Why they are leaving: Eight churches and PCUSA

letterA wide spectrum of representatives at eight different churches in California, Colorado and Washington who have been dismissed or are presently seeking dismissal recently reflected on their reasons for leaving Presbyterian Church (USA). In spite of characterizations to the contrary, gay and lesbian issues were not particularly important in their deliberations – their primary concerns centering on what they saw as an increasing politicization and theological drift of the denomination.

Phone interviews, oftentimes quite extensive in length, conducted with a wide variety of ministers and staff, elders and members at these churches revealed results at variance with those who assert that the motivation of churches seeking dismissal is “95 percent about gay and lesbian issues.” The approval of gay ordination naturally caught the attention of many in these churches, and led to serious discussion around the topic – as several members had gays or lesbians as sons or daughters or grandsons or granddaughters. These people often felt somewhat conflicted, especially if there were to be a vote for dismissal, as they might somehow be “voting against” members of their own families.

The discussions within the churches, however, soon revealed an outpouring of support of welcome to worship and “sitting beside us in the pews” for gays and lesbians.  Remarkably, this level of understanding and welcome to all “children of God” removed almost entirely any level of concern – and the congregations soon moved on to what were considered more profound problems with PCUSA. When queried about the gay and lesbian concern, people said it was “an issue, not the main issue,” or it “wasn’t much of an issue.” Gays and lesbians at a 4,000-member church – after an overwhelming percentage voted to leave and join ECO – were asked about their reaction. They said they were not that upset, that they were staying, and that “this is our home church, and we’re not leaving.”

The conversations, at “town hall” as well as small group and one-on-one meetings then soon focused on the increasing politicization of the national denomination – with PCUSA seen as taking stands on very sensitive political, social and economic issues that often diverged from the beliefs of large numbers of Presbyterians. One particularly salient example was the stand of PCUSA on abortion, with its emphasis on unlimited public funding of abortions and no limits on access to abortions. That there should even have been discussion about late-term abortion, as well as the fact that members were actually funding abortions through their per-capita contributions to the denomination’s medical insurance (which covers any and all abortions for those who are employed by PCUSA), was considered especially problematic. Even for those who were conflicted about their own views on abortion, or were frankly pro-choice, it struck them as odd that the denomination should take any public stand at all on what is, after all, such a sensitive issue.

The problem expressed by those in these churches, over and over again, was how much time and effort was being devoted to these topics, time and effort that was being taken away from what members felt was their main mission of serving Christ. One person in particular reflected on how difficult it often was, in trying to encourage new members to join his church, to explain how statements from the national body did not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of all Presbyterians.

The main concern of those at these churches, of course, was theological – or what is sometimes described as theological pluralism. The problem was over simple, core beliefs, not arcane doctrinal disputes. Mentioned most often here was the change in the language in the Book of Order that we are to make decisions “in obedience to Scripture” to “guided by Scripture.” People found that this change in language violated, for them, one of the most basic aspects of what it mean to be Christian, allowing people to “pick and choose” how they might live their lives. In fact, if there was one phrase that was repeated more than any other in these conversations, it was “authority of Scripture.”

Of equal level of attention was the nature of Christ. Of course there was review again of the famous Kaseman case, in which more than 30 years ago, a minister who was being examined for acceptance to a church denied both the divinity of Christ and the resurrection. The striking thing about that case was how the pertinent presbytery could approve him for acceptance, and how the Permanent Judicial Commission could subsequently agree with the presbytery. This case still has currency in the debate, these many years later.

More recent, however, is the testimony by ministers – and even one secretary at one of these churches – that in conversations at PCUSA events how they felt among the minority of those who held belief in the resurrection and the divinity of Christ. Equally concerning was how ministers from PCUSA pulpits regularly suggest that the Bible – especially the life of Christ – is fiction, that there is no salvation, no heaven, no hell and indeed no afterlife.

Although not a reason for leaving, an important element of the experience of these churches was the subsequent impact after they left on their membership and overall level of giving. These churches found that they did lose some members in the short run, even though many of those who voted against dismissal chose to stay in the church community they had come to value. Soon, however, membership often began to grow – often considerably – as it turned out that people had been quietly watching and waiting for these churches to “take a stand.”

The same thing frequently happened with financial contributions, even in the short run as churches lost some members – since those among the large majorities remaining simply increased their pledges.  This fact would seem to call into question those who posit that leaving would necessarily pose a grave financial threat to any church seeking dismissal.  The direct quotes from the churches are noteworthy:  “we were not harmed financially because of our decision,” “we gained more than we lost,” “we are stronger now that we were before,” and “financially we are stronger, because we took a stand.”

In summary, an extraordinary group of individuals at eight different churches provides some important guidance on why they felt, always quietly and without rancor or acrimony, that they could not in good conscience remain affiliated with a denomination that no longer reflected their core beliefs. These beliefs, and their discussions, had little to do with gay issues, but rather with what they felt had become a national body seemingly more interested in political issues than with representing Scriptural authority and the lordship of Christ. As many of these people said, “we felt that we were not leaving PCUSA, we felt that they left us.”


Stephen Overturf
Retired college professor and member of the Community Presbyterian Church of Cambria, Calif.


Comments 9

  • I have left the Presbyterian church not just over the gay marriage debate but on other issues. I miss the people there but feel I have made the right decision. It is a church that has wandered far away from god that it is sad.

  • I did not leave PCUSA. It left me.

  • I’ve left the PCUSA and have been attending an evangelical church. It has many members that are former members of PCUSA churches that left their presbyterian church in the last few years. Oh, this church if filled to the brim every Sunday and they are well above the annual budget for the year unlike the PCUSA church that I left.

  • Amen! I left a year and a half ago after I started researching the PCUSA’s positions on a host of issues (abortion, Israel, universalism, etc). Very few people in the pews have any idea of all this. The denomination has nothing to do with the great commission to spread the gospel, it is strictly a Leftist political action organization. Who needs a church for that? And, by the way, I believe the denomination’s leaders are delighted with the drop in membership. I am convinced their purpose is to destroy the church.

  • The PCUSA is guided by whatever progressive-liberal agenda is being pushed by society instead of the Bible. Our church is currently in discernment and our Administrative Committee loves to make us out to be unloving and refusing to embrace diversity. They have even frozen our membership and placed a gag order on our Session and Pastor! All because we wish to leave and are being guided by the Holy Spirit.

    • I would substiute “the 475 Riverside Drive Gang” for “society” but otherwise am in agreement. they’re too busy congratulating themselves on the “good” that they’re doing to notice other things like membership losses. as long as they have the money to keep themselves going and to squander on whatever pet project they feel is “good” – hey, the other guys are all doing it so it must be the right thing to do. How could it not be?

      Rev. 3:17 easily applies to PC(USA) leadership as well as other liberal denominations.

      So does Rev. 3:20. WHen i was growing up there was a painting of Jesus knocking at the U.N. Tower asking for admission. it would be just as appropriate update the painting replacing the U.N. tower with the Church WOrld Service Building or at Witherspoon.

    • Freezing membership roles during the discernment process is actually standard procedure. Our church has gone through the process and have left the PC(USA) and in order to have a reliable vote freezing the membership roles was a requirement so as not to have a number of new members pad the vote for one side or the other.

  • Who needs anaylsis? Talk to the people running out of the pews. I left my former Presbyterian Church because I did not want to donate to the PSUA who are vehemently anti-Israel and have become nothing more than a liberal political action committee. My former church’s website did not even mention God, Jesus, or Christ. Minister was wishy washy and didn’t believe in much.-except abortion and gay marriage. Is something wrong with this picture? Never going back and feel like this denomination is sure to fade away. The sooner the better.

  • Thanks for this. It would be nice to have more of the source material to understand how much of this was learned through written answers to a set of survey questions, or whether it was mostly teased out during interviews.

    One of the things that puzzles me about the decline of PC(USA) as an organization is that it seems very clear that those in leadership are comfortable knowing that their course has hurt membership so badly. Leaving theology aside for a moment; what healthy organization of any kind wants to preside over its own failure and watch its members stream for the exits?

    With each step away from grounding in Scripture and towards a politically left-wing form of universalism, the PC(USA) leadership seems not to care that the denomination is not “struggling” or “always reforming,” but simply… dying. This survey reveals that departing churches don’t wish to wait around until they finally do.

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