Five more congregations have been dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during meetings of Shenango Presbytery.
Irwin Presbyterian Church in Stoneboro, Pa., Tower Presbyterian Church in Grove City, Pa., and Westfield Presbyterian Church of New Castle, Pa., all were dismissed to affiliate with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians during the April 22 presbytery meeting.
At the June 24 presbytery meeting, Plain Grove Church in Slippery Rock, Pa., and the Presbyterian Church of West Middlesex were granted their exits to align with ECO.
The departures increase the number of churches that have left Shenango Presbytery to at least 17 in the last two years. Eleven of them have been dismissed to align with ECO.
Presbytery officials did not respond to an email from The Layman regarding the dismissals.
Located in Mercer County (western Pennsylvania) east of Youngstown, Ohio, the 53-member congregation started its dismissal process about just after the passage of Amendment 10A in 2011, which allowed for the ordination of homosexuals as deacons, elders and pastors.
“That’s what really got things started and led to some serious talk,” said Charles Crane, stated supply pastor at Irwin since 2010. “That really was the precipitating event for us.”
Crane said the decision to align with ECO was made because its theology seemed to be a better fit for most of the Irwin congregants and a broader set of confessions as well as an openness to women in positions of leadership. Plus, there was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an up and coming organization still in its formative stages.
“We felt shackled by the PCUSA, not so much by theology but by the way they wanted to do things,” Crane said. “We have much more freedom to do things now, more autonomy. We have felt so much more energy and sense of liberation. We’re glad to be part of ECO, and we’re looking forward to the future.”
While making the move to leave the PCUSA and join ECO was the faithful thing to do, Crane said it did not come without sadness over departing a presbytery the congregation had been part of for so long.
“If it has just been us and the presbytery maybe we could have stayed,” he said. “Shenango is probably one of the more conservative presbyteries and has been good for us. We did feel at home there, but forces beyond our control forced us to split up. They were very good to us. We all just wanted mutual consideration as we went our separate ways.”
Crane indicated that Irwin made a financial gift to the presbytery upon its departure.
“This was something we felt we had to do. We’re not happy it came to this point, and it’s certainly not something we rejoice over,” Crane said. “But maybe this was God’s way of saying it’s time to do something new. Instead of fighting (denominational) battles we can spread the Gospel and be the church we’re called to be.”
Located north of Pittsburg in Mercer County, the 270-member congregation shared many of the same denominational concerns that others have expressed in seeking to leave the PCUSA.
Aligning with ECO was attractive because of the missional focus of the new denomination was the emphasis on practices that led to strong church to church and pastor to pastor relationships, Tower Interim Pastor Jim Leuenberger wrote in an email to The Layman.
Shenango’s gracious dismissal policy requires no payment for churches to leave with property, though they are asked to consider continuing per capita and missional support for a period of time after departing. Leuenberger indicated that Tower will continue per-capita payments and missional support for at least two years and perhaps longer.
“The hardest thing about this decision for Tower Church was leaving Shenango Presbytery, which is an excellent presbytery,” wrote Leuenberger, who intends to remain in the PCUSA due to his strong and long-standing connection with the presbytery. “Shenango has consistently confessed and acted out of solid evangelical convictions and commitments, was blessed with extremely strong leadership from the Rev. Dr. David Dawson, our recently retired executive, who has done an excellent job of forming its ordained leaders (both lay and clergy), and has a very strong history and commitment to global mission.”
The congregation of nearly 400 members formed in 1803 is located in Lawrence County, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Church officials did not return phone calls from The Layman seeking additional information about the dismissal.
Plain Grove Church
A congregation of about 200 members, Plain Grove is located in Butler County in western Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh. The Layman received no response to calls regarding the dismissal.
Presbyterian Church of West Middlesex
The 363-member congregation is located in Mercer County near Pennsylvania’s western border with Ohio. Phone calls by The Layman seeking more details about the dismissal were not returned.