Way Forward Commission Discusses Interagency Cooperation, Structure, Next Steps

(By Leslie Scanlon, Presbyterian Outlook). Members of the Way Forward Commission are beginning to turn their thoughts to what sort of changes the commission might recommend for the Presbyterian Church (USA) – not discussing any specifics yet, but considering whether the commission might be ready to start moving in that direction when it meets next at McCormick Theological Seminary May 15-17.

Commission members agreed to think in the next few weeks about what Mark Hostetter, a teaching elder from New York and the commission’s moderator, described as “common elements” they would want included in a denominational structure based on the research they have done so far; the feedback they’ve received about what Presbyterians at the grass roots want; and their theological sense of what a church is called to be.

Commission member Jo Stewart, a ruling elder from North Carolina, put it this way: commission members should consider, in very broad terms, “if nothing existed today, what would you build?”

The commission met via video conference call April 18, discussing both its progress so far and next steps. Here are some highlights.

Limits to the Commission’s Power

The commission met for about 40 minutes in closed session with J. Herbert Nelson, the PCUSA’s stated clerk, giving as the reason for closing the meeting a discussion of personnel matters. When the meeting resumed again in open session, Hostetter said Nelson earlier had provided a written advisory opinion to a question asking him to clarify the commission’s powers.

In that opinion, Nelson wrote that the action of the 2016 General Assembly creating the commission “did limit the powers of the Commission” so that “recommendations for any missional and structural changes will be brought to the 223rd General Assembly” in 2018. (Read the full Advisory Opinion.)

Nelson’s opinion also states that recommendations from the commission involving “any amendments, replacement or setting aside of the Standing Rules of the General Assembly or the Book of Order necessary to accomplish its vision” would need approval from the 2018 General Assembly as well.

So “there is an edge to our power,” Hostetter said – meaning a limit to what the commission can do on its own.


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Presbytery Demands $120,000 from 35-Member Church While Deciding How to Spend $1.5 Million Settlement

A 35-member church has agreed to pay Mission Presbytery $120,000 so that it could be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The First Presbyterian Church of Ingram, Texas and pastor Rev. Raymond M. Tear were dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, after the presbytery approved the settlement agreement at its March 3-4 meeting.

According to an article in the local newspaper, church leaders said “that it has been a long process to reach this point, but now has the congregation situated to not only continue its various ministries, but to be part of a growing denomination with which the congregation’s theological views are much more compatible.”

At the meeting, the Stated Clerk reported that two other churches are participating in the presbytery’s Gracious Separation Process. Both, the 45-member First Presbyterian, San Saba, and the 180-member First Presbyterian, Corpus Christi are in the resolution phase of the dismissal process.

How to Spend $1.5 Million

At the same meeting, commissioners received a report on how the Mission Presbytery would use the $1.5 million settlement it received from First Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, which included investing $606,598 in the Texas Presbyterian Foundation for a “Better Together Fund.”

On Jan. 31, 2016, First-San Antonio voted to approve the settlement with Mission Presbytery to end a civil lawsuit between the two entities. The church had disaffiliated with the PCUSA on Nov. 1, 2015, and then in May, filed a petition in civil court asking it to declare whether the trust clause in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s constitution was valid under Texas law and if it had any legal effect on the church’s property.

The settlement ended the lawsuit and allowed the church to retain sole use, control and ownership of its name and property.

According to the report, the total settlement agreement was $1,525,000. Of that amount, $114,802 was used to pay legal expenses, and $100,000 was used to balance the 2016 operating expenses budget.

The presbytery also made a one-time grant of $125,000 to John Knox Ranch Summer Camp, a Christian camp on the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas, to help rebuild a dining hall destroyed by the 2015 Memorial Day floods. The grant part of the settlement agreement with First-San Antonio. The church matched the contribution for a combined gift of $250,000 to the camp.

The balance of the settlement – $1,185,198 – will be disbursed as follows:

To partner agencies:

  • $30,000 – General Assembly, Unrestricted
  • $30,000 – Synod of the Sun, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Austin College, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Mo Ranch Camp and Conference Center, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Pan American School, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services, Unrestricted
  • $24,000 – Schreiner University, Campus Ministry
  • $24,000 – Trinity University, Campus Ministry

To presbytery committees and regions:

Establish and equip congregations and sessions to carry out their missions:

  • Church Development and Evangelism, $119,000
  • General Council, $1,200
  • Each Geographic Region, $2,000 (Austin, Corpus Christi, Hill Country, San Antonio, Valley, and Victoria – totaling $12,000)
  • Nominations Committee, $1,200
  • Personnel Committee, $1,200
  • Technology Task Force, $48,000

Recruit, receive, ordain, develop and care for those called to serve in the church:

  • Committee on Ministry, $12,000
  • Committee on Preparation for Ministry, $12,000
  • Committee on Representation, $1,200
  • Education and Congregational Nurture Committee, $30,000
  • Pastoral Care Committee, $12,000

Enable mission and witness to the Gospel that congregations cannot accomplish alone:

  • John Knox Ranch, $36,000
  • Mission Outreach and Justice Committee, $36,000
  • Presbyterian Women Coordinating Team, $12,000
  • Youth Connections Committee, $12,000

Steward our resources faithfully and generously:

  • Fiscal Oversight Committee, $1,200
  • HM King Memorial Fund Trustees, $1,200
  • Stewardship Committee, $1,200
  • Trustees, $1,200

The remaining $606,598 will be invested into the Texas Presbyterian Foundation and named the “Better Together Fund.” The fund will be used to further the presbytery’s mission and will be overseen by its General Council. Presbytery committees, groups and congregations will be able to request funding from the account.

In past dismissals approved by Mission Presbytery:

  • Edna Presbyterian Church of Edna, TX, had to pay $80,108.60 to be dismissed with property to the EPC.
  • Faith Presbyterian Church in Brownsville, TX was required to give 10 percent of the proceeds of the sale of church’s property to be dismissed to the EPC
  • El Principe de Paz, in Merceds TX, Iglesia Presbiteriana Getsemani in San Benito, TX, and San Pablo in Brownsville, TX, all voted to leave the denomination and renounced jurisdiction of the PCUSA in early 2012. Mission Presbytery evicted all three from their property instructing the churches to turn in their church keys “no later than Friday, February 16, 2012.”
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Resurrection of Dilapidated Farmhouse Serves as Symbol of Rebirth for Oldest Congregation in Leawood

(By Jay Senter, Shawnee Mission Post, Kansas). The old farmhouse wasn’t in great shape.

With a sagging roof and aging innards, the 1930s structure seemed fated for a bulldozer, an attractive target for a teardown-rebuild project given its setting on a two-acre lot in north Leawood.

Instead, the “Mustard Seed House,” as its proprietors have now dubbed it in reference to a biblical parable, has become the symbol of rebirth for a northeast Johnson County church that was on the verge of closing just a few years earlier.

At the start of 2009, both Ryan Kapple and Curt and Rachel Petersen were still near the start of new chapters in their lives. The Petersen’s had just moved back to Johnson County, where Curt grew up, from D.C., where he had been practicing law the past few years. Kapple had taken over as the senior pastor of Leawood Presbyterian, the oldest church in the city, in late 2007.

Curt credited Kapple with setting him on a path to success back in his high school days, when Kapple was the youth pastor at Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Mo.

“That’s kind of where my life was changed,” Petersen said. “To this day, he’s had more impact on my life than anybody.”

When the Petersens relocated to Johnson County, Curt and Rachel were eager to reconnect with Kapple. They started attending services at Leawood Presbyterian [Presbyterian Church (USA)] — where the pews were sparsely populated. Prior to Kapple’s arrival, Leawood Presbyterian’s congregation had dwindled to just a handful of members. The pastor set about trying to inject new life and energy into the church, but with so few congregants, finances were tight.

So when Curt heard that the owner of the house directly to the west of the church on 83rd Street was interested in selling, it presented a conundrum: The strategic value of the property to a church without a parsonage or much meeting space was difficult to overstate, but the price tag was daunting for such a small congregation to take on.

“Two acres in Leawood next to the church? I went nuts,” Curt said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to find a way to buy this.’”


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Updated: Kentucky PCUSA Congregation Being Kicked Out of Church Building After Rift Over Marriage Definition

(By Samuel Smith, The Christian Post). A congregation in Kentucky could soon be evicted from its church building by its regional Presbyterian Church (USA) governing body after the congregation voiced disapproval with the denomination’s decision to recognize and allow gay marriage.

The Presbytery of Western Kentucky has given First Presbyterian Church of Calvert City until April 19 to vacate its church building.

Paul Ambler, clerk of session and husband of the church’s pastor, told The Christian Post on Tuesday that the congregation received a notice to vacate the building, which is owned by the presbytery, last week.

The notice, sent on behalf of the presbytery by a local lawyer, comes after the small congregation voted in July 2015 to pursue and negotiate with the presbytery for a gracious dismissal from the PCUSA because they disagreed with an amendment adopted by the denomination in March 2015 defining marriage as a “commitment between two people.”

“We voted on July 26, 2015, and there [were] two members of presbytery there,” Ambler explained. “They told us in that meeting that there were three congregations [that] had already gone through the gracious dismissal process within the presbytery. So, we would actually be the fourth.”

“We were going back and forth for quite a while,” he continued. “We would actually like to take possession of the building and give them money, basically a buy-back agreement. We were negotiating back and forth with presbytery representatives.”

Although Ambler said the congregation never formally submitted a request to be dismissed from the PCUSA, the congregation was informed last November that the presbytery had officially dismissed it from the denomination.

From November until last week when it received the notification to vacate its building on Evergreen Street, the congregation was acting on the assumption that it was going to be allowed to stay in the church building, Ambler said.


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Some Thoughts about Jesus, His Death and Traci Smith’s Posting

(By Viola Larson, Naming His Grace blog). Traci Smith, a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor, who several weeks ago complained that the Reverend Tim Keller should not receive a theological award because of his beliefs about ordaining women and members of the LGBTQ community, is now making some rather confusing remarks about the atonement provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Smith’s posting,Protect Children from the Violence of the Cross and What to Do Instead During Holy Week,” broadens her perspective about Keller’s theology and all evangelical/orthodox Reformed theology. No, she doesn’t mention Keller here but the reader begins to see two faiths emerging in her writings—one is progressive, the other orthodox—and Smith seems to be pushing away from the faith that is orthodox.

In an essay meant to help parents and leaders dealing with children during Easter and Lent, Smith, insists that the cross and suffering of Christ and what that means, put in what she calls a simplistic manner, can frighten and offend children. She writes:

“When we reduce the crucifixion story to a simple soundbite digestible for young children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). … When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not quite so simple. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak.”

And toward the end of her posting, Smith suggests that her readers “re-evaluate” their theology of the atonement. She asks “Did God kill Jesus?” and answers, “I don’t think so.”

Well no, some of the Jewish leaders, the Roman leaders in Jerusalem and all of us because of our sin killed Jesus. But, yes, his death was necessary.  Smith’s question and answer is simplistic in the extreme.


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Congregation Seeks Dismissal; Presbytery Lawyer Says Vacate Building

(By Laurel Black, The Paducah Sun, KY) A Calvert City congregation is facing [eviction] after disagreeing with its national governing body over same-sex marriage.

The First Presbyterian Church of Calvert City, 639 Evergreen St., asked to be dismissed from the denomination after its national governing body, the Presbyterian Church (USA), changed its description of marriage in 2015.

Instead of granting the dismissal, a lawyer with the Hopkinsville-based Presbytery of Western Kentucky, the church’s regional governing body, asked the congregation to vacate the church building by April 19, said Paul Ambler, who serves as clerk of session with the congregation and whose wife, Adele, is the pastor.

“I’m a real strong believer in the civil rights of people. They can enter into any sort of civil agreement that they want, but I don’t see the need to pull that into the church context when the Bible says it is specifically against that,” Ambler said.

A majority of the 171 nationwide members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved in March 2015 an amendment to the church’s constitution to change the description of marriage within the denomination.

The new description reads in part: “Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives,” according to the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s website.

In response, the Calvert City church’s 27 congregants voted 22-5 in May 2015 to pursue a gracious dismissal, Ambler said. “We would just like to keep the building and have nothing to do with the Presbyterian Church (USA),” Ambler said. “Our congregation would remain in that physical building.”

Ambler said the congregation has offered the presbytery $300 a month to rent the building for 10 years, which he said would be comparable to a minimum the group would have to pay to rent “some storefront-type church.”


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Presbyterian Church Leaders Strongly Oppose Executive Order on Clean Power

(By Rick Jones, Presbyterian News Service). U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to revive the coal industry and closely scrutinize the previous administration’s Clean Power Act is being met with strong opposition among leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA). While the president promises the action will create jobs, many say the executive order, signed last week, will set the country back years in environmental progress.

“The General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for decades have passed policies that share concern for God’s creation, our obligation to be good stewards of the natural world, and our role in reducing energy dependence, promoting renewable and sustainable energy use, and otherwise caring for the earth,” said the Rev. Rebecca J. Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “In the past few months, President Trump has rolled back national environmental protections related to water, methane regulation and national monuments while also proposing drastic cuts to national governmental agencies doing key climate research and regulation such as EPA and NOAA. As Presbyterians, we are called to make our voice heard, to protect and defend all people and creation, and to push for just and sustainable solutions to environmental crises.”

Under the Clean Power Act, coal-fired power plants are to be phased out and replaced with new wind and solar farms. President Obama had said the plan would prevent nearly 3,000 premature deaths and almost 100,000 asthma attacks per year by 2030.

The Rev. Abby Mohaupt, a member of the Presbyterian Hunger Program Advisory Committee, says the president’s executive order is one more act of his administration’s denial of climate change.

“The urgency of climate change requires us to stand as people of faith in general and as Presbyterians in particular and to speak up with prophetic voices,” she said. “The groans of creation and people on the front lines of the climate crisis will not allow our silence, nor will our faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot leave the work of creation up to secular power. Now more than ever, we must work to end our dependency on fossil fuels and drastically reduce our carbon emissions.”

President Trump has argued that the Clean Power Plan has cut into oil, coal and gas company profits and said he would “reduce job-crushing regulations.”


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PCUSA Launches Abuse Prevention Helpline

(By Rick Jones, Presbyterian News Service). The Presbyterian Church (USA), A Corporation, has teamed with the Insurance Board and Praesidium to help PCUSA church councils and members of churches prevent child sexual abuse. The partnership has launched a toll-free Abuse Prevention Helpline (866-607-SAFE) to provide assistance to church councils and church families in their efforts to keep predators away from children.

“Statistics show that one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be abused before the age of 18,” said former Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who worked to make the helpline a reality. “We know that sexual predators seek out trusting environments where children are present and churches are vulnerable because of close relationships and immediate access to children.”

Parsons said the Helpline was established to help victims and church leaders get immediate assistance, while giving churches guidelines plus resources for training and support to prevent predators from targeting their congregations.

Praesidium, the national leader in abuse prevention, is staffing the Helpline, providing expert advice on how to best respond to suspicious behavior and suspected abuse, as well as assist church councils in prevention. Callers will also receive guidance on responding to suspicious interactions between employee and/or volunteer and child, and determining when and how to report suspected abuse to authorities.

“Abuse is not a natural disaster. It is not something that happens with no warning signs or knowledge. It is an event that is preventable with the right resources such as policies, screening procedures and training,” said Aaron Lundberg, president and CEO of Praesidium. “Through our partnership with the PCUSA and Insurance Board, we are able to offer these resources so churches can protect their congregations from the devastating effects of abuse.”

PCUSA churches and individual members can call the Helpline to discuss concerns and incidents of abuse, seek criminal background checks and utilize an online Self-Assessment Tool to identify potential gaps in abuse risk management practices within their organization.


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Presbyterians Want Their Newton Church Back

(By Lisa Wangsness, The Boston Globe). Some members of the Newton Presbyterian Church thought their denomination was drifting away from fundamental tenets of their faith, such as the idea that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and that evangelism is essential. They longed for something more contemporary, more vivacious. A church with a sharper focus on mission and scripture, less on politics.

And so the congregation in January voted 107 to 26 to abandon the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join a small but growing evangelical denomination. They put a sign on the lawn to proclaim the congregation’s new name: Newton Covenant Church.

But now, the Presbyterian Church wants its church back. Its local authority, the Presbytery of Boston, has sued to regain control of the $5.6 million Vernon Street building and return it to members of the Newton congregation who want to remain Presbyterian, a minority they say represents the “true church.”

The denomination says the 11 Newton church leaders named in the lawsuit knew the January vote was unauthorized and in defiance of the denomination’s rules.

 “The Presbytery is the rightful arbiter of this dispute, and the breakaway faction doesn’t get to engage in self-help and steal the property,” said Robert A. Skinner of the law firm Ropes & Gray, who is representing the denomination pro bono.

The lawsuit accuses the “breakaway faction” of removing the church sign, hijacking the church’s old website, and seizing control of the church’s bank accounts. It seeks unspecified damages. But most importantly, say the plaintiffs, who also include the remaining Presbyterian congregants, it demands the return of their church.


Related article:

Massachusetts Church Disaffiliates from the PCUSA to Join ECC


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PMAB and COGA to Meet in San Juan This Week

(By Leslie Scanlon, The Presbyterian Outlook). Both the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly are meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico this week – accepting an invitation from the Presbytery of San Juan.

Over the past year, Presbyterian leadership has been highlighting justice concerns in Puerto Rico – with J. Herbert Nelson, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), along with Tony De La Rosa, interim executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and Denise Anderson and Jan Edmiston, co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly, sending a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders in February regarding the Puerto Rican economic crisis.

That was done in response to an action of the 2016 General Assembly. The letter states in part:

“Puerto Rico’s unsustainable debt, which is more than two-thirds the amount of its GDP, cannot possibly be repaid simply by using spending cuts and tax increases, since those measures will inevitably accelerate the exodus of capital and labor and shrink the economy further. More importantly, this would result in even greater distress on people who are already in dire straits—more than half of the children now live below the poverty line and many families and individuals already struggle to survive.”

The two meetings in San Juan will overlap a bit – with one joint plenary session to discuss the “way forward” and a shared worship service – but for the most part the two groups have separate agendas.

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