Community Presbyterian Church (CPC), located in Ventura, Calif., between Los Angeles to the south and Santa Barbara to the north, was dismissed during the Nov. 12, 2013, meeting of Santa Barbara Presbytery to become part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
CPC’s departure comes on the heels of the September 2013 dismissal of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Camarillo and was a decision that took very little deliberation by presbyters.
“It went very well, about six minutes to get approval,” said Community Pastor Mark Patterson, who has been at the 400-member church for nearly 15 years. “There were no questions and no discussion about the motion. There were just a handful of opposed (voice) votes. The PRT (Presbytery Response Team) did a good job dotting its I’s and crossing its T’s.”
Patterson said the presbytery bid his congregation farewell with a blessing, something that did not happen when Trinity was dismissed about six weeks earlier. The presbytery made up for that by blessing both congregations at the November meeting.
“Trinity’s dismissal happened so fast. Some debate and controversy was expected, and nothing was planned for a blessing to send them to a new denomination,” Patterson recalled. “We were both sent forth with a blessing at this meeting, which was really a good thing for all sides to honor a shared ministry.
“We felt like, relationally, we are leaving on good terms. The whole process went about as well as it possibly could have.”
Santa Barbara Presbyter Dr. Jan Armstrong, who indicated the cordial nature of the process, expressed sadness at Community’s departure in an email sent to The Layman.
“I am truly sad to see them go,” he said. “Many of their members are active in our CPM program and other mission efforts and boards of directors. They have been a clear and articulate voice in the PCUSA for their evangelical and conservative view. The PCUSA will be weaker for their departure, and the lack of their voice will mean the conversation will become more one-sided.
“Community’s big work now is to turn all this energy and effort focused on dismissal and speaking into the PCUSA toward an effective outreach and mission in their own community.”
Community’s session voted to request dismissal on Nov. 26, 2012, after a straw poll revealed that 89 percent of active voting members were in favor of leaving the PCUSA. The presbytery was notified of the session’s intent the next day. Members of Santa Barbara Presbytery were informed of CPC’s request at the Feb. 9, 2013, meeting.
Patterson indicated that a number of informational meetings were held leading up to the session’s decision to seek dismissal. The presbytery’s separation policy was not put in place until September 2012, and revisions to that agreement were not approved to finalize the procedure until February 2013, leaving CPC to languish a little longer than expected.
A June 23, 2013, congregational meeting attended by 266 members yielded a result of more than 95 percent in favor of leaving the PCUSA, leading both sides into the negotiation stage of the dismissal process.
During an Oct. 27, 2013, congregational meeting, more than 93 percent of 270 voting members indicated their desire to accept settlement terms and depart the PCUSA for affiliation with ECO.
According to the financial terms agreed to by both sides, Community Presbyterian Church could pay $185,000 in five equal amounts of $37,000 annually or $179,000 at the time of dismissal. The congregation chose the latter and handed over a check in that amount on Nov. 12.
The congregation also accepted a reversion deed of 10 years that would give the property back to Santa Barbara Presbytery if CPC fails to fulfill financial obligations, ceases to operate as a church in the Reformed tradition or if the property ceases to be used as an asset dedicated to a church in the Reformed tradition.
Should one of those events occur before the 10-year reversion clause expires, CPC still could redeem the property by paying additional funds based on a schedule established by the presbytery.
“There is a plan in place to allow the church to buy the property back if ECO ceases to exist or if we join another Reformed body. We don’t see that as a concern and felt (the settlement) was very fair,” Patterson said.
The decision by CPC, founded in 1869 and the oldest continuously operating Presbyterian church in southern California, to pursue a new denominational affiliation came about shortly after the approval of Amendment 10A and the new Form of Government (nFOG) in the spring of 2011. Amendment 10A deleted the explicit “fidelity/chastity” requirement from the constitutional ordination standard, allowing the PCUSA to ordain gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as deacons, elders and pastors. The new Form of Government raised concerns of a more “top-down” PCUSA bureaucracy and a universalistic theology.
“We saw them both as problematic, and their passage led us to a knowledge that we needed a change,” said Patterson, who attended Fellowship of Presbyterians gatherings in August 2011 and January 2012.
That led to discussions with the session about separation from the PCUSA and eventually congregational gatherings to share information with members.
“We sent a letter to our congregation after the 10A passage, informing them of the exploration of denominational affiliations,” Patterson said. “We provided plenty of information, which played a role in the decision reached by our members. We went slowly intentionally. We did not want any collateral damage. We lost some people, very few, even though we had some who wanted to stay (PCUSA) and others who wanted to leave immediately.”
While Amendment 10A and nFOG were chief reasons given for seeking departure, Patterson added that the PCUSA’s continued drift from Biblical authority, an increasing reluctance by the national denomination to name essential tenets and a concern over more and more restrictions being placed on local congregations also played a role in the decision to leave.
“Draconian rules being passed made it more and more difficult to live out our faith,” he said. “Standards of Scripture and theology are being set aside. The church is living in a time of uncertainty.”
The draw to ECO was its emphasis on the standards of Scripture and placing a strong belief in God’s Word. The newest branch of the Presbyterian tree has clean and acceptable essential tenets and people of a common faith.
“We feel at peace with people of a like-minded perspective. We trust one another,” Patterson said. “It’s a community built on trust with less institutional form. We have entered a denomination that emphasizes covenantal relationships between pastors and sessions, and holds each other accountable. It’s a way of living out our faith instead of an institution and bureaucracy.”
More than that, Patterson said the freshness of the new denomination appealed to CPC.
“The PCUSA has become outdated. ECO is alive – a living, faith-based institution that allows us to reach our culture better,” he said. “We want to know what we live matters. The motto of ECO is to ‘baptize more than we bury.’ That is a value we want to instill. We want to focus on new church development, and we now have a fresh beginning to do that. There’s a real optimism and excitement as part of this new movement.”
Following the directions given
Patterson reiterated the smoothness of the process, its handling by Santa Barbara Presbytery and the congregation’s desire to leave on good terms.
“The presbytery has been good to us, and we operated on the premise of doing ho harm,” he said. “We worked very hard to make sure we took the high road. Santa Barbara is a great presbytery, filled with great people and such good friends. That’s what made this hard. Our goal was to make sure relationships remained intact, and I think there still seems to be a mutual respect.”
Armstrong concurred with the concept of doing no harm.
“My own goal is to encourage our Presbytery Response Teams and COM to do no harm, which has been very difficult in churches in conflict because someone always thinks that they have been hurt,” he wrote. “My definition of harm is a concern for maintaining congregational viability for some of these small churches, some of whom cannot even maintain their current facilities without help from other congregations, dear people for whom Christ died, who are just so upset with the PCUSA, even when they are in a very friendly and mission-minded Presbytery.”
Regardless of relationships and thoughts on CPC’s decision to depart for ECO, following God’s will was the key aspect of the entire process.
“Our session has done a great job pondering God’s will, and our congregation really has done that,” Patterson said. “But it doesn’t matter what I think or you think … it’s what God thinks. We believe this is what God led us to do. There’s been no dissension, no animosity, a lot of health and openness. That’s a sign of the Lord’s blessing. He has blessed us with a unified church, and there is an excitement to be moving forward.”