During the June 25 meeting of Monmouth Presbytery, First Presbyterian Church of Mount Holly was dismissed to become a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians effective Nov. 1.
The vote for dismissal ended a process that took a little more than a year to complete for the 283-member church located east of Philadelphia in Burlington County of south-central New Jersey.
“It’s been a lengthy and involved process but has been done fairly and in a Godly way,” said the Rev. Tim Osborne, who has been the pastor at MHPC almost three years. “We have no complaints.”
Regional Presbyter Wendy Bailey spoke highly of Mount Holly’s involvement in the process.
“I can only say good things about the congregation at Mount Holly and their relationship to the presbytery during this process,” Bailey wrote in an email to The Layman. “We began conversation with Mount Holly even as we were finishing our work on the ‘gracious discernment process’ in Monmouth Presbytery. When the process was approved by the presbytery in January, we immediately appointed a discernment team made up of both members of the presbytery and the Mount Holly congregation. Their mandate was to insure the congregation engaged in a faithful period of discernment, that all voices were heard, that it was bathed in prayer, and that the process we outlined was followed. The team worked with great respect for each other and the will of the Spirit. While the members disagreed in the controversial issues, they were united in mission and faithfulness.”
She continued, “There were a number of principles guiding our discernment process: 1) the congregation should be generally of one mind; 2) we will respect and listen to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ during the process; and 3) we will do nothing to hinder the work of God’s Kingdom.
“I shared with both the Mount Holly congregation and the presbytery that I would cry when they leave, much like I would cry at my daughter’s wedding … we will still be family, but we will no longer share the same name.”
Osborne indicated that the PCUSA’s widening stance on social issues and actions to become more inclusive in its perspective led to a growing sense of uneasiness among church leaders.
The passage of Amendment 10A, regarding ordination standards for pastors, elders and deacons, in May 2011 really sparked dialogue among Mount Holly’s leaders and brought them to a realization that the PCUSA was heading in a direction the congregation did not feel called to follow with integrity.
After some of the church leaders attended the national Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) gathering in January 2012, the session took a serious approach toward looking at the church’s future.
Mount Holly’s session voted in May 2012 to have Osborne notify the presbytery of the congregation’s intent to enter a time of discernment to determine its future denominational affiliation, though Monmouth Presbytery did not have a dismissal policy in place at that time. Within a week, Osborne contacted Bailey about the decision.
A Discernment Team was formed and began meeting in November 2012 in anticipation of the adoption of a dismissal policy, which took place Jan. 22, 2013. Three months later, the Discernment Team unanimously recommended dismissal for Mount Holly’s conservative, evangelical congregation, which formed in 1839.
That recommendation came on the heels of an advisory vote of the congregation that revealed 87 percent (162) of the 187 people in attendance and casting votes were in favor leaving the PCUSA for ECO.
Agreeing to terms
Under the terms of dismissal agreed to by both parties, Mount Holly will contribute $50,101.10, representing 10 percent of the regular contributions to the church, by Nov. 1. Though the property is valued at $3 million, the Discernment Team determined its best use to be in the hands of the congregation, thus the recommendation that presbytery relinquish the claim to the property held in trust for the PCUSA with no additional financial compensation beyond the aforementioned amount.
“It was important to the presbytery that the terms not inhibit any future ministry of the church,” Osborne said. “The best use is that it remains with the congregation, so the presbytery relinquished its claim with no other compensation. We recognized the reality of a contractual relationship with the presbytery, and this was part of the process. We wanted to be dismissed, and this was part of the terms to make that happen. It’s a requirement, and there was no need for squabbling.”
Osborne said the decision to make Nov. 1 the effective date of dismissal was at the recommendation of the church, providing time to handle any logistical issues and finalize all documentation, helping get the pastor and staff enrolled in ECO’s medical and benefits plans.
ECO was selected as the new denominational home because of its theological views and focus on missions that closely aligned with those of Mount Holly.
“Its polity and theology line up with who we are,” Osborne explained. “It’s a flattened bureaucracy, with a belief in the same essentials and a covenantal theology. There is a focus on mission affinity groups – that covenant connection between pastors and with other churches – and church planting.”
Osborne also noted the egalitarian nature of ECO and the emphasis it places on women in leadership roles within the church.
“We sense God in this. It’s not a movement of people but a movement of God,” he said. “We’re not trying to get away from something. We’re trying to move to something, and we found it in ECO. Their leaders have been amazing to deal with, and we can sense this is a God thing in the way they have responded to us.”
A smooth process
Osborne said the process was made easier by the willingness of Monmouth Presbytery and its representatives to work with FPCMH’s leaders instead of against them.
“The presbytery has been very gracious and acted with unbelievable integrity throughout the whole process,” Osborne said. “We have been open and honest to the presbytery, and they have been nothing but honorable to us. They did not agree with us theologically, but they acted with incredible integrity.
“We wanted to follow God’s leading and integral to the process was that we would be a blessing to Monmouth Presbytery. This was handled in a Godly and Jesus-honoring fashion.”
Bailey noted the impact of Mount Holly’s departure from Monmouth Presbytery.
“There is a heaviness in our hearts,” she wrote. “The impact for us is primarily relational. Elders of the Mount Holly congregation have been active on committees, commissions and councils, and they have moderated the presbytery, and many of them will continue to serve up to their dismissal on Nov. 1. They have not only served alongside us, but have been our friends in ministry. We look forward to continuing a relationship with them as partners in mission, but we will miss their dedication, integrity, wisdom and energy among us. Any financial impact is negligible compared to the loss of their leadership in our midst.”
Osborne said it was important for his church and for others to heed the call of God in attending to such an important and delicate matter, making sure such decisions are bathed in prayer and treated graciously.
“Pray, and don’t be afraid to wait for God to answer,” he said. “Move when He calls you to do what He wants you to do. It’s not easy to be faithful but God is. Remember that obedience and compassion are not mutually exclusive of each other; they have to go together. Recognize this is a very complex issue, and all those involved should be held to a very high standard. Be open to what God wants and listen to what He calls you to do. Then, be crazy enough to obey it.”