Hope Presbyterian Church, located south of Minneapolis in Richfield (Hennepin County), was permitted to move from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians during a May 13 meeting of the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area (PTCA).
Final closing on the agreement took place June 30.
The church, started in 1954, celebrated its 60th anniversary in March and is the first congregation from the presbytery to be permitted to move. Hope also is just the second congregation in the state of Minnesota to affiliate with ECO, joining Lawrence Presbyterian Church in Campbell.
While the congregation was dismissed to become part of ECO, the PTCA would not transfer the ordination of teaching elders David Lenz (senior pastor), Judie Ritchie and Bruce Hillyer (associate pastors), and K.C. DiNardo (director of Student Ministries), forcing them to renounce jurisdiction to leave the PCUSA.
“We are excited to be joining ECO. We are deeply drawn to the excellent and eloquent statement of essential tenets that we will ‘receive, adopt and be bound by,’” Lenz wrote in an email to The Layman. “We are inspired by the spirit of innovation that permeates ECO. We look forward to being a denomination whose mission is to help congregations flourish. We anticipate being challenged by ECO to participate in church planting and formation of new worshiping communities. We value ECO’s clear affirmation of women in leadership.”
The session asked the presbytery to begin the process leading to dismissal in July 2012, and an Administrative Commission (AC) was formed four months later. In July 2013, the AC recommended the congregation be dismissed, and negotiations for departure terms commenced in September 2013.
According to the terms reached by the two sides, Hope agreed to make a $1.2 million cash payment, plus all expenses incurred by the presbytery during the process (nearly $100,000). The presbytery also will take possession of the congregation’s Oliver Christian Ministry Center (OCMC) that came to the church in 2007 when Hope merged with the Oliver Church.
Preliminary terms were approved by the presbytery in March 2014 and given the final OK during the May 13 meeting following Hope’s congregational vote of 522-17 (96.8 percent) on May 4 in favor of approving the settlement to depart the PCUSA and align with ECO.
Additionally, a vote of 451-31 (93.6 percent) gave approval to transfer the title of the Oliver Center in southern Minneapolis to the PTCA. Hope had invested about $100,000 in the building and has operated a robust, multi-tenant ministry along with a free preschool, free health clinic and after-school center as well as several congregations there for the last seven years.
Lenz indicated that the AC was adamant in negotiations that the Oliver Center be part of the property settlement, perhaps to prevent the church from considering a sale of the building to use proceeds for funding the financial agreement.
“I can assure you it was not (the plan to sell the building despite offers that had been made),” Lenz wrote. “We literally weep over the loss of this building because of the sense of loyalty we feel to the Oliver congregation that came to us seeking merger and because of the excellent ministries that take place here.”
There also is a 10-year reversionary clause that will allow the presbytery to reclaim the property and contents of Hope’s main campus if the congregation ceases to be part of a Reformed denomination.
“We are well aware that this settlement far surpasses most other settlements across the denomination,” Lenz wrote. “We had hoped for a much smaller settlement, and it took time to accept that this was the price we must pay to follow what we believe to be God’s call to ECO. The presbytery understands the trust clause to mean that it owns everything: our land, our buildings, our Bibles and hymnals, our pencils and pens. Given that, we are glad that we will be able to keep our main campus in Richfield and Camp Ojibway, the camp we own and operate in Eden Valley, Minn., for approximately 10 percent of the appraised value.”
Lenz noted there was consideration given to walking away from the property, but the congregation did not feel called to do so.
Citing a “warmly evangelical” stance, Hope has found itself at odds with the positions of the presbytery and PCUSA through the years and sought a denominational home with a clear and coherent theological center.
“As one of our elders eloquently put it, ‘We are not angry, just weary.’ Much of our time at the session level, over the course of many years, has been given to differentiating ourselves from actions of the PCUSA and the presbytery,” Lenz wrote. “We are ready to move into a new environment where we can focus on being the best congregation for Jesus Christ that we can be, inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and giving evidence of the kingdom of God in our midst. We say every Sunday, ‘We are centered in Christ, sent in His love.’”
A document on the church web site referenced the PCUSA’s changes to allow gay clergy in 2011 that led to an understanding that Biblical/theological consensus over human sexuality and ordination standards is impossible to achieve, showing the ever-widening theological gap between the congregation and the national denomination.
Furthermore, the Hope congregation sought a denominational home that does not divert its ministry and mission with the distractions of divisive issues, those driven by culture rather than theological truth such as divestment, abortion and same-sex marriage.
Hope also wanted to be part of a denomination that cultivates relationships and trust, one that views the congregation as the primary center of mission, becoming part of a denomination where the risk and reward of investing in property is lodged in the congregation rather than falling victim to the PCUSA’s trust clause.
“We seek to be part of a denomination that can help Hope Church thrive in our commitment to serve a changing world with the timeless message of Jesus Christ,” the document reads. “When a denomination lacks a coherent theological center, mission gets sidelined. When a denomination lacks trust, relationships are difficult. When a denomination has a bureaucratic mindset, innovative ministry is hampered. When a denomination asserts control over a congregation’s property and assets, facility and asset development is compromised. We believe Hope Church would be better served in a different denominational home than the PCUSA.”
Lenz, who has been the pastor at Hope since 2002, spoke of the commitment members of his congregation have had to the presbytery through the years while acknowledging the differences between the two sides.
“We have invested deeply in the Presbytery of Twin Cities Area. Our pastors and elders have been very active as commissioners, moderator of presbytery, chair of the Committee on Ministry, members of Presbytery Council, Committee on Preparation for Ministry, Nominating Committee and Personnel Committee,” he wrote. “We have been fully engaged. We have made friends in the midst of theological disagreement. We see the members of the presbytery as brothers and sisters in the Lord who have a different worldview, different passions, a different way of reading and understanding the Bible.
“The commitment of Hope leaders has been to show honor and respect while being true to our convictions and what we believe to be God’s call to move to ECO.”
He also noted the difficulties associated with the dismissal process, as well as the sadness of departure and blessings extended on the day the church’s exit from the PCUSA was granted.
“The process has been difficult because the presbytery is grieved to release us and because the financial settlement is so substantial,” Lenz wrote. “Through that difficulty, we have moved forward with prayer and a genuine desire for mutual understanding of each other. In the end, we don’t fully understand each other, but we are glad we made the effort.
“Members of the presbytery shed tears as the dismissal process came to its conclusion on May 13. Words of blessing were exchanged. There were hugs and handshakes and expressions of good will.”
Focusing on the future
With the dismissal process behind them, members of Hope now have the opportunity to more fully focus their attention on their mission while putting forth efforts to raise the finances needed for the settlement with the presbytery.
“We will stay as focused as we can on our mission to be ‘centered in Christ, sent in His love,’” Lenz wrote. “We now give our energy to raising the $1.3 million needed for this settlement. We will borrow this amount and engage in a fundraising campaign. This will be a huge challenge for us, but we are trusting God.
“We look forward to moving into ECO, making new friends and experiencing a new way of being the church.”