The Milwaukee Presbytery voted to let the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Oostburg (FPO) leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and align with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. However, the price tag to do so is too steep for the 265-member congregation.
During the May 27 presbytery meeting a vote of 71-14 showed support for an Administrative Commission’s motion to dismiss the FPO congregation for $500,000 to retain its property, located near Lake Michigan about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee.
“It’s a price we are unwilling to pay and never were willing to pay,” said the Rev. Brian Jacobson, pastor of FPC-Oostburg. “Our congregation has already expressed that it will not vote for that motion.”
That leaves church leaders with a decision to make regarding the congregation’s future, though that remains uncertain at this time.
“I think the expectation (by the presbytery) is that we will stay if we don’t accept this proposal,” Jacobson said. “We need to decide what we plan to do in the future.”
The session of FPO had offered a $100,000 financial gift to the Administrative Commission (AC) to “graciously and freely dismiss” First Presbyterian Church Oostburg with all its property to ECO, noting in its recommendation that “Such a dismissal would mirror the free gift of God in Jesus Christ and reflect it to a watching world.”
But the AC, which has no policy in place to serve as a guide for dismissing a congregation, stood firm in its financial settlement proposal, and the Oostburg motion was not even considered at Tuesday’s presbytery meeting.
In its report to the presbytery, the AC determined the gift offered by FPC-Oostburg to be “neither equitable to the presbytery nor reflective of the worth and mission of the presbytery over the past 100+ years.”
“We’ve been left in limbo to figure out what to do because nothing is clearly spelled out,” Jacobson said. “There are no set guidelines to follow so we have been walking on eggshells. We don’t want to do anything to incur the wrath of the presbytery, to upset anyone or cause waves.”
He continued, “Both sides feel they are the aggrieved party, and that makes it difficult to reach a middle ground. We felt like this was a purely partisan vote because everything we said fell on deaf ears related to a rationale for a more fair settlement.”
While discouraged that the counter offer did not go before the presbytery, Jacobson said the fact that the number did not change could be a blessing of sorts.
“If they had said we could pay $100,000 and be dismissed we’d be rejoicing, but anything over that likely would have split our congregation,” he said. “Some of our people are in the ‘don’t give them a dime’ camp, and others are in the ‘we know we’ll have to pay something’ camp. But according to our straw poll, no one is in the ‘pay them $500,000’ camp, and so we come out of this process unified in our reaction.”
Lack of movement
Jacobson, who has been at FPO since 2010, acknowledged that the church has not paid its per-capita apportionment in 20 years. Jacobson explained that delinquent per-capita payments are not supposed to be held against churches seeking dismissal, but the topic was brought up time and again during the presbytery meeting.
“I would call the meeting a reinforcement of hostilities,” he said. “It was a re-entrenching of difficulties in the process. We already had made clear that we were not going to pay $500,000. This didn’t feel like a step forward at all.”
Jacobson continued, “It’s disappointing to have the presbytery vote on a motion that doesn’t reflect any agreement between the AC and the church, and which accomplishes neither the dismissal nor the placement of funds for the ministry of the presbytery. At best, the vote is simply a demand for an exit fee, and at worst, it’s an exercise in futility. It accomplished nothing, because it reflects no agreement, and so the time and energy spent, along with the rancor expressed, feels like a step backward and a poor use of presbytery time.”
And that leaves the congregation and its leadership with decisions to make regarding the future.
FPO has been engaged in dismissal discussions since informing Milwaukee Presbytery in April 2012 of its desire to leave the PCUSA.
Only one other church in the presbytery has been granted dismissal to another Reformed body. Cedar Grove Presbyterian Church was dismissed in 2007 to affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) after agreeing to pay $150,000. Cedar Grove had a smaller membership, less property and fewer financial assets than FPC-Oostburg.