Presbytery seizes control of Virginia church

NHPC5After a Virginia presbytery took over operations of a Mechanicsville church, those who felt led by God to depart the Presbyterian Church (USA) started anew as an Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) mission congregation just a short distance away from their former church facility.

The Church in Restoration had its inaugural service Sunday, Feb. 24 at Oak Knoll Middle School. What was expected to be a crowd of about 400 charter members swelled to more than 600 in attendance. The overflow crowd was so large that additional chairs had to be brought in to provide ample seating.

The start for the new congregation came as a result of action taken by Presbytery of the James.

An Administrative Commission (AC) of the Richmond-based Presbytery of the James (POJ) dissolved the session of New Hanover Presbyterian Church (NHPC) during a Feb. 10 meeting and has assumed original jurisdiction of the church.

During that meeting, the session of NHPC expressed its unanimous intent to leave the denomination and graciously indicated its desire to help the AC provide for the transition of members wanting to leave the church and pray for those who choose to remain. Because of the session’s unwillingness to stay and serve what the AC deemed to be a viable PCUSA congregation, the Commission took action and assumed original jurisdiction.

The action by the AC came about 15 months after the session of New Hanover unanimously voted (November 2011) to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

NHPC1“I think we felt like this would be the result,” said Associate Pastor Billy Craig, who has shared moderator duties for NHPC along with fellow Associate Pastor Jeff Lee in the absence of a full-time head pastor. “There were some vocal members of the congregation early on who wanted to stay (in the PCUSA). Our impression was they would do all they could to retain the property and to ensure the location stayed a PCUSA congregation.”

While not exactly the way they had planned to leave the PCUSA, those no longer affiliated with NHPC are excited about what the future holds, even if they do not have property or buildings. That future is now coming into view with the formation of a new EPC congregation.

“We’re relieved that it is finally over; it’s been a pretty rough process,” said Kevin Smith, a former elder at NHPC. “We’re excited about starting a new church, even if it is somewhere else. We were prepared for this possibility. We’re just excited to be moving forward.”

He said the two main issues in seeking dismissal were the Bible being the true Word of God, and Jesus being the only way to salvation.

H. Carson Rhyne Jr., stated clerk and general presbyter for Presbytery of the James, did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Layman. In a statement printed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rhyne indicated the presbytery was “deeply saddened by the irreconcilable differences that have occurred at the New Hanover Presbyterian Church.”

“May those who depart from the (Presbyterian Church USA) go with God’s grace and blessings as they seek to serve Jesus Christ,” he added.


A viable remnant

Rather than granting dismissal, the AC determined there was a viable remnant of the congregation to continue operating the church under its PCUSA affiliation, thus dissolving the session and asserting its control. That means the POJ has the property, and the viable remnant it deemed wanted to remain with the PCUSA, regardless of size, will continue to function at the Chamberlayne Road location as the “true church.”

The move to block NHPC from seeking dismissal was reminiscent of action suggested in the “Louisville Papers,” an internal PCUSA communication from lawyers that suggested measures that could be taken to thwart congregations from leaving the denomination.

The document, posted on The Layman web site, indicates that “if there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (USA), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church.” Furthermore, the document shows that the presbytery can “dissolve the congregation and use assets for ‘starting a new immigrant fellowship;’ enter a ‘long-term lease agreement with the schismatic group;’ or sell the property to the ‘splinter group.’”

New Hanover, for more than a decade, has expressed concerns about the PCUSA’s drift from Biblical standards.  It was one of six churches in the Presbytery of the James currently seeking dismissal from the PCUSA.

NHPC2NHPC has a vacancy in its head pastor’s position, and moderator duties have been shared by Craig and Lee. During a presbytery meeting on Feb. 16, those pastoral relationships between Craig, Lee and the church were dissolved, and the credentials of both pastors were transferred to the EPC.


Enter the Administrative Commission

The Administrative Commission formed by Presbytery of the James – comprised of Edna Banes, Larry Diebold, Alex Evans, Allen Fisher, Don Osborne and Martha Sindahlesen – penned a letter that was sent to members of NHPC. The letter makes note that the Commission has worked with the church since December 2012, meeting with the session, individual ministers and members who want to remain with the PCUSA.

In the letter, the AC acknowledges that many members of the church of about 800, have shown a strong desire to seek dismissal. It goes on to show that the AC has determined that a viable PCUSA congregation remains at NHPC.

“We are confident that these devoted members who are willing and interested to continue as New Hanover Presbyterian Church, with the support of the presbytery, and the power of God’s spirit, can continue to be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the PCUSA in this location for the foreseeable future,” it reads.

The letter sent to NHPC’s membership indicated the Feb. 10 meeting was a result of the session’s and associate pastors’ intention to depart from the PCUSA.

Craig said the AC was formed for the purpose of determining if there was a viable congregation left at NHPC. He added that church leaders and individuals sought, but were not provided, a definition from the presbytery to explain exactly what determines a viable congregation.


Staying or leaving

The AC plans to appoint a Steering Committee to lead the church in day-to-day operations until new leadership is in place. The presbytery will provide supply pastors until a new session is formed and takes care of hiring staff members.

The letter also addresses those members choosing to depart and those staying in the PCUSA.

“During this period of transition, members wishing to be dismissed can let the Steering Committee know that is their desire, and the Steering Committee will remove those members from the church rolls. We hope to make a quick orderly transition of members wishing to leave.

“We understand that this time is a traumatic and frustrating time for all involved, and the AC hopes that those who wish to leave NHPC for a new denomination find joy, comfort and peace in their decision. We know that the leadership of those who are leaving is capable and truly concerned for your spirit. We know that they are faithful to your spiritual growth and building a church separate from the PCUSA. We will continue to pray for them as they make the transition.

“For the members who will be staying with NHPC, the POJ is committed to helping you to grow the church and be part of a connected church that is part of the PCUSA … .”


Is anyone listening?

A straw poll to leave the denomination was forthcoming for NHPC, but the presbytery blocked that action by forming a Listening Team that sent a letter warning against having any meetings or discussions regarding dismissal or a possible new denominational home, effectively cutting off communication from church leadership for 10 months. A portion of the letter read, “… the Listening Team has the authority to recommend to the Committee on Ministry that the NHPC Session be dissolved and that it be replaced with an Administrative Commission appointed by the Presbytery of the James.”

According to information obtained by The Layman, the Listening Team’s 2012 report indicated that presbytery members held at least one meeting with a group of congregants at another location. Soon after, members of the group formed a web site and Facebook page, and began circulating letters that expressed disagreement with the leadership of the church.

The Listening Team recommended the Administrative Commission be formed to determine the viability of a PCUSA congregation at NHPC, thus leading to the eventual fracture of the congregation.

An unofficial online survey, conducted by members of the congregation independent of the NHPC session and the Administrative Commission, was taken. The question asked was “Shall New Hanover Presbyterian Church (NHPC) request that Presbytery of the James dismiss NHPC from the PCUSA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)?”  The results were 220 in favor of dismissal and just six opposed.

Craig said the entire brutal process has been draining and very hurtful for all parties involved.

“I think it’s hurt everybody, no matter which side you are on,” he said. “I think our members care for each other, but the way this process has unfolded has driven wedges between our members along the way.

“It’s not been a very Christ-honoring process.”


Starting over

Smith and Craig indicated that those leaving New Hanover will become part of the EPC now that all ties with the POJ and PCUSA are severed. The EPC’s Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic has welcomed the Church in Restoration as a mission church of the EPC.

The packed facility on the school campus, dotted with cars parked in the lot and on the lawn areas, was a stark contrast to the sparse attendance at New Hanover on Sunday.

NHPC3But even that may have been by God’s design, given the way He intervened to help Church in Restoration find a place of worship.

The school entered the picture as a temporary home for the church and will house the congregation’s meetings for the time being.  The church offers a youth program each year called Disciple Now, and the registration numbers were so great this year that an alternate site was needed to accommodate the turnout. With that in mind, officials reserved space at Oak Knoll. Now, they will use the facility for worship services as well.

“God’s timing is amazing,” Smith said. “We’re excited about what God has in store for us. We can put the politics of Presbyterianism behind us and focus on ministry from here on out.

“Even though this has been a hard process, painful in many ways, God has produced fruit through it.”

Craig added that God’s faithfulness has allowed those left without their church and property to persevere and carry on in His service.

“From the get-go we have been trusting in God’s faithfulness and promise,” Craig said. “He’s never let us down. We’re trusting Him to lead and guide, and I have no doubt He will continue to be with us in this process. We continue to see His faithfulness, and we’re encouraged by that. We’re still praising Him – in the good times and the bad.”


Comments 18

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  • On 12/31/12 the entire Session of the Rivermont Presbyterian Church, Chester, Va resigned as a result of the new replacement theology and the PCUSA Judicial Commission ruling on property issues. All but about ten (10) members elected to leave with the Session and are attending other area churchs that have not comformed to the world and still hold to the Bible as their rule and guide. Like the East Hanover Church, Rivermont Church is included within the POJ.

  • FWIW … the White Water Valley ‘gracious dismissal’ policy, is far from gracious. For an AC to be formed when a Session just votes for ‘denominational discernment’ is a de facto accusation that the Session is forming a schism. Its reading tea leaves, and seeing the ‘grim’, thus predicting the future.

    And by calling any part of a church the ‘true church’ is assuming that the PC(USA) is the true church, whereas the True Church is the entire body of Christ. The PC(USA) is just one shrinking, insignificant limb of that body.

  • The White Water Valley Presbytery in its Administrative Commission charter has in print, when a Session schedules a vote for denominational discernment the Administrative Commission will be activated. Also, IN PRINT,states that the true church is the group that remains loyal to the PCUSA. Doesn’t seem so much to be a case by case basis to me.

  • Dick, it sounds like the Presbytery was the ones supressing communication and guilty of intimidation, not the elders or Session: “…but the presbytery blocked that action by forming a Listening Team that sent a letter warning against having any meetings or discussions regarding dismissal or a possible new denominational home, effectively cutting off communication from church leadership for 10 months. A portion of the letter read, “… the Listening Team has the authority to recommend to the Committee on Ministry that the NHPC Session be dissolved and that it be replaced with an Administrative Commission appointed by the Presbytery of the James.”

  • I believe the pastors here are being exceptionally kind! At this moment I am reminded of the Ten Commandments and our call as believers not to steal. I am still a part of the PCUSA, but I am embarrassed that we did this in the name of Jesus, for as a connectional church whatever one does we all do. For a presbytery and an EP to stop allowing the church session to communicate with its members and simultaneously be actively stirring up and recruiting a group to take the property seems less than great. Though I agree with Dick that the book of order allows for this contingency when a church is in schism, it doesn’t mean the presbytery needs to create one so they can have the property. My question is, where are the other presbyters? How could they let this happen? Sounds like an AC and an EP gone off the rails to me.

    In the end, I hope that the group of 25 that the presbytery was able to recruit will be good stewards of this facility. Each of them could clean and maintain one room!

  • The split at Covenant Presbyterian was almost 5 years ago and I think before most of the current dismissal policies were put in place. Since then, the rate at which congregations have asked to be dismissed has only increased and they all appear to be following a published dismissal process. Instead of using the Book of Order rule and officially declaring a schism, gracious dismissal appears to be the more standard approach, except in this case. Like, JMohler, I would like to understand why? Suppression of communication, oppression or intimidation is unacceptable. If this was going on than something needed to be done. What did your elders/Session do?

    In this case of Covenant, they took a congregational vote for dismissal and the vote was 787-237 (78% for and 24% against) with 77% of the congregation participating. You mention an online survey and that many folks did not take part. I suspect that is true on both sides, but the trend is interesting. Did your congregation ever take an official vote like Covenant on the issue of dismissal? If not, was there a vote planned? Our dismissal guidelines call for Session to take a vote after the Listening Team meets with the congregation. It seems to me like an official vote, not an online survey, would be the best, most transparent, and really the only way to know if a schism actually exists. I also did not see any mention of the Presbytery officially declaring a schism. Did they do this?

  • Presbyteries have invoked the Book of Order previously, for example, Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of Fort Myers Florida was found to be a “church in schism,” under Book of Order G-8.0601 and the dismissal request was denied. Circumstances will vary. In some cases, the property is actually owned by the Congregation, not the Presbytery, and depending on State law that will be a showstopper if a majority votes to leave the denomination. In the case of New Hanover Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of the James owns the property. The Presbytery of the James has been and remains committed to the ministry it started . For many years the Presbytery of the James has viewed New Hanover as its flagship church in Hanover County, Virginia. The discernment of the Listening Team was that there might well be a viable Congregation that would carry that mission forward. The directive to the Administrative Commission was to make a determination if there was in fact a viable Congregation. I think that in many instances Presbyteries have determined that those wishing to remain do not in fact constitute a viable Congregation even though they represent the “true church” under the Book of Order and the Dismissal Process goes forward. In this instance, the Administrative Commission encountered committed individuals with histories of service as Elders, Deacons, teachers, capital improvement project managers, etc. and made a determination that there was a Congregation dedicated to sustaining and developing the mission of the PC(U.S.A.) in Hanover County. My understanding is that the Administrative Commission gave the Session, including the Teaching Elders, the opportunity of taking the Church forward as a PC(U.S.A.) Congregation and they declined. Other factors certainly make a difference, as well. For example, Presbyteries have dismissed some Congregations after making a determination that Teaching Elders, even if in favor of dismissal, provided a balanced account of the differing views during the process and that the dismissal movement did not involve suppression of expression and communication, oppression or intimidation of those wishing to remain, or demonization of the denomination. Thanks for your note.

  • What was the dismissal policy? Our presbytery published one, how about yours? There appears to be literally hundreds of churches being graciously dismissed from the PCUSA, all with some minority group who wants to stay, yet in those cases they appear to be following a published dismissal policy and not the rule in the Book of Order you reference. According to your logic, the PCUSA could (and should) have taken them all over, yet they did not. Why? What is unique or different in this case that the PCUSA decided to invoke this rule in the Book of Order when they really haven’t done this before?

  • Mr. Knox, the point is that many Members feel that the Presbytery of the James’ actions were not consistent with the Book of Order when in fact they were. These are Members who understand and accept that the Book of Order does govern, but who believe (incorrectly) it was disregarded by the Presbytery of the James in this instance.

  • Mr. Davis is correct. The congregation is irrelevant. The Book of Order is what is important! I’m glad the PC(USA) has their priorities straight.

    • The Book of Order protects the relevance of the congregation. The two are not in competition. The book is about order, thus the name. And order is vital to the life of every congregation and to the life of every church.

  • Mention of the on-line survey at New Hanover is irresponsible as it was not sanctioned by the Church and many in favor of staying in the PC(U.S.A.) refused to participate on that account. The survey in any case totally disregards the irrelevance of a Congregational vote under the Book of Order which at “G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism” provides that “If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),THE PRESBYTERY SHALL DETERMINE IF ONE OF THE FACTIONS IS ENTITLED TO THE PROPERTY BECAUSE IT IT IS IDENTIFIED BY THE PRESBYTERY AS THE TRUE CHURCH WITHIN THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.SA.) THIS DETERMINATION DOES NOT DEPEND UPON WHICH FACTION RECEIVED THE MAJORITY VOTE WITHIN THE PARTICULAR CHURCH AT THE TIME OF THE SCHISM. That the faction which has viewed the PC(U.S.A.) with open disdain would not be determined to be the true Church with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) should not be surprising. Teaching Elders and the Ruling Elders, whether from design or inexcusable ignorance never educated the Congregation on this important tenet of PC(U.S.A.) governance. Whether intentional or manipulative, the failure to clearly and consistently advise the Congregation of the denomination’s stated governance under G-8.0601 made many in favor of dismissal feeling that the rules were somehow being changed mid-stream. This decisive rule that a majority rule would be disregarded in favor of the true Church in the event of schism was operative throughout. The rule was never given significant “air time” by the Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders; if their intention in this regard was to create feelings of betrayal and oppression among the Congregation should the decision of the Presbytery be to move the Church forward as a PC(U.S.A.) Congregation,my read is the leadership realized great success. It may be noted, the number in attendance at New Hanover Presbyterian Church following the action of the Administrative Commission was approximately 125 (not 6).

    G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism

    The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. (G-11.0103i) If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism.

  • Much of the vindictive action taken across our church towards local churches is enough to say, “I can’t be party to this twisted display of Christ-mindedness.” I believe it’s really about the money and I hope churches that are forced to remain in the PCUSA will take the nuclear option and just withdraw all financial support.

  • It has been very difficult to witness the decrease of PCUSA membership. Where will the PCUSA be in the next 10 years as we continue to deplete our numbers.

    It is shameful to see how brutal, (your words) it has been for the Mechanicsville church as they have had to endure the hardships of splitting up the congregation.

    We can pray that our numbers will somehow become stronger as we continue to lose members.

    God Bless
    Joseph LeBlanc
    235 Dug Hill Road
    Amherst, VA 24521

    Member and past Elder of the Amherst Presbyterian Church.

  • This story sounds so similar to what our church recently went through up here in Michigan. We will be praying for the new Church in Restoration, as we were mightily lifted up during our own exodus. God is good, He is faithful, and He provides –praying you feel His presence with you every step of the way!!!

    • Fear not, God is able, God is watching, and keep on keeping on as the church in Restoration will be blessed for obeying the Holy Bible.

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