Formerly known as First Presbyterian Church of Yakima, Grace of Christ Presbyterian Church (GCPC) officially wrapped up its dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Dec. 1, 2013, finalizing its transition to become affiliated with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
Jack Peebles, pastor of the 950-member congregation for the last six years, said the dismissal was anti-climactic, merely bringing to an end a lengthy journey to follow God’s call.
“The journey we have been on has lasted so many years,” he said. “There was no fanfare. Changing the sign was the biggest form of upheaval. We talked in our service on Dec. 8 about our new identity and the idea that we have done exactly what we needed to do. There is an incredible sense of relief, but we have to roll up our sleeves and do the work God has called us to do. We know we are part of a new church family, and we expect great blessings on the horizon.”
Central Washington Presbytery voted Oct. 19, 2013, to accept an Administrative Commission’s recommendation that FPC-Yakima, located more than two hours east of Seattle, be dismissed to join ECO, pending financial terms being met and the change of name to Grace of Christ. GCPC was one of three churches dismissed from the presbytery and the PCUSA along with Westminster Presbyterian Church (to the Evangelical Covenant Church or ECC) and First Presbyterian Church of Walla Walla (to ECO).
A feeling of home
Peebles said ECO offers the denominational home GCPC has longed to be part of, especially after a number of members attended the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP)/ECO gatherings.
He cited a similar theology, a denominational structure that allows more autonomy for the local congregation rather than the top-down hierarchy of the PCUSA, accountability of congregations and pastoral leadership, and a focus on missional initiatives as reasons for the Grace of Christ congregation to join ECO.
“The polity provides a definitive structure and accountability but allows the freedom to determine what is best for our congregation as we seek to fulfill the mission God has given us,” Peebles mentioned. “It gives us an opportunity to think about different ways of doing and being the church.”
Plus, at least six other churches from Central Washington Presbytery have left the PCUSA for ECO in the past two years, with others in the process of seeking dismissal.
“A number of other churches from Central Washington Presbytery have gone to ECO, so we can maintain relationships with churches with whom we have much in common, not only in this location but through God’s mission in the world,” Peebles said. “That’s positive for us as we embrace this new calling. This is our DNA; it’s who we are. It’s a feeling of being home.”
The idea of leaving the national denomination rose to the forefront for Grace of Christ following the 218th General Assembly (GA) in 2008. GCPC leaders, continuing to express concerns about the direction of the PCUSA, formed a Denominational Affairs Task Force (DATF) to study the state of the denomination and answer one question: Can we remain faithful to God in the PCUSA?
Peebles noted there was not a sense then that the congregation was at a crisis of faith but there was continued concern that actions of the GA could change that. Following the 219th General Assembly in 2010, the task force again advised the session on denominational issues and addressed the same question once more. This time the answer was “no.”
“When we received that information, we believed it was time to start thinking about affiliating with a new denomination,” said Peebles, who had been at FPC-Kingwood in Texas, which also was dismissed in the fall of 2013, prior to his call at Grace of Christ.
Peebles was asked to serve on the Fellowship of Presbyterians Advisory Board in 2011, just five months before the official launch of ECO, and attended the first meeting of that group in Minneapolis in August of that year. He said it became clear to church leaders that membership with another Reformed body would be the best option to consider.
The issues of authority of Scripture and compromising the Gospel were the issues the GCPC wrestled with more than others in painting a bigger picture of the PCUSA’s trajectory.
“The denomination offered certain theological statements and doctrines, but pastors deviated from that, leading to a lack of discipline and accountability,” Peebles said. “There were much deeper issues revolving around Scripture as authoritative. There was an incongruence of what the denomination said it believes versus what it allowed to take place, rendering theological essentials useless.”
The session voted in October 2012 to enter the discernment process with Central Washington Presbytery. Letters about the decision were sent to congregants, and a series of open forums were held to provide as much information as possible about the process.
A presbytery response team met with pastors, the session and congregation, all leading up to a May 18, 2013, congregational vote that resulted in 92 percent of active voting members giving the nod to proceed with dismissal to ECO. That triggered the formation of the Administrative Commission (AC) that negotiated terms of dismissal.
“The process unfolded in a very healthy way,” Peebles said. “There were specific representatives from the presbytery who came in and did a great job engaging with us in conversation. It was a very graceful and Christ-like process.
“We were very fortunate in our discernment. On occasion there are negative things done or said as you discuss a severance, but the tone we opted for was not to point the finger at the presbytery level or denominational level. We perceived this to be God up to something in ECO that He was calling us to be a part of.”
A payment and change of name
Peebles indicated the presbytery vote for dismissal was near unanimous, and the lapse between that vote and finalization of the process six weeks later was to allow a period for any opposition to the vote.
“There was an overwhelming response to affirm the work of the AC and the dismissal, which was quite a relief,” said Peebles.
Property was not a determining factor in GCPC’s dismissal. Peebles indicated that the congregation was asked to remit the equivalent of three years or per-capita payments to the presbytery totaling approximately $90,000 and change the corporate name. The session solicited feedback from the congregation, and had a task force mull over the options before Grace of Christ was selected as the new moniker.
“It’s very appropriate. It articulates something of who God wants us to be to this community,” Peebles said of the new name.
Answering the call
Peebles said there has been a sense of peace and contentment through the GCPC congregation since the dismissal to ECO as members seek to work to fulfill God’s call.
“If we wanted to be faithful, we had to pursue this call,” he said. “We have to do be faithful to do what He wants instead of what we want. It made sense for us to do it as a larger group seeking to do those things.”
And there is an air of excitement about fulfilling God’s call.
“There’s a feeling of optimism and anticipation along with great expectation of what God is doing within through the people of this congregation,” Peebles said. “We’ve been doing some rethinking of what it means to do and be the church. We know that means working for the benefit of this community.”