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Following Two Year ‘Storm,’ Virginia Church Dismissed from PCUSA to ECO

The process took two years to complete, but First Presbyterian Church Gloucester, Va., is now a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians after being dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) in April.

The Presbytery of Eastern Virginia dismissed the congregation by a vote of 77-8 at its April 25 meeting, but at a cost. Not only was the church required to change its name – it is now known as Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church it was also required to pay the presbytery $400,000.

The first $200,000 installment has been paid and two more $100,000 payments are required by Dec. 31, 2017, and June 30, 2018.

Weathering the storm

“There is a high level of excitement at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Douglas (Doug) Nagel, pastor of the church. “We weathered the storm through much prayer and support.”

Nagel said that four years earlier, the church had started a monthly Celtic Prayer Gathering. “Participation at that monthly service really picked up in August of 2014 when we were faced with making a decision as to what to do in reference to the actions of the General Assembly.  It continued with increasing participation as we moved forward through the process.”

It was during the 2014 General Assembly that commissioners voted to change the definition of marriage and allow same-sex marriages to be conducted by PCUSA pastors and in PCUSA churches. Presbyteries ratified that decision in the spring of 2015.

Prayer also saturated other areas of church life. Nagel said the church’s session began every meeting praying that “God’s will might be done and that God might be glorified in whatever outcome we experienced. In addition, we asked for and received the prayers of the ECO staff, the prayers of our fellow churches in our ECO presbytery, and from others throughout the country.”

Discernment with presbytery

In August 2015, the church asked the presbytery to “initiate a period of discernment to help the session of FPC consider whether or not dismissal to another Reformed and Presbyterian denomination is the best solution for the continued future spiritual development of our congregation.

In its Aug. 25th letter (see page 69) to the presbytery, the session said it felt that “the direction of the PCUSA:

  • “Lacks broad and consistent theological conviction across the denomination
  • “Provides inadequate defense of sound Biblical doctrine
  • “Desires to alter the biblical message of the PCUSA to align with culture
  • “In a number of instances has subordinated the guidance of Scriptures and the Book of Confessions to the Book of Order.”
  • “The actions of the most recent General Assembly have already negatively affected our mission and our budget. PCUSA changes have become a distraction to the pursuit of our community mission. We wish to remain in fellowship with the worldwide Christian church from which the PCUSA is diverging. We have never stopped identifying strongly has a Reformed and Presbyterian congregation.”

On Sept. 11, 2016, the congregation voted by 88 percent to leave the PCUSA and join ECO. At its Oct. 25, 2016 meeting, the presbytery voted by 74 percent to dismiss the church “pending settlement of property issues.”

As representatives from the church and presbytery worked to negotiate a settlement, Nagel said the congregation “continued to pray.  Many in our congregation believe the turning point was when we ‘prayer-walked’ our property and claimed it for the glory of God and our continued presence and ministry as a Presbyterian congregation in this location.”

The future

Looking toward a future in ECO, Nagel said:

“Our plans and hopes are a continuation of our direction prior to 2014.  We participated in the Healthy, Growing Congregations Initiative of our presbytery and had made commitments to becoming an outwardly-focused, missional congregation that would seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are continuing in the direction.  Preaching, teaching, and Sunday School classes for adults are all more intentionally directed toward building reliance upon the Holy Spirit, spiritual disciplines, and theological foundations.  I have just finished a two-year sermon series on the Westminster Shorted Catechism.  I am currently engaged in a preaching series called “Design for Discipleship.”

“Session is currently reading and discussing Growing the Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit (Brad Long, Paul Stokes, Cindy Strickler) and beginning in January of 2018, we will begin participating in “Becoming a Flourishing Church.”  We will “re-launch” our church as Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in the fall with a celebration service and installation service for pastor and officers.”

Related resource:

First Presbyterian Church, Gloucester, Va., Meditation Submission — Considerations for Gracious Dismissal: A Moral, Ethical, Financial and Missional Argument

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ECO Gains 78 Churches in 2016

The newest Presbyterian denomination continued to grow in 2016. ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians gained 78 churches and approximately 18,475 members last year.

While the 2016 membership numbers have not been completely finalized yet, Stated Clerk Dana Allin said that the numbers so far show that at the end of 2015 “we had 100,081 members and at the end of 2016 we had 118,556.” That’s an increase of 18,475 members.

ECO ended 2016 with 326 churches, up from 248 at the end of 2015, and according to the ECO web site, halfway into 2017, the denomination has grown to more than 340 congregations.

Exciting New for 2018 National Gathering

In other ECO news, the speakers for the 2018 National Gathering scheduled for Jan. 23-25, 2018 in Houston, Texas, have been announced.

“We are super thrilled with our speakers this year,” said Allin. They include:

  • Condoleezza Rice: Former U.S. Secretary of State & National Security Advisor, professor, author, pianist, golfer and avid football fan.
  • Ed Stetzer: Teacher, speaker and writer on theology, missiology, church planting, church revitalization and church innovation.
  • Kyle Strobel: Teacher of spiritual theology for Talbot’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Formation Focus programs. His areas of interest include systematic theology, Jonathan Edwards, spiritual formation and prayer.

The theme of the Gathering is Renovate, based on Nehemiah 2:18. “Drawing on lessons from Nehemiah, we will learn and grow together so that we may strengthen our hands for the good work that God has in store for us.”

Registration opens Aug.1.

ECO developed out of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP). A FOP gathering in August 2011 drew more than 2,000 people to Minneapolis, Minn. At a similar gathering held five months later with approximately 2,220 attending, ECO was established, providing a new denominational home for those ready to do church differently while upholding a conservative or traditional Reformed faith.

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ECO: Looking Forward in 2017

(By Dana Allin, Synod Executive for ECO). I was recently re-reading Les McKeown’s book Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization on the Growth Track and Keeping it There.  He talks about the life stages of a startup organization. The initial stage is called “Early Struggle” and it is about the challenges that an organization faces in getting off the ground.  

I think that first two years was a time of early struggle for us in ECO.  After the initial Fellowship gathering in 2011, we had to write our polity, theology, do the things necessary for incorporation, and provide the services that a denomination provides … before we even existed. Then, ECO officially launched in January of 2012 and had to prove that we were a legitimate denomination that was more than a “flash in the pan”.  It took five months before our very first congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington joined ECO. By the next national gathering in January of 2013 we only had 20 congregations.  It was definitely a rich and fulfilling time, but there were certainly struggles as well. 

The second stage McKeown writes about is named “Fun”. This is an appropriate name because everyone is having fun at this particular stage and it takes relatively little to keep people happy.  I think of the next two years in ECO as the “fun” years.  Churches were rapidly joining, people were getting ordained, and new churches were beginning to be planted.  It wasn’t always clean and easy, but it was fun!

The next stage, according to McKeown, is “White Water”.  The white water stage is still a period of growth. There is still plenty of fun (just like white water rafting is fun!), but there is also some turbulence.  It is the time when the organization grows to the point where the process and system that has been in place needs to be transformed in order to meet the demands of the new reality.  I think there are two factors that are currently pushing us into white water.  

Growth & Change

First, organizationally, we have grown in complexity.  In the period of time where we have doubled our number of churches and overall number of covenant partners, we have more than tripled our number of presbyteries.  Additionally, most presbyteries are in the second or third generation of leadership, which leaves behind some institutional memory.  Also, the flexibility afforded in our polity can make for a sometimes messy process, i.e., the temptation to want to back-fill polity with “one-size” fits all rules.  Managing in the midst of these situations can be turbulent!

One way in which we are navigating these white waters is by calling Nate Dreesmann as the Executive Director of Ecclesiastical Support. Nate is working very hard to streamline training processes for various presbytery ministry teams and their leaders. This will be a huge asset to our presbyteries that are primarily run by volunteers.  In creating these resources and individually assisting local leaders, he is maintaining the culture and ethos of ECO while helping to ease the work of presbytery leaders.

The second issue that leads to a time of white water is simply the challenges that churches face while doing ministry in the 21st century.  As often as we say to the contrary, there is still the hope among congregations that simply joining ECO will revitalize their churches.  While I wish we had that ability to snap our fingers and bring about revitalization, we realistically know that only the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into people and congregations. 

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More Than 1,000 to Attend Upcoming ECO National Gathering

(By Michael Gryboski, The Christian Post). A fast-growing theologically conservative Presbyterian denomination will be holding its latest National Gathering later this month in South Carolina.

The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, a denomination formed in 2012 in response to the increasingly liberal positions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), will be holding its 2017 National Gathering Jan. 24-26.

First Presbyterian Church of Greenville, a congregation of about 3,500 members that joined ECO back in 2012, is the scheduled location for the major gathering.

The Rev. Richard Gibbons, senior pastor of FPC Greenville, told The Christian Post that his church was chosen as the site for the gathering for multiple reasons. “A large central meeting area was required for the plenary sessions, as was multiple breakout rooms for smaller seminars and workshops,” said Gibbons.

“The other very practical question was the weather and South Carolina should be pleasant at the end of January. In addition to the above, First Presbyterian is located downtown with several major hotels within walking distance on Main Street.”

Gibbons also told CP that his congregation will be occupied with preparing the church for the National Gathering, as they expect approximately 1,100 pastors and elders to come.

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Visit the web site for the 2017 ECO National Gathering

General Information

The Schedule

Speakers

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Presbyterian Leaders Consider Future of ‘Church With a Broken Heart’

(By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald, GA). Presbyterian leaders from across northeast Georgia gathered in Greensboro Tuesday to consider the future of what one member called “a church with a broken heart.”

Most members of Athens’ Central Presbyterian Church want to leave the mainstream Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination and affiliate with the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. They also want to keep the church’s property as they leave.

Central’s session, an elected group somewhat like a board of deacons, has petitioned the Northeast Georgia Presbytery for “gracious dismissal” with property. The church’s 380 Alps Road building and other assets such as vans are valued at about $3.4 million, with a $600,000 mortgage still remaining on a large addition 10 years ago.

The local congregation paid for it all, but under Presbyterian Church (USA) rules, local congregations hold property in trust for the benefit of the denomination, locally represented by the 53 congregations of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery.

The Central session offered to turn over about $371,000 to the Presbytery as part of the church’s departure to ECO.

A special Presbytery fact-finding group called an administrative commission recommended denial of the request. The commission recommended instead a settlement that would give those who want to depart about $243,000 and a church van, if the dissident members found a new ECO church within three months.

A big part of the schism is differing views on what rights gays and lesbians should have within the church.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) denomination has in recent years relaxed its historical teachings on homosexuality to permit same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays or lesbians as teachers within the church.

ECO holds to the older Presbyterian interpretation of God’s will, that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that ordained leaders should live either live in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man or a woman, or practice chastity if single.

The sometimes bitter schism actually goes back years.

“I want to talk about broken hearts,” said Central member Louie Boyd, quoting a former Central leader who’d described the 380 Alps Road church as “a church with a broken heart.”

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Presbyterian Scholars Conference: What Happens When Mainliners Sit at Table with Split P’s?

(By Chuck Wiggins, The Presbyterian Outlook). “I often wonder what kind of shape the Presbyterian Church would be in today if the Orthodox Presbyterians, the PCA, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO had not departed,” mused Joseph D. Small, former Presbyterian Church (USA.) Theology & Worship director.

Those particularly thought provoking words came during the recent Presbyterian Scholars Conference held October 18-19 at Wheaton College in Illinois.

A glimpse of that musing was evident as 30 scholars from various streams of the Presbyterian enterprise gathered to offer papers and exchange remarks on “the future of American Presbyterianism.”

From my perspective, the spirit and the tenor of the conference with scholars from the PC(USA), OPC, EPC, and ECO under one roof during both the lectures and at table during meals was — how shall I say it — downright genial.

Headlining a list of outstanding scholars besides Small, included Bradley Longfield of University of Dubuque Theological Seminary; OPC historian extraordinaire and Hillsdale College professor Darryl Hart; and George Marsden, distinguished professor from Notre Dame University and arguably the premier historian of American church history.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Longfield’s groundbreaking work, “The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists & Moderates.” Longfield’s award-winning book has been widely regarded by Presbyterians of all theological stripes as an even-handed analysis of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s and their aftermath. (In my opinion, previous historical narratives by mainline P’s have largely tended to dismiss departing conservatives as simplistic cranks; while the “split P’s” have approached their forbears uncritically with a kind of surreal, hagiographic reverence.)

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What Are the Greatest Needs of ECO Churches?

(By Dana Allin, Synod Executive for ECO). In the last six months, I have tried to ascertain what are the greatest needs of ECO churches.  I have conducted informal and formal questioning around this subject with various pastors and congregational leaders.  I have compared their answers with my own observations from personal interactions.  While all of our congregations are different, there are some common themes that emerge within many of them.

19819_519214544784558_2022702232_n-700x0One of those recurring themes across some of our churches is the question, “We joined ECO (fill in a number) months ago.  What do we do now?”  What people are meaning by this question is that they have bought into the vision and ethos that is presented in ECO, but are unclear about their next steps to move forward into their new reality.  Sometimes the resource list that we provide can be overwhelming with numerous possibilities.  Several different people have approached me in separate conversations to indicate that it would be helpful if ECO had a brief process that took place over a few months time that a session could go through to help them on the next steps in their congregational journey.  The indication was that while congregations wouldn’t be required to engage in such a process, it could be highly encouraged and give our people a common language within the denomination.  It would also help sessions determine where they might need to place future energy to fulfill the mission that God has placed upon the heart of the congregation.  After this basic process, it would be easier for a congregation to determine what other resources offered by ECO or by others that could be helpful in fulfilling their vision for ministry and mission.

We have taken this great suggestion to heart and are creating a 4-session process called “Becoming a Flourishing Church”.  This process can be used with elders, deacons, staff or other lay leaders in your congregation.  It will be launched at our national gathering in January and will be available to every congregation through the Flourish website. Each session contains a 15-20 minute video that can be watched at or prior to a meeting.  The videos also have supplemental material and guides to facilitate discussions among leaders.

The premise of the process is that flourishing churches are led by flourishing leaders, who are themselves flourishing disciples.  The first session is an orientation to the ethos and culture of ECO and helps leaders to determine where their congregations are starting.

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Sarmiento Joins The Outreach Foundation Staff

Juan Sarmiento

Juan Sarmiento

Juan Sarmiento has been named Associate Director for Mission of The Outreach Foundation. He will officially begin his duties on November 1.

Since 1979, The Outreach Foundation has connected congregations and people in the United States with church partners around the world in Christ-centered evangelistic mission. Today, Outreach focuses on Presbyterian partners in places in the world where the church is growing and where it is facing opposition.

Sarmiento will join the Outreach team that focuses on building mission relationships that help global partners around the world train leaders, start new congregations, expand their outreach programs, and strengthen their ministries of compassion.

Rob Weingartner, Executive Director of The Outreach Foundation, observes, “Juan’s love for the Lord and commitment to evangelism are strong and clear. He is thoughtful and articulate, evangelical and Reformed, and will bring to Outreach a winsome ability to work across boundaries and bring people together in creative ways to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed.”

For the past two years, Sarmiento has worked as Evangelism Catalyst for Presbyterian World Mission. Prior to that, for six years, Sarmiento worked as director and chairman of the board for PM International, a mission agency that sends Latin Americans to serve in Muslim-majority contexts.

An ordained minister member of the Presbytery of San Fernando (CA), he served as a member of the Evangelism and Church Growth committee and moderator of the presbytery. He has served as a leader for English-, Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking congregations. Juan and his wife, Maricela, have a son, Jonathan.

Born in Venezuela, Sarmiento is a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary and has done doctoral studies at Columbia and Louisville seminaries as well as advanced studies in linguistics at California State University-Los Angeles and Islamic studies at the Fuller School of Intercultural Studies.

outreach-foundationThe Outreach Foundation engages Presbyterians and global partners in proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Because our ministry is Kingdom work, not denominational work, we work with PCUSA, EPC, ECO, Fellowship Community congregations and others. We help congregations build long-term partnerships with the global church that are mutually transformational. Every person, project and partnership we support is directly involved in sharing the Gospel in word and deed.

Our work depends entirely upon the involvement and financial support of mission minded individuals, congregations and organizations. We receive gifts in our office and disburse them directly to partners around the world. Established in 1979, The Outreach Foundation is independently governed by Board of Trustees, all of whom are pastors or officers in their respective congregations.

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81 Members Enroll in Huntington’s Christ Presbyterian Church

By David E. Malloy, The Herald-Dispatch (Huntington, WV).

eco-1More than 80 new members were enrolled Sunday at the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, also called the Christ Presbyterian Church, which is conducting services at the B’Nai Shalom Temple on 10th Avenue.

A number of the members of the First Presbyterian Church in the Tri-State broke away from the church in a disagreement about the Presbyterian Church (USA) moving in a more liberal direction on issues including homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

“We are West Virginia’s first ECO Presbyterian Church,” said Patrick Hall, an Ashland resident who serves as an associate pastor at the new church. “We were a brand-new church with no place to meet.”

That issue was resolved earlier this summer when church members signed a one-year lease with B’Nai Shalom to use their building on Sundays. B’Nai Shalom holds its services on Saturdays.

“They welcomed us with open arms,” Hall said. “They’ve been so gracious.”

The church members added the word Christ in front of Presbyterian “because we want Christ to be the absolute center of what we believe,” said Hall, who was among those enrolled in the new church Sunday. “We started here in July.”

“We felt the most peaceful resolution was to leave,” Hall said. “We felt like we didn’t leave the denomination. We feel like the denomination left us.”

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ECO Reaches Milestone of 300th Member Church After Break From PCUSA

By Michael Gryboski, Christian Post.

ECOA conservative Presbyterian denomination formed in response to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality has reached the milestone of 300 member congregations.

“We are blessed to have each and every church and church member in our ECO family. As we grow, it is our prayer that we continue to be a movement that builds flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ,” the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians announced on Tuesday.

The congregations listed as the latest ECO members include: Tacoma Central Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington; Lenoir Presbyterian Church of Lenoir, North Carolina; Waldensian Presbyterian Church of Monett, Missouri; First Presbyterian Church of Columbia, California; Calvary Presbyterian Church of Enfield, Connecticut; and First Presbyterian Church of Towanda, Pennsylvania.

The Rev. Rachel Stahle, pastor at FPC Towanda, told The Christian Post that her congregation voted 74-12 in favor of leaving PCUSA back in June and were officially dismissed from the Mainline denomination earlier this month.
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