A vote to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) fell five votes short of the supermajority needed for Covenant-First Presbyterian Church to move into a new denomination six months ago, but that has not stopped one faction of the congregation from branching out on its own.
A group of about 20 people from the 180-member Covenant-First congregation, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been meeting since the second week of February to formalize plans to plant an independent church and affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The breakaway group plans to have its first worship service under the working name of River Valley Presbyterian Church, probably in June.
“It appears there will be a church split,” Covenant-First Pastor Russell Smith said. “There is a group from the church that will be planting a new ECO church, and we are trying to encourage all our people to be amicable in this process. I hope that we can find a way to view this as a church plant in which we bless one another rather than an acrimonious church split.”
Covenant sought dismissal from Cincinnati Presbytery to align with ECO, but its congregational vote failed to gather the required number of votes to meet the guidelines set forth in the presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy. A 66 percent supermajority was needed to grant dismissal, and the Nov. 17, 2013, vote fell short.
“I think everybody thought it would pass by a slim margin, but nobody was prepared for that outcome, that’s for sure,” said Smith, who has been pastor at Covenant for 13 years.
But there were signs of trouble early on when just 70 percent of the active membership voted to enter the dismissal process.
“It was already close to begin with. We probably should have recognized then that dismissal would be an uphill battle,” Smith said. “We’re at a place now where we have a group that feels called to leave and plant a new church. As church leaders, we have to try to do the best we can to lead both groups to mutually bless each other.”
The move toward planting a church
Sharon Holland, a former member of the Covenant-First session, is coordinating the church plant movement. She and three other session members from Covenant, including Clerk Mary Jensen, will be leaving to plant the church along with Covenant’s Director of Christian Education Charla Matich.
“The discernment and dismissal process was very long and very thorough, and it convinced some of us that we did not belong in the PCUSA,” Holland said. “Once the process concluded, we had a difficult decision to make. We have to do something to worship in a church where we are supported and encouraged to preach the Gospel.”
Holland said finding relief of conscience was not an option by remaining part of a single congregation and going through continual conflict, hence the decision to break away and form an independent church with the goal of seeking admission as an ECO plant.
“The continual conflict really becomes a strain on our identity, and we don’t want to alienate the congregation,” she said. “We don’t want to stay and fight until there is no real victory possible. For the sake of peace, we have decided to move on and form our own congregation.”
It’s a congregation that Smith will not be part of. When Covenant-First began the discernment/dismissal process he gave his word that he would stay with the congregation no matter which way the vote went.
“It’s been a strange journey for all of us in the last year,” he said. “There are a lot of hurt feelings. Now, we have to figure out ways to talk about our issues. We are trying to reassure those who are staying that none of our congregation’s traditional stances will change. We will continue to have Biblically-based, theologically-conservative teaching.”
Developing some hard feelings
Smith said there were signs pointing toward internal strife and a division as early as the summer of 2013. At that time, there appeared to be no clear supermajority in favor of leaving the PCUSA, and the presbytery’s reconciliation/dismissal team provided a forum that revealed division in the congregation.
The idea of splitting into two churches was floated at that time, but there was no willingness to see that happen. Instead, opposing sides opted to move forward and proceed with the dismissal vote.
“I did not stand up and say we definitively have to go or definitively have to stay,” Smith said. “I chose to abide by the vote. I’ve tried to tell our folks to be Christian about this and be good to each other. I’ve tried to encourage our people not to make an idol out of winning.”
But there has been anger on both sides of the aisle, with church members blatantly ignoring each other, a lack of trust and some angry accusations being thrown around.
“The thing that disheartens me is that we are blind to our own sins but quick to see those of others. There are sins on both sides. There are no villains in this, just sinners in need of God’s grace,” Smith said.
The Cincinnati Presbytery has given approval for an Administrative Commission (AC) to work with the church, providing pastoral and congregational care in a conciliatory manner. The AC has been charged with consulting the session about the divisiveness in the church and finding solutions to overcome the issues at hand. The AC has not been given the power to assume original jurisdiction and take over operations of the church.
Fulfillment of a plan
Holland pointed to a long-term strategic plan developed by Covenant-FPC in 2008 as a guide for what is taking place. That plan called for the revitalization or planting of three churches in the Cincinnati area by 2020.
“We dropped the ball on that and didn’t pursue what we promised we would do,” she said. “This conflict may have been the Holy Spirit giving us the kick in the pants we needed to follow through on this.”
Smith acknowledged that he longed to see Covenant plant a church according to that long-term plan, though this was not the way he envisioned it happening.
“This new church may reach lost people that perhaps our congregation would not be able to reach,” he said. “If that is the case, then the Kingdom of God wins.”
The group planning to leave remains at Covenant to worship for now, but only until independent status can be achieved to start the process of affiliating with ECO. Holland noted a desire to remain close to the Covenant congregation, which formed in 1933 with the merger of Covenant and First Presbyterian churches.
“It’s very important for us that Covenant-First Presbyterian Church remain our sister congregation,” she said. “We want to have a close relationship even if it’s not one of mutual affiliation.”
While the numbers are small for the body of believers forming the River Valley congregation, Holland said there is excitement about what lies ahead.
“There’s a relief that we don’t have to keep trying to define ourselves,” Holland explained. “There’s a real enthusiasm that I haven’t sensed in the church for a while as we reach out and try something new. We’re reaching out toward the future, a new community and building something new. This has all been so encouraging and hopeful, and we pray that God will lead us to do His will.”
A pastor’s prayer
With the growing realization that the split is in its waning stages and will become reality, Smith’s prayer is that both congregations carry the message of Jesus Christ to those they witness to each day.
“I want both groups to thrive. After all, we’re all working to build the kingdom of Christ,” Smith said. “Our unity is in Christ Jesus. We all want sinners to find the singular saving Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Knowing that there has been pain and agony associated with divisiveness in the church, Smith pointed toward Jesus to provide the strength and comfort needed to overcome all that has plagued the Covenant congregation in recent months, all while meeting the mandate given by the Savior.
“We’ve been through a lot, and there is some healing we all have to do,” Smith said. “But the mission we have to be about is reaching people for Jesus and making Him known. We have to proclaim the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
“I want both of these congregations to grasp the calling of making Christ known in this community. If we believe our theology, then all this is unfolding in God’s sovereignty. I truly believe all things work to the good for those who love our Lord and are called according to His purpose. We need to stay faithful to Him, and Lord willing, we will have two churches working for Him.”