Rockville church gets out of PCUSA; pastor overcomes ecclesiastical accusations

EPC logoThe first church to seek dismissal from Charleston Atlantic Presbytery had to overcome a drawn-out process and accusations made against its pastor, but the congregation’s resolve was rewarded.

Rockville Presbyterian Church, located on Wadmalaw Island in Charleston County, S.C., was released from the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a May 18 presbytery meeting.

The 125-member church, founded in 1850 but with ties to the Johns Island Church formed in 1710, has affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).

“This process is one that is supposed to be gracious, but it proved to be arduous for Rockville,” said Pastor Mark Hunt, who has been at the church for 12 years and had to overcome accusations made against him by the presbytery. “As difficult as it was, it turned out to be a real galvanizing time for us. For me to come under that kind of assault just brought our church together.”

Hunt said the difficulties associated with the entire dismissal process – delays, accusations, property settlements – will have a profound impact on the church moving forward.

“The hardships of the process have aided us in that they forced us to trust God,” he said. “There were some pretty dark times. Pharoah’s army was getting close, and the waters had not opened up. I wondered if the people would scatter, if our session would fracture. I didn’t know what would happen.

“But God used this process to force us to trust Him, and we needed Him more than we could ever imagine. Despite all the frustrations and uncertainties, this has had a good effect on us. We have come out as a stronger and more fruitful church.”

RockvilleIn response to Rockville’s dismissal, Charleston Atlantic Executive Presbyter Donnie Woods wrote in an email to The Layman, “We are disappointed that the Rockville congregation felt it needed to leave the PCUSA. We wish them well and hope the church will be satisfied with their new affiliation.”

Hunt indicated that there had been concerns about issues within the PCUSA for a number of years that prompted church leaders to look into the possibility of aligning with another denomination.

“This was not a sudden thing where we just decided we were going to leave the denomination,” he said. “It was something that had been carefully considered.”

Rockville’s decision to seek a new denominational home more in line with its theological position was two-fold. It centered around the authority of Scripture and its interpretation, and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

“It was real simple,” Hunt declared. “Those were the two issues we found to be compelling and important to us. We felt a line had been crossed by the larger church in regard to those issues.”

Referencing one passage of Scripture (John 14:6), Hunt summed up his congregation’s view of the matters plaguing the PCUSA in a succinct manner.

“He is the Way, the Truth, the Life,” Hunt said bluntly. “It doesn’t take a lot to understand that Jesus is our Lord, and we need to live under the authority of Scripture. It seems basic to us.”

Hunt pointed out that the passage of Amendment 10A, dealing with new ordination standards, was something Rockville’s congregation took exception to, but it – like many other issues – was simply a symptom of the greater concerns expressed.

“We came up with a long list to take issue with, but we tried to keep it simple,” he said. “Everything falls under those items (Scriptural authority and Lordship of Jesus). If we can’t get those right, are we even a church? If we can’t get those right, everything else just falls down.”

Personally, Hunt said he encountered a turning point in his view of the denomination when he was elected to serve as a commissioner for the 2008 General Assembly in San Jose, Calif.

“Spiritually, that was a very dark place for me. I found it very distressing,” he recalled. “I did not know what the (Rockville) church would do, but I knew my future would not be in the PCUSA. I did not want to be fighting about these issues throughout my ministry. I felt convicted and knew I needed to change. As time went on, I discovered the church was thinking along those same lines.”

Hunt said church leaders were told by many people from different churches not to enter a dismissal process with the presbytery unless they were willing to leave their property behind. Wanting to pursue a change, Rockville’s session and, ultimately, congregation, was willing to take that leap of faith and trust fully in the Lord.

“Our elders were very well-informed. They know the Bible well and did not need to be convinced of anything once they were presented with the information they needed,” Hunt said of the session-led process that resulted in Rockville’s departure from the PCUSA. “They had talked about this for several years but never to the point of doing anything. Finally it came to a point they had to fish or cut bait, either do something to change or quit talking about it.”

The session decided unanimously to seek a change and sent a formal request to enter the gracious separation process with Charleston Atlantic Presbytery (CAP) in June 2012.

A Presbytery Response Team (PRT) was formed in September, though Hunt said it seemed a bit odd that its membership was lopsided, heavily in favor of a presbytery which “prides itself on justice and equality.” Only one Rockville member was part of the team.

Discussions at the initial meeting focused on the church property. By December, attention shifted to Hunt, who became the center of a witch hunt by the presbytery.

Formal ecclesiastical accusations were made against him for violation of three ordination vows, and he became embroiled in an investigative process.

“It became less about the process and more about me,” the pastor said.

In his email, Woods declined to address the accusations, writing, “Under the Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order, the substance of an accusation and the identity of the individual accused are confidential matters unless and until the accusation becomes a charge. Charleston Atlantic Presbytery cannot comment on any accusations, and cannot confirm or deny the receipt of any accusations.”

Rockville took a non-binding straw poll in January 2013 that showed 94 percent of its active voting membership in favor of leaving the PCUSA.

“It was a great turnout and strong affirmation that we were extremely unified,” Hunt said. “The next step was to negotiate terms of dismissal.”

Two weeks later, everything came to a screeching halt. Negotiations never started as the presbytery put the process on hold without any notification to Rockville’s lone PRT representative or session.

“I was surprised by that, but at the same time I guess it’s not unusual,” Hunt said. “It seems to be a tactic used by the denomination to delay the process, wear down a congregation and discourage the pastor. I just felt it odd that the process had to stop because the pastor was under scrutiny.”

Woods indicated that the PRT simply moved though its dismissal process, “addressing the issues that were before it.”

Eventually, Hunt was cleared of any alleged wrongdoing. The investigation concluded in April with no charges filed, and the issue was dropped. Sensing an urgency to wrap up the negotiation process, Rockville’s session also initiated a meeting with Woods and Stated Clerk Deane Kemper.

A negotiating team consisting of three presbytery members and three Rockville members was formed, and terms of dismissal were hammered out in two weeks. Rockville’s congregational meeting on May 15 resulted in a unanimous vote to agree to the terms and leave the PCUSA for the EPC. Three days later, the congregation was dismissed at Charleston Atlantic’s stated meeting.

“What seemed to be dragging on for months suddenly moved very quickly and wrapped up in two weeks,” Hunt said.  “We owe a lot to Donnie Woods. He endeavored to make all this happen, and we are grateful for his work on our behalf in that regard.”

Subsequently, the presbytery’s Coordinating Committee recommended that the gracious separation policy be suspended immediately so that no congregation could enter the process until a new policy has been approved. Presbytery voted to do so during the May meeting.

“CAP is reviewing its dismissal policy to address issues related to a conflict of interest in the composition of the PRT, and to facilitate a more effective process if it is needed in the future,” Woods wrote.

Under the terms of dismissal agreed to by the parties, Rockville agreed to pay the presbytery a $45,000 settlement and had three years to pay in exchange for a quit claim deed to the property as well as an additional $10,000 to make up the last year of “fair share” contributions to the presbytery.

Rockville made the “fair share” payment in early June and planned to have the additional funds paid by the first week of July.

Hunt said joining the EPC was a matter of properly aligning Rockville’s beliefs with those of like-minded Christians.

“We felt misaligned. Our values and the vision of our congregation were not in line with those of the national denomination, and we couldn’t be as effective with what we wanted to do and be as a church,” he explained. “The EPC resonated well with us. When we looked in the mirror, what we saw doctrinally was the EPC and felt it was a pretty good reflection of who we are.”

Hunt said no one affirms what the essential tenets are in the PCUSA, but they are clear in the EPC, another draw to the denomination. He said there was a feeling of comfort with the EPC because it has been firmly established for more than 30 years, unlike ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which is in just its second year of existence.

“Either would be a great change,” observed Hunt, adding that there are no other EPC or ECO churches in Charleston.

Hunt said there is an air of excitement at Rockville as session leaders and members seek to follow the path God has laid before them in their ministry to the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

“We feel a great deal of relief being finished with the process and a lot of joy knowing we’re through with that chapter,” he said. “There is a hunger for our members to learn about our new denomination. It’s about getting back to the basics. We’re eager to get involved and have the opportunity to grow and learn.”

The Rockville Church will do that with the label of EPC attached to its name rather than PCUSA.

“We had been part of the PCUSA but had not identified ourselves as such. Frankly, it was more of a detraction than a help,” Hunt said. “It’s wonderful not to have that negative energy anymore. We sincerely wish the presbytery well and are very glad to be on the other side of this process.”

And now Rockville has the opportunity to serve as the witness it has been called to be.

“Our session told the congregation we don’t want to get the votes just to change (denominations),” Hunt said. “We want our church to grow in its faith and walk with the Lord. This is an opportunity to stand up and say this is what we believe in, and we will not compromise. Some may not agree with what we did, but I’m proud of the witness we can have in the community and to see this church take a stand for what we believe is right and what is true. We have a chance before us to do something significant.”