New Covenant Presbytery (NCP) voted to release Grace Presbyterian Church of Houston during a meeting Saturday, July 19. The church of more than 2,600 members – the 22nd largest in the PCUSA – will pay $440,000 over five years to the presbytery in exchange for its departure to align with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The dismissal came seven weeks after more than 89 percent of the Grace congregation voted to leave the PCUSA and just eight days before a vote to call Trey Little as the new pastor.
Grace Executive Director of Ministry Support Hardie Morgan said there were questions raised regarding the dismissal prior to Saturday’s presbytery vote, but he said the process was completed in a smooth manner.
“It was a gracious discussion as it has been before,” Morgan said. “The whole process has been extremely gracious and, hopefully, a good witness for the kingdom.”
Before departure from the presbytery meeting, there was a laying of hands on the contingent representing Grace by New Covenant presbyters and a time of blessing for the church as it begins life in ECO. A day later, presbytery representatives attended services at Grace, and blessings for the future were exchanged for both parties.
Grace anticipated paying an estimated $203,856 to the presbytery for per capita apportionment over a five-year period.
The final settlement of $440,000 took into account that financial component as well as a voluntary payment to satisfy the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling regarding property issues.
The amount represents slightly more than 10 percent of the church’s unrestricted offerings and contributions of $4,351,893 from June 1, 2013, to May 31, 2014.
Grace made the first of five equal payments at the time of dismissal and will pay $88,000 by July 19 each of the next four years to satisfy its financial obligation to the presbytery.
No anger in leaving
Morgan indicated there was no one particular issue that led to the decision to leave the denomination. He cited issues such as social actions taken by the PCUSA, changes to the Book of Order and the denomination’s position on Israel as just a few talking points that factored into the recommendation to depart.
“I wouldn’t say it was any one issue as much as it was the desire to focus less on the issues of church governance and social actions,” Morgan explained. “It felt like we were having those conversations all the time, and they were a distraction from being the hands and feet of Jesus. We simply felt called to be somewhere else.”
He added that call did not come about as a result of anger or animosity.
“We’re not mad, and we’re not storming out. We just felt led to be a witness elsewhere,” Morgan continued. “We still have a great love for our friends in New Covenant Presbytery, and we think they still have that love and affection for us.”
A new pastor, a new denomination
As it makes the transition into a new denomination, Grace also will have new leadership from the pulpit, assuming the July 27 vote to call Little is in the affirmative.
Little will be introduced to the congregation by the church’s Pastor Nominating Committee (PNC) as the candidate to assume the role of senior pastor, which has been filled on an interim basis by Sam Knight for about two and a half years.
He previously spent four years in youth ministry at Grace (1996-2000) and was the church’s director of Youth Ministry prior to attending Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. In 2003 Little became pastor of Matthews Memorial Presbyterian Church in Albany, Texas, and he has been the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio since 2011.
“I think with the collaboration of a new pastor and a new denomination, our people are looking forward with anticipation,” Morgan said. “Going through discernment (for a denominational home and a pastor) helped us focus on what is important and what we believe. There is a great hope and anticipation for what our future holds. We’ve all come together with a great sense of anticipation.”
Ten congregations have left New Covenant Presbytery for other denominations.
Grace is the fifth church from NCP to be dismissed to join ECO, joining Advent Presbyterian Church in Spring, West Isle Presbyterian Church in Galveston, First Presbyterian Church of Kingwood and Providence Church of Southeast Texas (Nederland) in the newest Presbyterian denomination.
Four other churches have been dismissed by the presbytery, including Memorial Presbyterian Church in San Augustine and First Presbyterian Church of Lake Jackson to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Heritage Presbyterian Church to the Evangelical Covenant Church and First Presbyterian Church in Freeport to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
Windwood Presbyterian, which has been engaged in prolonged litigation with the presbytery over church property issues – voted to disaffiliate in May to join ECO.