Whether to stay within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and, if so, under what conditions dominated the first gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP), which drew more than 1,900 disaffected Presbyterians here Aug. 25-26.

The seven large church pastors who form the FOP’s core leadership readily acknowledged that PC(USA) congregations dissatisfied with decisions and perceived trends in the denomination “are all over the map” about how to respond. Much of the gathering was spent exploring four “tiers” or options that are being developed ― from trying to reform the denomination from within to the creation of “a new Reformed body.”

One leader ― the Rev. Jim Singelton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, CO, repeatedly referred to the FOP’s next gathering Jan. 12-14 in Orlando, Fla., as a “constitutional convention” that will formally inaugurate both the FOP and the new Reformed body.”

But where the 852 congregations represented here wind up along the four-tier spectrum is anybody’s guess. “Repeat after me,” Singleton told the gathering: “It will be messy.”

The four tiers, in brief:

  1. Remaining in the PC(USA) and seeking to transform congregations and presbyteries to be more missional and theologically orthodox.
  2. Dividing existing presbyteries into theologically distinct presbyteries.
  3. Establishing as commissions (with power to act) two separate Committees on Ministry and Committees on Preparation for Ministry in presbyteries based on support for or opposition to gay and lesbian ordination and other “essential tenets.”
  4. Creation of a “new Reformed body” that may or may not be in full communion with the PC(USA).

The Rev. Mike McClenahan, pastor of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church in San Diego Presbytery, said his congregation is opting for Tier One. “Staying or leaving is a red herring because we can serve faithfully in San Diego Presbytery,” he said.

As his congregation strives to be more missional, McClenahan said, “our identity, our purpose and our context are the key elements for our missional community. God is doing a new thing and we must learn together what it is. Structure is important but context is essential.”

Opting for Tier Two is the Rev. Peter Barnes, pastor of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. “We want to remain within the PC(USA) but differentiate ourselves from it to a certain extent,” he said.

Context is all important, Barnes said. “It’s okay to be an evangelical in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, but not in the Synod of the Northeast.”  His presbytery, Mission Presbytery, “is divided,” he said, “so we came up with the idea of an ‘overlay presbytery.’”

Tentatively titled the Presbytery of Central and South Texas, the new presbytery would share boundaries with Mission Presbytery and remain in the PC(USA). “We would join where we can but differentiate ourselves where we must,” Barnes said. Congregations would be allowed to self-select which presbytery to belong to.

“This idea was born out of mutual respect and a longing for peace,” Barnes said. “We need to differentiate but stay connected, focus on ministry that is missional. “Some [congregations] have a foot out the door, some want to stay no matter what, some are in between and want to find a way to stay,” he said, “but only in a way that ensures faithfulness and rights of conscience.”

Singleton spoke on behalf of Tier Three, calling it an “intra-presbytery” option. “You are going to stay in your same presbytery, but are creating two different elements or ‘orders’ within the presbytery … based on your support or opposition to 10-A (the recently adopted constitutional amendment that replaces the requirement that church officers practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” with the requirement to “submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.”

For everything else, Singleton said, “the presbytery functions normally. As that internal division evolves, Fellowship of Presbyterians churches can continue their evolution. This option is for those who want the least disruption in the congregation and might be the easiest to pull off.”

Tier Four is the option being pursued by the Rev. David Swanson and First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, Fla. That congregation has already begun the formal “discernment” process with the Presbytery of Central Florida for disaffiliation from the PC(USA).

“We are grateful for the engagement and mutual respect we have with the presbytery,” Swanson noted. “We’ve looked at all these options, from differentiation to separation. We want to be clear about theological essentials, which are non-negotiable … and which are a central core that will define us as a new Reformed body.”

FOP leaders consistently expressed the desire to remain connected with the PC(USA) in some way, no matter which “tier” they personally support. “We value some connections with the PC(USA), even if it might be time for separation,” Swanson said.

The Rev. John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., said he views the new Reformed body and the PC(USA) as overlapping circles and hopes that polity solutions will enable some congregations “to join the new Reformed body and either stay in or get out of the PC(USA) … some form of affiliate status.”

In any event, Crosby added, “We’ll emphasize the Fellowship, not the PC(USA).”

To those who asked why congregations should remain connected to the PC(USA) at all, Singleton responded, “Context will drive that, but there are so many valuable people and programs in the PC(USA) that I’d hate to have to recreate it. There is a lot there that doesn’t need to be discarded.”

Crosby praised General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, who attended the gathering. “He’s trying to keep this thing together long enough to help us all discern what we will be,” Crosby said.

McClenahan said that no matter which tier of FOP involvement congregations choose, “we can and should all commit to missional transformation. If we start new presbyteries with the same questions, we’ll find ourselves in the same lifeless situation,” he insisted. “We must ask new, missional questions. If you change the questions, you change the outcomes.”

And the Rev. David Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, urged patience. “Christian faith moves at the pace of friendship,” he said.  “Stay connected, maintain the friendships, let the spirit move.”