Six congregations in the heart of California will be part of a new denomination in less than two months after being dismissed to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians during a special meeting of the Presbytery of Stockton that took place on Aug. 24.
Central Presbyterian Church (Merced), Delhi Community Presbyterian Church (Delhi), Escalon Presbyterian Church (Escalon), Lincoln Presbyterian Church (Stockton), Orestimba Presbyterian Church (Newman) and Trinity United Presbyterian Church (Modesto) all were dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) after following the presbytery’s gracious dismissal policy.
According to that policy, approved by the presbytery in February 2012, the effective date of dismissals is 60 days after the vote, meaning all six churches – accounting for 45 percent of Stockton’s current membership – will be part of ECO Oct. 24.
Julia Leeth, executive presbyter for the Presbytery of Stockton, indicated that the churches sought departure for ECO because of issues with the PCUSA.
“They like the presbytery but not the trajectory of the national denomination,” Leeth said in reference to the growing trend among those seeking to leave the PCUSA. “It’s going to be a very different presbytery when those churches are dismissed (after 60 days), but it will provide opportunities for leaders of churches to step up and fill positions of leadership in the presbytery.”
Stated Clerk Keith Drury indicated in an email to The Layman that the Presbytery of Stockton sent five overtures to the General Assembly (GA) in 2012 that had been approved by a vast majority of local commissioners. Some referenced a change in terminology regarding the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture within the Book of Order, while others sought latitude within the presbyteries to allow continued ministry among those congregations desiring to remain in the PCUSA and those whose disaffection would no longer allow them to follow that course. All five overtures were rejected by the GA.
“Each of our six departing congregations has affirmed its affection and high regard for the Presbytery of Stockton and the remaining churches, and pledged continuing efforts to find commonality in ministry to the communities of California’s Central Valley,” Drury wrote. “All of us view the events of this past week with great sadness.”
With the loss of the six churches, Presbytery of Stockton will have just 15 congregations remaining to minister in California’s Central Valley, and its membership plummets to 2,065. Only 28 combined members of the six churches indicated they would transfer their membership to another congregation within the presbytery to remain part of the PCUSA.
In a recent blog about the state of the presbytery, Leeth pointed out that a number of leadership positions in the presbytery were filled by members of the six departing churches. The gracious separation policy requires that those ruling and teaching elders from departing congregations who hold positions of leadership resign their posts at the time of the dismissal vote, something Leeth said happened at the Aug. 24 gathering. Treasurer Ken Robbins and Drury are among those from the departing churches holding leadership positions, and they will be resigning by the time their congregations are dismissed.
She noted some of those positions – primarily committee chairs – already have been filled, and others will be as the presbytery goes through a restructuring with the departure of 1,673 members.
The decision of the churches and their members to seek dismissal to another Reformed body did not come as a shock to Leeth.
“I’m not surprised they were dissatisfied with the trajectory of the Presbyterian Church,” she said. “They are prayerful, thoughtful people who felt called to do it (leave the PCUSA). They were united in their decision, and those decisions were clear and confirmed. Many of them have been involved with the General Assembly for years, so they are well-versed in what’s happening with the Presbyterian Church. The decision to seek dismissal is not a rash decision, but a thoughtful one after much prayer and discussion.”
Tadashi Agari, an elder commissioner in the presbytery, wrote in an email to The Layman that the sessions for each of the six churches cited no issues with the presbytery or Synod of the Pacific, and often expressed appreciation for the presbytery’s policies, ministries and fellowship. The frustration came from the GA and changes to the Book of Order as well as Biblical concerns and judicial actions that had a negative impact on authority of Scripture and confessions.
Following is a look at the membership totals for each of the departing churches as well as the results of their congregational votes to leave the PCUSA. The first vote taken was to seek dismissal from the PCUSA. The second was whether members would stay in the PCUSA if more than two-thirds of the congregation voted to depart.
- Central Presbyterian (624 members; 298-21 to depart with 1 abstention; 306 no, 11 yes)
- Delhi Community Presbyterian (64 members; 45-2 to depart; 45 no, 2 yes)
- Escalon Presbyterian (119 members; 68-2 to depart with 1 abstention; 71 no, 0 yes)
- Lincoln Presbyterian (372 members; 209-4 to depart; 210 no, 2 yes, 1 abstention)
- Orestimba Presbyterian (46 members; 31-2 to depart; 33 no, 0 yes)
- Trinity United Presbyterian (448 members; 206-29 to depart; 218 no, 13 yes)
Commissioners from the presbytery were unified in their votes to dismiss the congregations as well, agreeing by wide margins to allow them to leave the PCUSA and join ECO.
All six churches will make ministry contributions to the presbytery as part of the terms agreed to for dismissal. Leeth explained that a mission impact study over the next three years was conducted to determine the financial and ministry effect the loss of churches would have on the Presbytery of Stockton. That study showed a loss of about $191,000.
Using that study as one guide and a calculation that considered property value of the departing churches as another, the presbytery reached financial settlements with each of the churches, choosing the higher of the two monetary totals (set forth in the gracious separation policy) as the payment amount. Leeth noted that the ministry contribution was in direct relation to the uniformity of the congregational vote. If the vote was close to unanimous, the contribution would be lower. If the vote was not as close, the contribution amount increased.
The churches have five years to pay the full amount, and Leeth pointed out that five of the six congregations have notified the presbytery of their intent to pay the full amount by the dismissal date of Oct. 24.
Following are the amounts each church will pay to the presbytery, totaling $195,498.96:
- Central Presbyterian – $53,000
- Delhi Community Presbyterian – $8,224.92
- Escalon Presbyterian – $21,000
- Lincoln Presbyterian – $45,000
- Orestimba Presbyterian – $3,600
- Trinity United Presbyterian – $64,674.04
Agari noted sadness in the departure of six churches from the presbytery, but he also acknowledged that there is no animosity associated with their withdrawal from the PCUSA.
“I can say with confidence that we are like family in our presbytery, where each member appreciates every other member,” he wrote. “I am very proud of the smooth and orderly transition that took place in our presbytery, a feat that is rarely done. There have been instances in the South, East and Midwest, where churches and presbyteries viciously took each other to civil court and civility has been lost. These six churches are cutting off ecclesiastical ties with the PCUSA, but are in no ways severing collegial ties with our Stockton Presbytery.”
Despite financial and membership losses, Leeth is confident that the Presbytery of Stockton will be able to thrive in the future as it continues to minister in central California.
“I think the presbytery has a great future ahead,” she said. “Though it has been painful in our presbytery to have churches feel called to leave and ultimately do that, we know each church and each leader has to wrestle with their mission and ministry priorities in determining whether to seek dismissal or remain in the PCUSA. We have the opportunity to reaffirm our ministry to a world that desperately needs Jesus Christ. I am certain that as each of us does just that, God will surely meet us. We will have to do some restructuring, but I feel confident the Presbytery of Stockton will continue to do faithful, vital, healthy ministry.”