Bathgate congregation leaves PCUSA for the EPC

EPC logoA North Dakota congregation became the first to leave the Presbytery of Northern Plains (PNP) and affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

Bathgate Presbyterian Church (BPC), located near Neche, N.D., in the northeast corner of the state near the Minnesota border, was dismissed during the April 4 meeting of PNP.

The 98-member congregation is part of the Pembina County Larger Parish along with Presbyterians and Methodists from Hamilton and another Presbyterian congregation in Cavalier. John Werth pastors all three churches in the parish.


Part of a parish

Bathgate had been studying its fit within the Presbyterian Church (USA) since December 2012 when the session formed a selection committee to consider what, if any, other denomination to which it might transfer.

Discussions between the session and the Presbytery Engagement Team (PET) began May 1, 2013, followed by congregational meetings in August and September.

Bathgate’s session asked the presbytery’s Committee on Ministry (COM) early in the process if its move to the EPC would alter the parish alignment. Adam Copeland, who chaired the PET and serves on the staff of Concordia College in Moorehead, Minn., indicated that the COM did not find any constitutional issue to prevent the parish to continue, especially with a Methodist congregation already part of it.

“There’s nothing standing in the way of the parish in aligning in a similar way to how it previously was aligned,” said Copeland, adding that the Parish Council will devise a more current agreement.


Combining an old policy and new ruling

Bathgate’s session indicated to the PET in November 2013 that it wanted to move forward with the negotiation process for dismissal. Negotiations continued through the end of January, and the congregation voted by a 53-1 margin (98 percent) on March 9, 2014, in favor of dismissal to align with the EPC.

The PET worked with Bathgate under the gracious separation policy that was adopted in March 2012 though the presbytery was in the process of reviewing that document. Even though the review was taking place while the congregation was involved in the dismissal process, the PET determined it would be unfair to make Bathgate wait until a new policy was adopted by the presbytery, a process that could have extended the matter over multiple years.

Michael Lochow, stated clerk for Presbytery of Northern Plains, said the language in the old policy did not comply with the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) ruling from October 2012 that required presbyteries to consider property values when giving consideration to dismissing congregations.

“The language did not comply, and there were portions that violated that PJC ruling,” Lochow said. “But because Bathgate started the process under the old policy, we allowed the congregation to continue with that one, taking into account the property ruling. We wanted to make sure when an agreement was reached, it did not violate anything set forth in that decision. The process went on for well over a year and was done carefully.”

Copeland added, “We continued under the old policy and advised by the ruling. We certainly were aware of the ruling and did everything to remain in compliance with the Book of Order. What we didn’t want to do was wait another 18 months until the new policy was adopted before we engaged with the congregation. That would not have been very gracious.”


The costs involved

To gain dismissal for affiliation with the EPC, Bathgate agreed to make a one-time payment of $12,500 to the Presbytery of Northern Plains as well as a gift of $7,500 to the University of Jamestown, a PCUSA-affiliated institution located near the church.

Bathgate also agreed to reimburse the PET for travel and conference call expenses, and remove the PCUSA logo from the church.

All payments were made within 60 days of the April 4 dismissal date.


Working together amicably

Noting that the process was a first for the presbytery, Lochow said it was one that moved along smoothly.

“I think the process worked well,” he said. “My sense is that (PET chair Adam Copeland) and his team worked well with the church group, and there was a positive sense of cooperation received from the church. It was not an adverse negotiation at all. We took our time with it, and I think that was why it turned out to be positive. It went very smoothly.”

Copeland also indicated an amicable working relationship between the parties involved.

“The congregation was deeply troubled with its connection to the PCUSA but committed to a vital ministry in Bathgate, N.D.,” Copeland said. “We sought to discern the right fit for the congregation and where God was leading them. At all times we sought to keep things prayerful and open to the Spirit’s movement. Our ultimate goal was to follow Christ rather than our denominational acronyms.”