
- #2 Christ in Edina, Minn., (5,388 members) is seeking dismissal to ECO.
- #4 Highland Park Dallas, Texas, (4,896 members) has disaffiliated and joined ECO.
- #13 Menlo Park, Calif., (3,382 members) is seeking dismissal to ECO.
“Drilling down further into the 2012 list: #16 St Andrews in Newport Beach, Calif., #100 Mandarin in Jacksonville, Fla., and #101 First in Winston-Salem, N.C., are seeking dismissal. #65 First in Edmond, Okla., and #120 Saxe Gotha, Lexington, S.C., have been dismissed and #23 Grace in Houston has entered the formal discernment process,” LaBerge wrote.
Since that article was written, the Synod of Alaska-Northwest approved the merger of two of its presbyteries – Alaska and North Puget Sound – after Alaska Presbytery dismissed six churches in April, resulting in the presbytery dropping below the required number of 10 congregations for a presbytery as designated by the Book of Order.