New Hope Presbyterian Church’s dismissal to the EPC from the Presbyterian Church (USA) by Presbytery of the Peaks came to a ceremonial conclusion on July 20. The congregation had been granted its departure during a May 8 presbytery meeting. The presbytery’s policy calls for a 90-day waiting period after dismissal, so while Presbytery of the Peaks has bid farewell to the church, the official date of release will be Aug. 31.
However, when presbytery officials gave church leaders an opportunity to schedule the dismissal service for July, Pastor Cameron Smith and members of the session jumped at the opportunity to bring their long journey to an end. The 100-member church in Salem (Roanoke County), now part of the EPC, is known as New Life Presbyterian Church (NLPC).
“This was painful for us, but we had a chance to wrap things up by an earlier date, and we jumped on it,” Smith said. “This has been a process where the presbytery has done a lot of learning, and our church was sort of at the mercy of the process. It was a long process, but it worked out for us in the end and brought us closer together as a church.”
It appeared that dismissal for NLPC would be very costly for a long time. Taking into account the church property’s appraised value of $850,000, the Peaks Presbytery Response Team (PRT) initially wanted a payment of $422,500 over 10 years from the congregation to grant its departure from the PCUSA, telling church officials there would be no negotiations on the amount during an October 2013 meeting.
“When we heard $422,500 you may as well have taken a hammer and hit us over the head,” Smith recalled, noting that the annual budget for New Life is $157,000. “We didn’t handle that very well and were visibly upset.”
Smith stopped attending the meetings of the PRT to avoid any notion that he was behind the proposed departure of the congregation that instead was guided by the session.
In a meeting a month later, the PRT gave New Life two options: a payment of $422,500 over 10 years or $322,500 over five years.
“They were not going to budge. They were going to keep (the amount) high,” Smith said.
But during the final PRT meeting in March 2014, more negotiable terms were discussed. A proposal for the church to make three annual payments of $7,500 ($22,500 total) to the presbytery’s mission budget and pay $112,000 to retain property was accepted by both sides. New Life agreed to make the first mission payment of $7,500 by July 20, leaving a yearly payment amount of $12,700 beginning Dec. 31, 2014, to satisfy the total amount of $134,500 over a period of 10 years.
“I really and truly don’t know what brought them down; we were very surprised and not expecting that to happen,” Smith said. “We were given no indication they were going to do that.”
Smith said the church was opened for a day of fasting and prayer leading up to the final negotiation session. An hour into that session, the PRT dismissed itself for an hour or so and returned with the reduced offer.
“I have no idea what brought down the amount apart from prayer,” he said. “That’s the only explanation I have.”
He noted that losing the name that the church has gone by since it was chartered in 1970 was difficult but called it “a small price to pay to move on with our property and assets. We think this really is doable, and it won’t break anyone’s back to make this happen. We’ve got a new beginning and a new name.”
Sparking the decision to leave
New Life was engaged in the dismissal process for more than two years after holding its first discernment meeting in February 2012 to open discussions about what was taking place in the PCUSA. After Presbytery of the Peaks drafted its gracious separation policy in May 2012 (it revised the policy in May 2013 to add a 10-year reversion clause and noted that dismissal will be based on each individual situation) it was eight months until the PRT made contact with church leaders to begin dismissal discussions.
Smith said he preached sermons about issues plaguing the denomination, and elders did their part to share information with the congregation about the PCUSA’s stance on various topics.
One of the key elements leading up to the decision to enter a time of discernment and dismissal came in the aftermath of the General Assembly’s decision regarding ordination standards in 2010. That decision, Amendment 10A (passed by a majority of presbyteries in 2011), allowed homosexuals to be ordained as pastors, elders and deacons.
Smith recalled a letter that New Life’s clerk of session received from the Rev. Janet Edwards after that GA that told members of the PCUSA it was time to live into a new reality. When that letter was presented to the full session, its content and message launched a deeper examination of exactly what was taking place in the denomination.
The findings opened the eyes of New Life’s members, showing them that the PCUSA’s views on the authority of God’s Word and belief in Jesus Christ were skewed in comparison to the Biblical truths the Salem church was built on through the years.
“If it had just been over sexuality, then I don’t think this church would have decided to leave,” Smith said. “That is serious, but when you look at other issues, there was so much more. The presenting issue was over ordination and marriage, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. That showed us something was amiss, and when we looked deeper we determined the beliefs of the PCUSA were not ours.”
Smith noted that if the PCUSA was preaching and teaching God’s Word as written and commanded, there would not be an exodus of churches from the denomination.
Sharing the Word in a new denomination
New Life looked into the EPC and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians as possible denominational homes before settling on the EPC.
The decision came down to the stability of the established EPC over a still-forming ECO as well as the fact that there were far more EPC congregations in the area.
“We just saw things that fit better with who we are and what we want to be in the EPC,” Smith said, adding that the denomination’s essentials are in line with the core beliefs of his congregation.
The move to the EPC is one that Smith wants to spawn a movement within his congregation to be more faithful in their worship of and service to God, to raise their spiritual bar.
“We have great people here already, but we need to improve our Sunday school attendance, our Biblical literacy and become more engaged in discipleship and Christian education – reaching out to our neighbors. We need to be more engaged in the work of the kingdom.”
Smith said there is no question about the beliefs of New Life and its members: they stand firm on God’s Word. With that in mind, there are no excuses for not proclaiming that Word.
“We need to become a more vital congregation,” he said. “The baggage is not there anymore. We don’t have to explain the actions of the GA or the larger denomination. We are called to take the Gospel where it’s not, to have more passion for serving Jesus Christ, to wake up and be excited for serving Him rather than just going through the motions. This has been a reminder of who we are and what we are called to do: share His Word.”