Who’s joining the exodus?

Departure of PC(USA) congregations to other denominations accelerates

September 20, 2013


The exodus from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continues, as congregations seeking a more conservative home leave for other denominations. Some are small congregations ― 20 or 30 members ― and some are among the largest and wealthiest churches in the PC(USA).

The departures, mostly for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, have been ongoing for some time now, but the cumulative impact is adding up. ECO reports that 60 congregations so far have formally joined its ranks, with more either in discernment or on the way.

The PC(USA) reported that in 2012, the denomination dismissed 110 congregations to other denominations, compared to 21 in 2011. Another 86 congregations were dissolved ― typically, too small to continue operating ― and overall, the PC(USA) lost more than 102,000 members in 2012, according to the denomination’s 2012 comparative statistics report.

That 5 percent membership loss constituted the denomination’s net numerical loss since the 1970s and largest loss, in percentage terms, in almost 50 years of ongoing membership declines. The PC(USA) now reports 1.84 million members, less than half of its peak membership of 4.25 million members in 1965 and down from 1.95 million members in 2011.

Some of the potential departures have been low on drama, particularly in presbyteries with gracious separation policies. Others have involved lawsuits over who owns the property ― such as the one Highland Park Presbyterian Church, with nearly 4,900 members, filed Sept. 10 in Dallas County District Court against Grace Presbytery.

The court filed a temporary restraining order, which for 13 days would prevent the PC(USA) from interfering with the congregation or the property. A key focus of the dispute is whether Texas courts are likely to rule that a local congregation owns its own property, or whether the courts would consider that the property is held “in trust” for the denomination.

Grace Presbytery posted a statement on its website that “we are shocked and saddened” that Highland Park chose to file the lawsuit. “There has been no conversation at the presbytery level to seek control of their property or establish a commission to work with the church during their period of discernment as to whether or not to seek dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA),” the statement continues.

Some other prominent congregations are currently in the discernment process ― meaning that departure may be imminent, although no formal decision has yet been made.

Among them are Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in San Francisco Presbytery, with more than 3,300 members, whose session voted June 11 to seek dismissal from the PC(USA) and to affiliate with ECO. Menlo Park’s pastor, John Ortberg, was a speaker at ECO’s national gathering in Orlando in January 2012.

Another considering leaving is St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport Beach, Calif. In June, the 3,000-member congregation voted 923-120 to begin discussions with the Presbytery of Los Ranchos that could lead to St. Andrews’ departure to another denomination.

In June, Los Ranchos adopted a new “property policy and procedures,” which outlines how the presbytery will be in conversation with congregations considering leaving the PC(USA).

Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., with more than 5,300 members, voted 86 percent in a congregational straw poll in December 2012 in favor of moving to ECO. In May 2013, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area appointed an administrative committee to work through the departure process with the congregation.

First Presbyterian Church of Houston, with more than 3,500 members, voted in January 2013 to enter into the discernment process that the Presbytery of New Covenant has established for congregations contemplating transferring to other denominations.

Other congregations, such as First Presbyterian Church, Bellevue, Wash., and First Presbyterian Church, Fort Collins, Colo., First Presbyterian, Hollywood, Calif. have opted to stay ― with some of them joining the Fellowship of Presbyterians as a means of finding common ground with other evangelical and mission-focused PC(USA) Presbyterians.

“What is the problem we are trying to solve?” Fellowship president Jim Singleton asked in a September e-mail news update. “How can The Fellowship help stagnant congregations flourish?”

  1. The great heritage of the Presbyterian denomination is being diverted from it original principles of holding forth a standard by which the Church can live before the world and relate internally to each other. How does the support of the BDS boycotts of so-called occupied territories in Israel remain in keeping with the original calling of the PCUSA ? The Almighty is very clear about how he treats those who bring a curse on Israel and his people. Hence, PCUSA sees the diminishing of its membership steadily. Further, in the matter of logic - it is illogical to boycott those businesses. It reduces the employment of the "Palestinian peoples" whom the PCUSA claims to support with the boycott. HOW FOOLISH. Jer 6:16 Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

    by Pastor Ed

    April 14, 2014

  2. Going through the process of "Gracious Dismissal" I believe that PCUSA's requirement is actually EXTORTION (Legal definition - obtaining money by violence or threat) I believe that the money given to the church by the members and friends is given with the trust that it will be used to further the work of the gospel message. Of what use is the demanded money given to PCUSA. is there any accountable for these funds?? How does PCUSA have a right to demand monies from churches choosing to withdraw from the organization that has left the truth of God's word to follow worldly customs and behaviors??

    by Dorothy Holmes

    April 1, 2014

  3. Reasons churches going through discernment process to leave include: 1. Gross dissatisfaction with general assembly policy statements with which members in the pews do not agree with including but not limited to issues pertaining to sexual orientation of ministers ; anti semitic policy statements. In general, pcusa sermons are political. Members believe there is a lack of spirituality in Jesus Christ as lord and savior. Profound abandonment of biblical teaching and prayer . Over emphasis on current politicsl issues rather than nurture of the soul of members. Many fo have left for conservative non denomination churches. Other devout Presbyterians weary of support for abortion and homosexual clergy and marriage bullying from the pulpit, have become catholic. I have 5 presbyterian friends in my community so repelled but pcusa politics and policies they converted to get their souls in order, they contend. You can feel spiritually violated if your church abandons life, salvation , grace, the biblical principles you cherish and follow. Random political controversy being stirred uou be the general assembly does not create harmony on our multicultural community. It is not moral to donate time and tithe to a group whose actions you do not support. We are advising our friends who have left and do not have a church home to read their bibles, pray for god,s guidance,donate directly to a group you care about such as local children's hospitals, etc, and remember that we worship god and Christ. not a denomination. Changing churches more in line with your conscience in conferring with god in prayer and consulting the word of god , the bible, can bring many new blessings once the disappointment of the pcusa actions and changes are behind you. Press forward with renewed hope and faith that god has something new in store for your parched soul.

    by Jean

    March 18, 2014

  4. I also personally left a major denomination because I,like most of you, studied the Word and found major errors in it's theology. Jesus's casting the money changers out of the temple is the very foundation of error found in most, if not all, denominations. They are houses of merchandise, that is USC Title 26,Sec.501-c vs USC Title 26 Sec. 508 where the Church is found.

    by John Handshy

    March 12, 2014

  5. I was a 5th generation Episcopalian who has joined an Anglican church after our presiding bishop decided that it was no longer necessary to believe that Jesus was the Son of God to be a Christian. My heart was broken. I had reluctantly accepted other changes in the church I loved, but this was the final straw and I think this is what you are experiencing with the Presbyterian church too. We have no loyalty but to Christ. Go forth with faith.

    by Chris Saunders

    March 7, 2014

  6. People vote with their feet, did PC(USA) think there would not be a reaction to the change in policy. Guess everyone is not so open minded with the current PD(USA) interpretation of the bible.. Same thing is happening with Boy Scouts as well, so Trail Life was formed.

    by Jeff Stanish

    March 2, 2014

  7. Last year, I joined a PCUSA church that fully supports its denomination in the areas of controversy and is not contemplating a transfer. I believe LGBT people are the next (hopefully last) major group being alienated and rejected by the church in general (not just Presbyterians), and I'm proud to be a part of a church and denomination fighting for the Gospel. Romans 1 (including verses 16,17)

    by Matthew Acton

    February 24, 2014

  8. The answer is really quite simple. The PCUSA has become not only irrelevant but a stumbling block to those who hunger for righteousness. See Matthew 18 for Jesus' teaching about stumbling blocks. The PCUSA has rejected The Bible as being the Word of God, with the essential message of salvation and sanctification through Jesus Christ. What the PCUSA now embraces counters God's Word and keeps people from truth. See the excellent article on the trustworthiness of Scripture in the Nov./Dec. volume of Theology Matters, a publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry. www.theologymatters.com.

    by Claudia Ferrell

    February 18, 2014

  9. Good News... All of the answers are in the Book. One that may help in this situation reads: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matt 3:12

    by William Gregory

    February 2, 2014

  10. The PC-USA member exodus is no longer an arithmetic decrease but is approaching an exponential decline. Just graph the decrease using the current membership base. If you think the Lord`s will is being done by the current leadership just do the math.

    by Donald Moeller

    January 19, 2014

  11. Wake up PC(USA)? You really can't see why congregations are leaving your denominations in droves? Is it not evident to you that they are reading the Bible and know full well that the PC(USA) is embracing a theology that looks little like what we find in the pages of Scripture? You want to stem the tide? Get back in the Word and return to the evangelical, God-fearing, Bible-respecting ways that seem long gone from the PC(USA). My prediction, however, is that you won't and ultimately defections to PCA or ECO--or outright dissolution of congregations--will see the PC(USA) as but a memory in a decade or so.

    by Bart L. Denny

    January 2, 2014

  12. I found it curious that people wanted to know what literature these departing churches were reading. I would be bold to say it is the Bible. The PCUSA is embracing a neo-paganism that is decimating the denomination. Marching toward irrelevance beside the UCC and the ELCA.

    by Greg Browning

    November 17, 2013

  13. I grew up in a tough neighborhood with lots of bullies. Over the years I observed that no one whines about being bullied like a bully! Grace Pres. bullied the First of Longview congregation out of its church. The people at Highland Park with that background and a well-to-do congregation knew what would happen if they tried to negotiate with Grace Pres. Instead, they preempted presbytery's bullying and put the matter in the hands of an impartial court. The denomination's fourth largest church is leaving, and the national church's principal interest is over the wealth in the church property. The question the national church should be asking is how did this mainstream denomination allow a group of left-wing extremists to take control of the PC(USA)? I doubt that much has changed from a theology perspective at the Highland Park church in the last 20-30 yrs. The denomination has changed. The ruling elites have taken us all on a journey to the far left without a concern for the people in the pews.

    by Patrick Reardon

    October 27, 2013

  14. Wake up PCUSA! Real progress begins with repentance. "We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive." CS Lewis - Mere Christianity Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." John 14:6 NIV

    by Terry Lewis

    September 27, 2013

  15. These members and leaders who have chosen to follow the so-called progressive movement of society believe that compromising with current culture is more important than Biblical truth. Take homosexual ordination and marriage for example. They will one day stand before Jesus and need to explain why they let this happen regardless of what Scripture says. (GOOD LUCK! I would not like to be in their shoes) Members of the homosexual movement are forcing themselves and their life styles onto those of us who do not want any part of it. Another problem not being taken into consideration is that pastors may be forced to marry gay/lesbian couples. If the pastor refuses, they may sue the pastor and the church for not marrying them. Because it is in the book of order, pastors can lose the lawsuit. Pastors that don't comply can lose their home along with their ministry. This is very inconsiderate to our pastors who have strong beliefs in following the will of God. Homosexuals complain about being neglected their human rights... but what about our religious rights?

    by Bob Sands

    September 26, 2013

  16. I've been trying to warn PCUSA Presbyterians for some time now about the accumulating consequences of, and Biblical basis for rebuking, the 40-50-year wilderness wandering of "political correctness" of toleratig anything and everything but Biblical faithfulness in the General Assembly's positions taken from year to year. Presbyteries seem to dig up the most liberal delegates to form majorities for passing the most hideous departures from Biblical faith and practice, then they wonder why the denomination, even with occasional mergers, has on average lost 50,000 members annually. Isn't it time to wake up to what it is to be Christians first and Presbyt erians second? Otherwise we'll have neither.

    by Paul Dobbins

    September 25, 2013

  17. I feel a sense of loss that Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas is seeking a more Conservative Denomination to unite with. It has been a leader in the UPUS and he PCUSA for so many years. I was baptized there, and came under care for ordination in that Presbytery. Does the current leadership really think they will be a part of something new or more faithful to Jesus Christ than the PCUSA? Satan's having a heyday.

    by Ronn Garton

    September 25, 2013

  18. I'm late to this discussion, but am perplexed by the questions of why these churches are leaving and which seminaries their pastors attended. As to the first question, the discussions in the denomination over the last 20+ years should make it clear why they are leaving. The PCUSA has changed ordination standards, rejected biblical authority in all manners of faith and life, reduced the confessions of the church to mere historical documents, said theology is unimportant only polity matters, chosen a path toward syncretism, accepted and ordained those who have rejected the divinity of Christ and is salvific sacrifice and resurrection, to name a few of the major points. As for the second question, I fail to see what significance there is to knowing which seminaries the pastors of these churches attended, unless there is some hidden agenda to shut down those Presbyterian seminaries that graduated a number of these pastors. One final comment, the direction the PCUSA is taking is quickly moving us more toward Unitarianism. Right now the Unitarian church is the fastest declining denomination in this country, mainly because no one wants to join any institution that doesn't stand for anything. Who wants to be a part of nothing? It seems to me if we Presbyterians don't start taking our theology and confession more seriously, we will join the ranks of the Unitarians, believing in nothing, in which case we too will continue to decline rapidly. So what happens in the next 10 years of so when the PCUSA membership drops below 1 million? What happens in 15 - 20 years when it drops below 500,000? That's the direction it's headed and the speed at which it's going there.

    by David McCann

    September 24, 2013

  19. While I along with others mourn the discord in our denomination, I do NOT see this as an end to the denomination that I have been a part of since birth. Does anyone remember why the northern and southern churches needed to reunite? The church had split over slavery. It may have taken over 150 years, but we all agreed once again. Today it's other divisive issues splitting the denomination. But as Presbyterians, don't we claim to "be reformed, always being reformed?" Is it possible to view this as an act of the Holy Spirit active within the church?

    by Laurel Hamilton

    September 24, 2013

  20. In response to Cyndie Crowell's comment -- may I recommend that she research what happened between Grace Presbytery and First Church of Longview, Texas. She will learn why HPPC acted as it did.

    by Don

    September 24, 2013

  21. The particular seminaries attended by pastors of departing churches is of no concern. As Presbyterians, we should know that the decision to leave is made by the sessions and congregations of these churches, and not by their pastors alone. The reasons they cite are well known to everyone and have been reiterated by other commenters here. Specifically, they cite the change to ordination standards. Generally, they deplore the theological drift in PCUSA's focus, their emphasis on things apart from spreading the Gospel. The appeal for these congregations to affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is that they pledge to be more faithful to traditional believers and to Jesus' teachings. That's why these churches are leaving. They've simply had it. A better question, one that should be asked of all PCUSA die-hards is: Do you think that the policies pursued by the General Assemblies of the past several years are WORTH the loss of so many of the denomination's members and churches? PCUSA will either die or remain as a much smaller, less influential, niche denomination of liberal Christians. The diversity they say they want will be little in evidence, much like the UCC that they seem to want to resemble. Is the cost worth it?

    by Joe D.

    September 23, 2013

  22. What a blessing for all Presbyterians and the larger cause of Christ that Presbyterians are finally getting on with the long overdue task of re-positioning themselves within the Reformed family of faith. PC(USA) Presbyterians have been trying to sustain false unity in the absence of authentic unity and they have been a hindrance to each other for decades. When these realignments are complete, all Presbyterians will be more effective because they will no longer be diverting so much time and energy from mission to contending with each other.

    by Jim Caraher

    September 23, 2013

  23. It is very disappointing to see a PC(U.S.A.) church filing a civil lawsuit without even approaching a Presbytery to try to negotiate a settlement. Having just chaired the San Gabriel Presbytery's first Presbytery Engagement Team using a Gracious Dismissal Policy, I learned a lot and would be happy to share. Many of the clergy leaving are graduates of PC(U.S.A.) seminaries.

    by Cyndie Crowell

    September 22, 2013

  24. Grace Presbytery has now filed to move Highland Park's case to federal court. It appears Grace has quickly overcome its "shock and sadness", and is, in fact, now seeking control of Highland Park's property.

    by Don

    September 22, 2013

  25. And what positive end would be accomplished by knowing which seminaries pastors have attended?

    by Jeff Smith

    September 21, 2013

  26. are you serious? you dont know the reasons why people and congregations are leaving?

    by charles

    September 21, 2013

  27. I'm shocked that we still don't understand why these churches are leaving, and somehow want to blame it on poor seminary instruction. These churches are leaving because they believe that the PCUSA has made cultural relevance more important than Biblical truth. Take homosexual ordination and marriage for example. Robert Gagnon (http://www.pts.edu/gagnonr) is one of the world's foremost Biblical experts on this subject and is a tenured professor at on of OUR top seminaries. His clear and sober conclusion is that by endorsing homosexual unions and ordaining unrepentant, practicing homosexuals into ministry, the PCUSA has rejected God's truth on human sexuality. Should churches leave a denomination that wants to celebrate unrepentant sexual sin? Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5 would argue an emphatic "yes.": It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? 3 Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. 6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. 9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” If God's word tells churches not to even eat with believers who are involved in unrepentant sexual sin, how can we with a straight face tell these churches that not only should the eat with unrepentant sexual sinners, but they should be subject to their authority and discipline?

    by Thomas Jones

    September 21, 2013

  28. I am aware of at least one progressive congregation, West Hollywood, which left the PCUSA for the UCC because we have not been progressive enough. I wonder if there are others? This article does not address those congregations.

    by The Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison

    September 20, 2013

  29. Yes, I too, would like more information on all of the reasons the churches are deciding to leave. What seminaries did they graduate from? What literature have they been reading regularly regarding "that issue"? Who was the main one in their congregation who helped them come to the conclusion to leave? I know this may be personal, but it would really help many of us who are staying to understand. I feel like I'm going through a divorce, and it is painful! I don't really want to be in a church where everyone believes just like me. I have valued the diversity we have.

    by Dottie Villesvik

    September 20, 2013

  30. I would be interested in the basic reasons (1, 2, 3 ) given by the leaving congregations for their separation from the PCUSA. I would also be interested in knowing the seminaries from which the pastoral leaders had their education as well as the previous denominations from which they may have come.

    by The Rev. Richard POETHIG

    September 20, 2013

  31. I would like to know which seminaries the ministers for these departing churches graduated from.

    by Carla Shafer

    September 20, 2013

  32. Thank you for this update. Can we hear about the Presbyteries that have not lost churches or about the strong churches that chose to stay and why they are staying. We lost 9 and have 3 more to go; 2 have chosen to stay. Stories to support why churches are staying are desperately needed.

    by amalie ash

    September 20, 2013

  33. I have been a member of the American Presbyterian "federation" since the '90's. Many times along the way I had serious questions about the reasons and wisdom in the way that was accomplished. At a workshop during the union process for northern and southern branches, I remember witnessing an angry outburst in which people from both sides of the previous union (PC, UPC) were shouting about what they had lost. I'd really be interested in seeing the roots of the ones who choose to leave and those who remain in the fellowship.


    September 20, 2013

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